Updated: Nov 6, 2018
Want to tell a story? Start with a grunt.
No I don’t mean literally begin your story with a character grunting! What I do mean is start with a feeling and scribe on from there.
As I wrote about in a recent post, Sympathy: Under a Story’s Spell, stories are humans’ way of connecting to each other: be it a writer to their reader or a reader to another reader. They exist to convey messages on the nature of experience – moral truths, at least in the mind of the writer – who hopes to impart them on the reader by the time the story ends. A writer will have a feeling about the way the world is and through their story will try to explain it.
In writing theory, the type of moral truth a story aims to impart is known as its ‘theme' and the message about that truth is known as the ‘theme message’. In Pixar’s UP, the theme is ‘friendship’ and the theme statement is that ‘adventure isn’t worth much unless you have friends by your side’. A message conveyed by showing that Carl is only happy when he’s surrounded by friends – his wife before she dies and then Russell after she’s gone. By finding a story’s theme and working out its theme message, most every story can be distilled into a simple sentence.
Stories, therefore, are extremely well explained sentences, but what is a sentence? Without getting into the technicalities of grammar, sentences join separate words together to convey a coherent meaning. Without them our language would simply be us barking individual words at each other hoping the message gets across. Sentences turn things like ‘Home’ and ‘Now’ – which could mean any number of things, including exact opposites, such as “I want to go home now” and “I don’t want to go home now” – into the exact meaning. Just like stories fully explain sentences, sentences fully explain words.
So what do words do? Well, in exactly the same manner, words are chosen to describe our feelings, which otherwise would be a string of non-word emotional sounds. If I emit the non-word emotional sound of laughter, I could be happy or nervous: my choice of word confirms which way I intend it to be taken. If I sigh, I could be bored or frustrated; if I shriek, I could be excited or scared; if I grunt, I could be in pain or annoyed. Just like stories fully explain sentences and sentences fully explain words, words fully explain our non-word emotional sounds, which in turn give an insight into our emotional dispositions.
Stories are the message of a writer’s feelings about the world. They are the final stage in a long line of growing explanations – from a non-verbal emotional sound, through words and sentences, right up to the story itself – that explain the writer’s disposition about a part of the world.
Want to write a story? Listen to your sighs, grunts and groans, for they reveal what you really think and, from there, what moral truth you must share with the world.