A Bigger, Riskier Story

It could simply have been a story of two opposite sisters in a difficult family situation in 1940s France. But The Nightingale is big and compelling by being set in WWII and treating even characters on the German side with empathy.

“Most stories are too quiet.” That’s the message often told to writers struggling to capture the interest of agents and publishers. It was stated over and over again by literary entrepreneur, Michael Neff, at a conference I attended, and it’s given me a new lens for recognizing what makes some novels more  publishable, and more compelling, than others.

Most writers have a sensitive eye for detail that can make almost anything seem worthy of a story to us, and our own lives are the richer for that. But it may be worth pausing in the conception of a story to ponder, “How can I make this of more interest to more people?”`

It’s especially important to ask in a publishing environment that is flooded, since the advent of self-publishing, and on the other hand, increasingly limited for traditional publishing offers. This combination makes it hard for any novel to capture attention—and sales.

What I’m considering is how much this comes down to the difference between writing the smaller, quieter story that’s interesting to a limited audience and the larger story that’s engaging, or better yet, compelling, for a larger audience.

One example that comes to mind is from the writer the Washington Post calls “the queen of ethical dilemma fiction,” Jodi Picoult. Her 2018 story on the subject of abortion, A Spark of Light, could have simply focused on a pregnant girl, her boyfriend and their families and had enough material to fill a novel. But by setting the story at an abortion clinic, where a person representing every different point of view on the subject is trapped together in a hostage situation, the novel’s reach is greatly expanded, along with the draw of tension, conflict and ethics.

Stories are enlarged and have more impact when the point of view creates empathy for both sides of a situation. Writing this can require us to get out of our comfort zones, but uncomfortable is a good sign that you’re onto something with potential.

“The whole language for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway,” says the late James Baldwin.

The approach of bringing empathy for characters on both the Axis and Allies sides of World War II helped make All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr, 2014) a Pulitzer prize winner. It didn’t hurt that his subject matter was the ‘Great War,’ either—a favorite for books and movies. That WWII draws even writers who don’t normally write within the historical fiction genre, such as Doerr and Kristin Hannah, may be exactly because choosing that context amplifies the smaller, more personal story.

Hannah’s The Nightingale, 2015, could have worked as a story about French sisters in the 1940s with opposite personalities, whose mother died and whose father was an absent alcoholic. But by setting them in World War II, with France invaded by Nazis, the story and its impact were infinitely enlarged.

In some cases, a novel resonates broadly because it captures the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, with the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm in that way. The Great Gatsby will always be a novel that portrays something essential about the 1920s.

In these times, it’s not surprising we’ve seen a rise in dystopian literature. What will come out of 2020? As the pandemic has pummeled people’s lives and expectations, domestic abuse has risen. And so has empathy for all groups of people who have historically been knocked down. We may see stories emerging from this echo chamber of battery.

At the heart of it, what touches most people are, in fact, the intimate stories. Families friends, lovers, neighbors. But we can expand that homey vision to the larger community, or to our nation, or to mother earth herself. We can include adversaries. And these choices can make our writing more compelling to agents, publishers and readers. Probably, making our stories bigger will also make them more powerful and meaningful to ourselves.

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