5 Questions for Tackling Big Issues
“Write about something you feel strongly about.”
“Write about what disturbs you.”
“Don’t shy away from writing something difficult.”
This common piece of advice appears phrased dozens of ways. The first time I heard it was from a middle school English teacher in his instructions for a poetry writing assignment. I heard it a lot in college writing classes, especially for persuasive essays. When I heard it from my creative writing professor, it came from a writer who was also a powerful advocate for women’s rights in the Middle East. Where narrative fiction is concerned, this kind of interest and passion can be difficult to apply, but not impossible. The following five questions are here to help you find and tell the story within your statement of belief and concern.
The term “disturb” here isn’t about rabid dogs, boogie men, or a burglar in your house. This is more about aspects of life that don’t seem to fit quite right. These are like dissonant notes in human experience that are dismissed or go unnoticed rather than meet with correction. To use a popular example, The Help is about this kind of writing. Skeeter’s agent encourages her with this advice in no uncertain terms: “Don’t waste your time on obvious things. Write about what disturbs you; particularly if it seems to bother no one else.” (The Help 6.8)
Writers describing their own experiences, whether in memoirs or personal essays, often voice their worry that others may not relate to their story. Well, this is an early step people skip that would do wonders not only in confidence but in quality content. Ask others’ about their experience with the issue. Ask their permission if you want to quote them verbatim, but even just hearing these things will give you raw material from which to draw larger, stronger conclusions.
3. Where is the conflict? Come up with 3 or 4 ideas. Often it’s the later ones that hit near truth.
Wide-reaching issues aren’t usually easy to tackle at face-value. Consider the challenge in writing about a particular war. That’s certainly a large issue, and a conflict is obvious: Alliance A vs. Axis B. What are the other conflicts? A topic this large will yield way too many to work with, but that means you get to choose which will make a better story: culture A vs culture B, Axis general vs. Alliance general, Alliance soldier vs. Axis soldier, Axis soldier A vs. Axis soldier B, Alliance officer vs. Alliance soldier, etc.
A story needs motion, a progression of cause and effect, choice and consequence. Consider the treatment of mortal illness narratives. Outside the obvious progression of illness, diagnosis, treatment, emotional resolution, and death (sounds callous, but this is only meant to show a narrative-type progression), there are other stages possible. Remission, false-positives, second opinions, drastic down-turns, unexpected up-ticks, etc. all individualize the story and address the experience. Each says something about the issue you’re exploring.
If this topic, whatever it is, matters to you, then you’ve likely got strong opinions. That’s a perk of writing a story exploring it. Narrative is a fiercely powerful tool of persuasion. While many people won’t sit down and let you talk out your reasoning, an appealing story taps into emotion, interest, and culture in a way that opens up otherwise closed minds. For this example, consider the effect of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sometimes you go into the story with a clear opinion. Other times, your opinion may develop, shift, deepen, or change over the course of production. Before revising, take a moment or two and articulate your stance. Then, articulate the opposing view. This is a powerful tool that will enrich the characters on both sides of your conflict.