Posts Tagged ‘Lord of the Rings’

What’s it about?

August 13, 2013

During the school year I often teach a special elective “Creative Writing” class for high school students. Most of them want to write science fiction/fantasy (SF/F) which is fine with me, since that’s what I’m writing, and much of what I read. One of the assignments I give them is to write a deceptively simple statement. It looks something like this:

In one sentence, tell me what your story is about.

I give them a week to answer that question. The answers I get vary widely, and while I won’t reproduce any of the answers here, they tend to look and sound something like this.

“A world where corporations have taken over and infect people with lycanthropy, sort of.”

“A mercenary company in a future dystopia where everyone lives underground.”

“A zombie apocalypse in a medieval fantasy world.”

“A war between humans and aliens told from the perspective of the aliens.”

My expectation in giving this assignment is that most, if not all, of my students will answer in this way; with a setting, or an idea, or the germ of one, but not any actual grasp on what their story is about. The point of the exercise is to teach them that setting isn’t a story by itself, and frankly neither is plot. You need both of them, yes, but if you really want to write the best story you can write (and you should always want to, which is a topic for another time) your story needs to be about something.

As examples, then, I tend to turn to works I can count on their familiarity with to make my point. An example:

The Lord of the Rings is about the refusal to meet power with power; in fact it is about the refusal of power being the strongest, most heroic act any individual can perform.”

Star Wars (the original trilogy) is about the bond between father and son overcoming, and ultimately undoing, a great evil.”

Hellboy is about proving that nurture is ultimately more powerful than nature.”

Batman Begins is an exploration of fear, how it forms and informs our existence, how we can be empowered or destroyed by our response to it.”

Now, are these statements over-simplifications? Absolutely. You could write dozens of such sentences about each of the above properties, and be correct. The point of the exercise is that, in addition to memorable characters, vivid setting, and exciting plots, stories like The Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Star Wars, and Hellboy are all about something. I believe that if you want to write good fiction, you’ve got to be writing about something, and that’s what I’m aiming to do. Just what my story is about is a discussion for another post.

In the comments, feel free to add your own “what’s it about?” sentences for the above named properties, or any other favorites. I look forward to hearing them.