January 24, 2019

Our Story’s Essence: What’s the Story We Want to Tell?

Closeup of a raindrop with text: What's the Essence of Your Story?

Last week, we talked about discovering the essence of our character. Relatedly, over the past few days, several thoughts rolled around my head that made me wonder about the essence of our story.

Or to put it another way: What makes a story idea the one we want to tell?

For any story seed, premise, or theme—such as “a character faces the consequences of mistakes they made years ago”—we could come up with countless ways to explore that idea. We could use almost any genre, setting, character, plot, or story to express that idea.

Yet during the process of brainstorming, drafting, and revisions, we slowly discover the specific details of our story. The details that make our story unique. The details that make us excited to share our story. The details that we’d balk at changing.

Those details—the ones we’re passionate about—might give us clues about our story’s essence. Let’s take a look at three perspectives for identifying our story’s essence—as well as why understanding our story’s essence matters.

Story Essence Insight #1:
What Does “the Story We Want to Tell” Mean?

If we’ve ever let anyone read our work, we’ve probably received conflicting feedback. Understanding the reasons people might react differently to our story can help us know which advice to prioritize, but even with just one source of feedback, advice can still be in conflict…with our vision for the story.

I’ve seen editors who want to change the premise(!), tone (from dark to slapstick!), or whole plot(!). Those are all major changes—not just from a rewriting perspective, but also from a “feel”-of-the-story perspective.

If that advice comes from an editor or agent we’re trying to sign with, we might be left with a decision:

If we made the change just to get the deal,
would it still feel like our story?

Anything that brings us closer to the story we want to tell is valuable, but we’re the only one who knows what we were trying to write. We’re the only one who can tell our story.

Do you know your story's essence? Here are 3 insights that might help... Click To TweetSometimes their advice wouldn’t necessarily make the book better. It would just make the book different.

There are many perspectives and definitions for grasping a story’s “essence.” Some might say our story’s theme or message. Others might say the premise. Still others might say it’s the combination of both of those along with the characters.

None of those are wrong. However, there’s another way of looking at a story’s essence, a way that centers us and our intentions rather than more objective story elements:

Knowing what sorts of changes we could make before it no longer feels like our story—the story we want to tell—helps us see what the essence of our story is…to us.

Story Essence Insight #2:
How Does Our Story Reflect Us and Our Worldview?

Tangible elements like premise, plot, or characters can make our story unique in the eyes of readers. However, from our perspective as an author, our story is ours because it’s a part of us and we’re a part of it—it reflects us.

That connection—that understanding of how our story is ours—is another way of looking at our story’s essence. While much of ourselves is in our writing through inspiration from life events or conversations, one of the biggest ways we connect to our story’s essence is through our worldview.

As I’ve written about before, our worldview colors almost everything about our stories:

“Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.

Despite us not always being consciously aware of those beliefs, more often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview. … We might not even be able to write against our worldview.”

Related to the first insight above:

If the thought of changing an aspect of our story feels like a betrayal to our essence, that might shed light on the connection between our worldview and our story’s essence.

Story Essence Insight #3:
What Impression Do We Want to Create?

For any aspect of our story, we can struggle with getting our thoughts onto the page. That difficulty is compounded with the less-tangible aspects of our story, such as our story’s essence.

Regardless, we probably won’t be able to create a coherent impression for the reader unless we know what we want that impression to be. Once we know, we’ll be better able to come up with the right events, actions, behaviors, reactions, internalizations, hints, subtext, phrases, and words to create that impression.

From a story essence perspective, that means we’ll have a better chance of creating the impression we want if we know the story we want to tell. But how does the impression we want to create relate to our story’s essence?

If our story’s essence is a core part of the storytelling, readers shouldn’t be able to separate the two. Or for another way to describe the story-essence impression we want to create:

What aspects of our story should feel so fundamental that readers would never question our choices?

Why Does It Matter If We Understand Our Story’s Essence?

From just these insights, we can see how understanding our story’s essence—what our story means to us—can help us. That understanding can:

  • guide us through conflicting feedback
  • let us know when an agent or editor (or beta reader/critique partner) doesn’t share our storytelling goals
  • clarify how to approach revisions (knowing when to trust our gut, when to ignore ideas, etc.)
  • make us more aware of how to get our intentions on the page
  • Etc.

But there’s a deeper benefit to gaining insight into the story we want to tell, and it has to do with the concept of narrative.

What Narrative Are We Creating with Our Story?

The Hamilton musical’s final turning point features the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. The lyrics emphasize that someone creates every narrative we hear, and those narratives create legacies.

How can understanding our story's essence help us create the right impression for our readers? Click To TweetIn the song, Hamilton’s wife Eliza (who lived for 50 years after Hamilton’s death in the famous duel with Burr) points out that her efforts to gather stories and documents about her husband are responsible for his story being told at all. Without her, Hamilton’s early death would have erased his legacy, despite his “Founding Father” status.

Similarly, this past Monday (MLK Day), Martin Luther King Jr’s daughter, Bernice, recognized her mother’s influence as the architect of his legacy. Without Coretta Scott King’s pushing for her husband’s influence to spread across the globe, MLK and his ideas, speeches, and beliefs would be a footnote. Every day, we see how the media and our choices of the media sources to listen to (or the curation of our social media contacts) creates our understanding of current events through the narratives we’re exposed to.

A few years ago, Ana Mardoll did a live, 14-post-long reading of Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame) by Caroline Fraser. The biography (and Ana’s read of it) explores how Wilder’s books deeply influenced the pioneer mythology of the U.S. and yet weren’t nearly as factual as most readers believed. As widely read stories, their narratives helped shape the country’s beliefs about self-determination, individualism, “bootstraps,” etc. into a legacy that still ripples today—all despite the narratives being wildly misleading.

In other words, the narratives we create with our stories are important. No, we’re not likely to write a book as widely read as Wilder’s books, but every story still puts a narrative out into the world that influences thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

Every book that makes us think—or even changes our mood—shapes us through its narrative, so the better we understand what we’re trying to say, the better we can make sure the narrative created by our words follows our intentions. Knowing our story’s essence helps us ensure that the core narrative we want to create is what’s shared with readers—and the world. *smile*

Have you thought about or identified your story’s essence? Do these insights help you see your story from a different perspective? Do any of these insights resonate with you or your understanding of your story? If you know your story’s essence, has that knowledge helped you in any way? Do you know what narrative your story contributes to the world?

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E J Randolph



[…] and small that all impact our book—and then there are the intangibles. Jami Gold urges us to find our story’s essence, Janice Hardy has 3 mistakes to avoid when creating stakes in your story, Gila Green shows how to […]

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber


I’m struggling with my current novel, to the point I’m not sure *what* story I want to tell. Is that parent dead or does she die during this book? What if I change that, but don’t change something else? My head is spinning from all the choices. Ugh!

I’m headed to your master lists (again) to see if any of the topics connect with where I’m at. I figure, at a minimum, maybe I’ll glean some keywords to use here (and eventually, Google) for searching. 🙂

Thanks, as always!!

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