June 14, 2022

What Gives Our Story Meaning?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m digging into the wonderful movie Everything Everywhere All at Once to see what lessons we can take away for our writing. Both here and in my guest post, we’ll explore what gives stories meaning and how we can create story stakes that matter. Let’s take a look…

The Non-Spoilery Gist of Everything Everywhere All at Once

Like the title itself, the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAaO) could be described in almost any way because it has a bit of everything. As I joked with my family after coming out of the theater, we imagined the studio and producers asking the creators what genre their idea was, and they answered “Yes.” *grin*

That said, I have to share the gist of the movie for this post to make any sense. Wish me luck. (I’ll be avoiding specifics so as not to spoil the story too much, but the movie is available for sale now, so if you haven’t seen it yet, definitely check it out.)

Everything Everywhere All at Once Trailer

At the simplest level, EEAaO is about a family that doesn’t get along, yet the beginning of the movie establishes enough context so the audience understands and sympathizes with each member. However, as the main character, Evelyn, soon discovers, the worldbuilding premise of the movie sets up a multiverse, where every decision a character makes results in two universes, with each universe following a different choice. (If you’re familiar with the 1998 movie Sliding Doors, it’s a similar idea, but times infinity.)

With the ability to see and experience all these infinite alternatives throughout the multiverse, anyone would struggle emotionally and mentally. If we discovered we were just one of an infinite number of possible versions of us, why would our version of us matter? Or to put it another way, if everything is possible, then it can seem that nothing matters.

Infinite Choices and Meaninglessness

The writer and the director—collectively known as “the Daniels” (for Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)—have spoken about how their seed idea for the movie came from the thought that we’re all exposed to so much information now with the internet and constantly on our smart phones, that we can easily feel overwhelmed and shut down. It can be difficult to figure out what actually matters among all that noise.

What writing lessons take we take from the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once? Click To Tweet

As Kwan said in an interview with the LA Times, “Everyone is staring at everything and seeing no meaning at all. This movie’s almost us trying to fight that by saying, “Look, rocks can make you cry!” There’s beauty and meaning in everything.”

The movie suggests that what makes life meaningful isn’t the idea that some things (or choices) have more inherent meaning than others (implying a goal of trying to seek out those specific things), but that everything and every moment has an equal potential to be meaningful. The difference comes down to which moments we inject meaning into ourselves by being present and/or connecting with others.

Within the movie’s worldbuilding, the characters reach the understanding of the only choice that matters: When you can choose to be anywhere doing anything, where would you choose to be?

Writers Can Relate to Too Many Choices

Like that worldbuilding premise, as writers, we can make our story go in near-infinite directions depending on the choices we make with our characters, plot, and overall story and themes. It can be enough to make us worry about picking the “right” one or the “best” one.

When faced with the near-infinite choices for how our story could go, how can we know the "best" choice? Click To Tweet

But just like in EEAaO’s world, there’s usually not a “right” or “best” version. They’re all just different.

Our different choices could all result in stories that have the equal potential to be “good,” but that doesn’t mean that we’d have equal interest in exploring all those different options. That’s why I’ve often said that when evaluating feedback, we want to ask ourselves what option will make our story closer to the one we want to tell.

In other words, just like in the movie, what gives our story meaning isn’t some external or inherent value of “this choice is better than that choice.” What matters is the meaning we impart on our story and our characters’ journey.

Meaning Exists in the Little Things

As I explore in my guest post, the movie upends the expectations of huge stakes. The stakes throughout the story shift from small and personal > too-big and impersonal > big and personal > and finally back to small-ish (but still much bigger than in Act One) and personal.

What do we need to include in our story to give it meaning? (Or is there not just one thing?) Click To Tweet

One reason the movie succeeds despite its unconventional approach to stakes is because it demonstrates that focusing on big ideas (such as trying to cram huge stakes into our story’s Climax) can blind people to the happiness we can find in emotional connections. As Waymond, the husband character, says in EEAaO, “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.”

In fact, the character with the emptiest outlook on life still spends the movie searching for someone with whom they can share their experience. That’s humanity in a nutshell: sometimes both hopeless and hopeful at the same time. That same yearning for connection hints at what we can offer to readers as far as meaningfulness, as readers want to connect to our stories.

For our stories, we don’t need ridiculously massive conflicts or stakes to make our story meaningful. Instead, meaning can be found in the little moments of our story: the banter between characters, an emotionally vulnerable moment with our protagonist, a character’s silly habit that makes readers smile, etc.

If we show even the smallest moment to be meaningful to the characters or the story/theme, readers will find meaning in it too. Plus on a bigger scale, readers’ connections to our stories and characters can add meaning to their lives too. In a world full of overwhelming amounts of information, where maybe it seems like nothing matters, we get to choose what—and who—does matter to us, and our stories can be part of that puzzle.

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“They’re All Gonna Die!” Wait, Why Does That Matter?

Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing more about what we can learn from Everything Everywhere All at Once about using stakes, including:

  • how EEAaO’s stakes change throughout the story
  • how EEAaO twists the tropes and expectations of big stakes
  • how EEAaO proves that big stakes aren’t enough on their own
  • 3 lessons from EEAaO for making stakes matter
  • 7 points to check for making our story’s stakes stronger

Have you seen Everything Everywhere All at Once? What did you think of the movie? Did you come away with any writing-related insights from the movie? Can you relate to the themes of the movie and see how they might apply to your life? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

Comments — What do you think?

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Sieran Yung

Hey Jami, I love the idea that we don’t have to use bigger and bigger plot events to have greater stakes. After all, there’s a limit to how epic you can make a war (or similar big event). I love that we can use smaller but more personal events that are high stakes for the character, and the reader cares about the character. And I especially like how a personal crisis can feel greater than some grand scale, worldwide (or galaxy wide) crisis. You might have heard of that scenario where this guy fought to the top, he’s one of the greatest fighters of all time, conquered all these impossible missions, and defeated all these overpowered villains. But then he confesses his love to the girl he likes, and he’s suddenly a scared and timid little boy again. :O A similar scenario, is of a superhero who has lived through so much stardom and glory and success. But they find that they’re sick of it all, and would rather be left alone, and have a peaceful and happy life with their dog. (Which is legit. Dogs are so cute and comforting!) Wow it’s a lot of great food for thought. I find that nowadays, I value relationships a lot more than I value career success. (I used to be the opposite, unfortunately.) But yeah meaning is subjective. We have to make the reader know why the character cares and why the reader should care for these stakes too.

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