Monday, April 13, 2009

Searching for a Truth

It is one of my fundamental beliefs about literature that at the core of every novel you read, there is a Truth. A message, usually complex and yet simple at the same time, that is the basic assumption the writer is proving with the story. I'm not talking about the plot here. If the Truth of a novel is related to anything, it's more like the moral of the story.

Sometimes this Truth is overt, a recurring line or even the title of the novel. It's out there, letting you know "Hey! This is what the story is really about!" Other times, it's more subtle, never said explicitly, but implied in a thousand different ways. Sometimes these more subtle Truths are ones that we take in as we read without noticing it; we accept them and learn them, but we don't actually become aware of them until we see them in a commentary or something.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I'm talking about.

On the explicit end of the spectrum, I just finished reading the Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop. (Those are some marvelous books, by the way, if you're looking for something to read.) All throughout the story, there is one phrase repeated over and over again. "Everything has a price." It gets thrown back and forth throughout the dialogue. Characters think it with resigned sighs. It slips into the exposition. Every now and again, it appears as one of those single-line paragraphs, powerfully opening or closing a chapter. Over the course of those three novels, she must say "everything has a price" three or four thousand times.

Except that she doesn't say it three or four thousand times. She just weaves it into the story often enough that you begin hear it behind every thought, every feeling, every action of the story. Your brain starts automatically translating every single word -- even the mundane words like "a", "and", and "the" -- into "everything has a price" until it's running on a loop in your head. Everything has a price. Everything has a price. Everything has a price. You leave the Black Jewels world with that one phrase pounded into your head, a Truth, undisputed.

If you're looking for something a bit more subtle than that, let's take another fantasy trilogy: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. (I really never expected to use LOTR as an example for subtlety!) The Truth we learn from journeying through Middle Earth is that everything, once touched by evil, diminishes. I don't think he ever explicitly states this, but you can't find a single character in the entire trilogy -- and there are a lot of them, aren't there? -- who, once touched by evil, hasn't lost something. Oh, they might be better off -- we would, in fact, hope that most of them would be better off, because otherwise why work so hard to defeat evil in the first place? -- but they all lose something. Nothing can ever be the same for them; they can never be as great, as beautiful, or as innocent as they once were. Everything, once touched by evil, diminishes.

When I wrote my Aundroma trilogy, I knew my Truth from the outset. And that helped me with my story building. I used that idea to set up everything, because I wanted it to be one of those subtle Truths, one that I never came out and said, but that was there, present in everything. The same idea applies to every aspect of the story, from the design of the binary star system, to the social structure of the races, to the relationship between my main character and his love interest, all the way down to the internal battles of my main character. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about that Truth, and so I did, though I never actually wrote it down (not even here).

But with my new project, I'm not sure what Truth I'm writing about. The idea came upon me rather suddenly and I've just been writing it in true pantser style, with almost no planning or thinking beyond the scene I'm working on. But I'm getting to that point in the story where I should be coming up on turning points, where the plot should be taking shape, and I'm wondering to myself "what am I really writing about here?" I throw Truths that I already know into the room with my characters and see if they react to them, but nothing happens. So far, that's not stopped me writing -- I'm still pounding out about 1,000 words a day -- so I'm not too terribly concerned about it, but it still makes me wonder.

For the first time, I'm thinking that I might need to learn a new Truth myself, that my characters might have to throw one out at me.


haricot vert said...

Something to think about. /nods

purpleprose 78 said...

yeppers....what is the truth in TDC? Is it the overdone Love conquers all? Or is it more subtle? I must think.