Discovering The Soul Of Your Story

Yesterday I was reading a post by Madison Woods, in which she muses about the cheesiness of outlines, hehe, and the suspension of disbelief.  But then it got me thinking about something else…

Discovering the Soul of One’s Story

(Or the core themes, I suppose.)

If I had to briefly summarize what my story is about thematically–which I hate doing because, as Madison kind of talked about, this can sound cheesy…I’d have to say it’s about uncovering truths; understanding the relationship between freedom and manipulation; discovering one’s place in the world; and making tough decisions.

Even though a lot of times I’ll use a whimsical, lighthearted voice in the story, there are actually a lot of darker threads running through it.  I think a major influence for this has been playing the Mass Effect series.  One thing I love about the games is that they force you to make some really tough decisions.  The morality of the choices put before you isn’t so black-and-white, which lends the game a fair amount of grittiness.

I wanted the same thing in my story–along with antagonistic forces that were also morally gray and not just 100% pure evil–but also with an air of fun and adventure similar to that found in Joss Whedon’s Serenity or in the movie The Mummy.  (In dieselpunk TV Tropes terms, I could say it starts off more “diesel deco” and ends up “diesel noir”.)

So that’s more the spirit of the story.

Plot- and character-wise, my protagonist, Voi, is seeking a way out of a seemingly hopeless situation, which gets her involved in some darker underground aspects of her world that she never even knew existed.  During this she learns more about herself and her position on the totem pole of life.  She doesn’t like what she learns and tries not to be involved in it at first, but then she realizes that she already is involved and this frustrates her even more.  Eventually, however, she must decide to take a stance and choose a side.

Wait a minute…we’re not all that different, actually.

It’s kind of funny, now that I think about it, because I’m actually in a similar position myself.  For the longest time I’ve been brought up to believe in certain religious truths, but I didn’t entirely understand those truths and what they demanded of me.  Then, when a deeper understanding did come to me…well, the world suddenly seemed a less cheery place to be in.  The concept of “freedom” became blurry, almost an illusion.

So I’ve tried distancing myself from what I’ve been taught to accept, and like my protagonist I realized that I’m already part of it all and there’s really no escaping it.  (Can you tell I’m purposefully being vague here?  I like to do that every now and then.)

So, then, I’m left with a decision: do I continue denying it?  Rebel against it?  Embrace it?

Voi faces the same dilemma in her world.  At certain points she feels manipulated, trapped, in the dark, hopeless, and completely out of her depth.  I think, once I can share the story, others will be able to feel an emotional resonance in it because I share many of the same sentiments as my protagonist.  I’m just writing about them in a different, much more exotic context.  (My story is actually not about religion at all, oddly enough.  Sure, it has religions in it, as many fantasy novels with extensive worldbuilding will, but they are never the focus.)

Voi is older than me in her story, though only by a year now.  (I guess I’m slowly catching up to her, heh.)  It’s not something I’ve done intentionally, but I think her life, though radically different from mine, is actually an allegory to mine, in some ways.  I just never realized that until…well, now.

So maybe I’ve been using this writing experience to help with sorting some things out.  I’m not entirely sure.

<sarcasm> Great, thanks for sharing your life story. </sarcasm>

Sorry, this is kind of me just thinking out loud, so I hope this hasn’t been too useless to you, dear readers.  Are there better places to ponder these things?  Probably, but I needed something to blog about today. 😛

I am prone to analyzing things like this, when certain insights come to me, though I try not to make too much of it.  Voi’s life isn’t mine and vice versa.  Still, maybe I can learn something from this.

When did you discover the heart and soul of your story/stories?

Is this something you typically know coming into a project, or something that seems to reveal itself to you later?  Is it different with every story?  Also, have you ever noticed parallels between what happens in your stories and what happens in your own life?


20 thoughts on “Discovering The Soul Of Your Story

  1. As writers, we can’t help but put part of ourselves into our work. So, yes, we can discover things about who we are and what we believe as part of the writing process. It’s not why we do it (mostly) but it’s an interesting perk. So don’t worry too much about oversharing. This is your blog. Do what you want with it.

    For my latest book, I did a detailed-ish outline and did my thinking about theme and tone early on. Outlining actually helped me as and answer the right questions (like ‘how can it get worse’) before I even started writing.

    Now I get to find out what the story is really about, by writing it.


  2. I wish I could say my WIP has a deep theme, but really it’s just all about people finding their path. At least it’s something we can all relate to.

    The guns and the paranormal stuff – maybe not so much. But that’s why it’s fiction, right?

    Thought-provoking post. I need to come here more often.


  3. That makes me think of when people ask ‘Is the character based on you?’ It’s always a ‘yes and no’ answer. Everything comes out of you (the heroes and the villains) and I think you can’t help but resonate. I believe the best writing comes from somewhere in the deep darkness of our true selves. It helps me work through stuff sometimes. More often, the stories take unexpected turns, and then I end up thinking of something I’d never considered before. It’s definitely a journey (intentional or not).


  4. I think developing an understanding of your story’s theme is very important, as a writer. That’s something I’m always trying to understand better in my own work.

    I think those themes that come out strongest in your work are pretty much always going to relate to the issues you face in your real life. The experience of an artist and the creation of his/her works of art are insepperably linked.

    I’ve foud this kind of parallel between my work and my life all the time. It reached the point where I started thinking of my old epic fantasy project, “Project SOA” as the epic fantasy version of my autobiography. I’m less melodramatic about it, now, but it still retains a personal link to my self-identification.

    As for the particular challenge you are struggling with – I know very well how you feel. I’ll avoid particulars as well, myself, but I faced the same questions – and face them again – both with respect to the religion of my birth as well as the religion of my choice (of 10+ years past, now). I thought I made the right choice years ago when I chose a new religion – I thought I had answered those questions for myself, addressed my misgivings with the religion of my birth and found the perfect antidote in a new church. But a deeper understanding of the implications of some of the doctrines and practices and history of this church leave me unsettled and uncomfortable today. Commisserating with you doesn’t offer much solace, I know, because each such struggle has to be met on its own terms, and each is unique. But in whatever way it helps, know that you’re not alone.


    • It’s always nice to know others share similar experiences, in writing and otherwise. 🙂

      I’m not sure I’ll ever get into any religion, but we’ll see. I’m not exactly close-minded, though my mind is far from being made up. (And then there’s the heart… As if the mind weren’t complicated enough!)


      • I try to stay open-minded, either way. I’m not sure where I’ll end up, either, with respect to religion and my relationship with it. I can’t fault someone for embracing any given religion, and I can’t fault someone for rejecting the same: I feel there are pros and cons no matter what. For myself and my own, I have a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of anxieties I still need to work out – not to mention a lot of disgust for the hypocritcal painting-over of various institutional sins, and a lot of disgust for my own personal shortcomings and a need to find a way to rise above that. It’s a complicated psychological stew.

        Which is, I suppose, great grist for the story-mill. It’s grist I intend to use.


  5. The soul comes in the process, you can’t plan it (or at least I can’t). Characters react to each other and connect in ways that are sometimes very surprising.

    Also, I always remember that William Burroughs said that all writing is autobiographical (and if you’ve ever read Naked Lunch, let alone Nova Express, you’ll see that’s not a really obvious statement). I think Teresa’s comments are dead on.


    • I don’t think I could ever plan the soul of a story if I tried, lol.

      “Characters react to each other and connect in ways that are sometimes very surprising.”

      Yeah, and I think that’s one of the funnest parts about writing. It’s like when you’re watching a TV show with great characters, some who hate each other, and you’re like, “Ooo, I can’t wait to see what happens when those two are left alone.” Are they gonna tear each other’s throats out, do something really crazy, not mix well, freak out? I feel the same way when I get to write about different combinations of characters.

      Somehow I guess that all contributes to a story’s soul, heh.


  6. I think that no matter what plans or ideas you start out with, they are destined to be taken on a journey of their own once the writing actually begins. I find that i have a ‘sense’ of what I am trying to convey from the outset, but in practice they manifest themselves in my work in many different ways (some of them in surprising ways!) and it’s all part of the fun.

    Our characters take journeys, and we take them ourselves in turn. It’s one of the great joys of writing for me. Even blog posts can be a journey (here is a case in point!) and I always find that these stories or articles or epic novels or whatever they happen to be are the most enjoyable to read (and write for that matter).

    The same goes for art, or music, or photography or dance … allowing yourself and your characters the freedom to explore their own feelings and paths is far more important than following a strict and rigid guideline with no room to grow.

    Far more than publication or critical success, it is this internal development that gives me the most satisfaction as a writer and a reader and drives me to achieve bigger and better things. Run with it, Tiyana! 🙂


    • I think that’s pretty much all true. 🙂

      You know, just the other day I sat down at my piano to play (haven’t done so in a while) and was just making stuff up…but then I got frustrated ’cause I realized I was actually trying to play something fairly specific but didn’t know how to go about it. (Usually I’m hearing more than one instrument in my head–ah! musical voices!—and sometimes I can’t always capture all of that on the piano.) Even if I don’t have a detailed plan, I still need at least a vision to make something of my efforts.

      Same with writing. I don’t like planning so much, but I absolutely must have a clear vision to get my ideas with even a remote amount of accuracy onto the page.

      But maybe that’s the thing about finding the soul of any piece: innately we may know what it is because it comes from us, though not necessarily on a completely conscious level or in great detail. We are given the seed and then we have to plant it and nurture it to see how it grows.


  7. Good stuff, T. I think without thinking, we all inject our own lives into our writings.

    My current WIP themes are a loss of innocence and the whole destiny vs randomness of life argument. I know I have a couple more in there, but it’s too early to think!


  8. Dear Tiyana,

    For myself, being a very basic ‘writer’, I find that all of my writing contains much that is ‘of’ me. My experiences inform everything that I write, so much so that I often wonder what will happen when I run out of experiences. But then I realize that I never will and that my imagination will far outstrip the time I have remaining to say what I need to. I agree with Burroughs. All writing is autobiographical. The really good writer’s just do a better job of taking us deeper into themselves.

    Keep taking us there, Tiyana.




    • Hi, Doug. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

      It’s kind of weird for me to think of fiction being autobiographical, but I guess in some ways it’s just inevitable! I tend to separate the two in my mind, oddly enough. Maybe that’s why recognizing the connections surprised me so much? :/


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