I have found my new all-time, favourite writing advice:
‘The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.’ ~Richard Price
I love this quote. You may have come across it before, but I saw it on Pinterest last week and I have been staring at it since. Think of the best stories – you always remember the small details.
Often, when I teach, I listen to students talking of the great stories they want to write. They want to write about wars where hundreds of lives are lost, marriages that end in divorce, the loss of a child or a horrible parent. All big issues. All great topics.
But when do I, as the reader, start caring?
- I care when I meet the soldier, scared out of his wits, hiding in the trench, trying to light a soggy cigarette, wishing he could see his girlfriend just one more time.
- I care when he throws away the cigarette and kisses her photo before climbing out of the trench to face the enemy.
- I care when I learn that the little girl who died liked drawing purple unicorns and that she drew a new one every day she spent in hospital. I cry when her mother takes them down. I cry because there are 42 pictures and I cry because there will never be 43.
How do I write small?
Create a character: How do I get to the kid’s burnt socks? I create a mother or a soldier who walks down the road and comes across them. Think of Saving Private Ryan; Private Ryan was only one soldier, but because they singled him out, he made us aware that all soldiers have families, mothers, and fathers. They are not nameless, faceless, camo-wearing, gun toting soldiers anymore. They are all someone’s son.
- Give that character a concrete goal: If it is a war story, then yes, the character wants to survive. But try to give them a simpler goal in the midst of the survival. Maybe, to fulfil his mother’s dying wish or in the case of The Book Thief, all Liesel wanted was a book to read. Even though a war is raging, everyday life continues.
Write with the senses: Burnt socks? You can smell them right now, right? Gunshots? You can hear the bang, bang, bang. Purple unicorns? You can see them. You can see the round shapes left by the Prestik on the glass doors of the ICU as the mother pulls down her little girl’s pictures for the last time.
- Find your theme: War and Death of a loved one might be too generic. Consider them ideas and they are good places to start. Work hard to make your theme specific. The farther along you get in your story the more you will be able to identify the theme. This will help you pick out the details you want to highlight.
Symbolism: Once you have made your way through a draft identify scenes where you can repeat symbols. Burnt socks? Maybe give me the moment when the little boy got them. They were blue and yellow and had Batman on them. Just like his big brothers.
Write small about the big things. Make your reader care.
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by Mia Botha