Hint #15: The Meaning of -A- Life

It’s that time again.

Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.

All the literary advice in the world will not make you a writer. There is no shortage of how-tos and self-helps, yet a startling number of people remain unable to write. And the people who do succeed rarely attribute their success to any particular guidebook or roadmap.

Yet it would be unhelpful to leave you without any idea of how to get started. The beginning is the hardest part, and if you get lost there, you could find yourself wasting a lot of time as you wander. A single pointer could save you years of effort.

What you could really use…is a hint.

“Hints: because you only need a little help.”

Pong is Wrong!

Just because you have a book doesn’t mean you have a story.

You already knew that. Because you’ve used a dictionary before. Or a cook book. Or the Guinness Book of World Records. Books that deliberately lack stories have been around for centuries.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Allow me to clarify: just because you have a sequence of events doesn’t mean you have a story.

And I’m sure you’re already familiar with this, as well. A lot of indie books are written by well meaning authors who simply forgot to tell a structured story. Quite a few traditionally published books fall into this trap, too—including award winners. I’ve been unimpressed with all the tomes adored by critics that provide no narrative value. The world never needed even one account of a disaffected protagonist who gets bounced between ennui and malaise without ever going anywhere, yet dozens of those get published every year.

To be a story, the sequence of events depicted needs an element of progress. The characters need to be moving toward a destination. When plotted graphically, a story should look like this:

Or this:

But it should never look like this:

The most common mistake of new writers boils down to this. A lot of nothing gets said over the course of pages or chapters or volumes.

All the ways of fixing it also boils down to one thing: you need to make the story move forward. And, in the context of a story, forward is whatever direction takes the protagonist closer to his finishing state. That can certainly involve moving him across a physical distance, but it can also be the gradual fulfillment of a goal, or amassing a certain amount of resources.

But perhaps that is too abstract of an answer. A lot of writing teachers have given this same advice, but it isn’t exactly a clear recipe that any idiot can follow. A beginning writer may be looking for something more concrete.

Let’s Make It Easy

Normally, it takes a lot of planning and architecture to instill your story with a sense of progress. But there is one shortcut that works almost as well, and can be used to make a book a bestseller. It can even be injected into the story after the fact, and all but the most savvy readers will be fooled.

This trick is called “The Meaning of a Life”.

Because—and I must stress this—stories must not reveal the all-caps-and-bolded MEANING OF LIFE, by which I mean the meaning of all life or every life. A story doesn’t have 8 billion protagonists. It only has the one (or, in exceptional circumstances, two).

To implement this trick, you merely need to have the protagonist, at the beginning of the story, be unclear about what his life means. Then, at the end, it should be clear.

That’s it.

This is such a basic cheat that you would think even the least talented of hacks could pull it off. Yet, despite the massive size of this target, many books sail by without hitting it.

You would also think that agents, editors, publishers, directors, and producers would at least be aware of this principle, and be on the lookout for it in whatever scripts or manuscripts they read. Some do, but not nearly all.

Let’s consider an example of this trick in the more-or-less current literary field.

The Meaning of -A- Life in The Hunger Games

I could have picked any bestselling series of any genre targeted toward any age group. You will find this same principle executed in Middle Grade fantasy or Adult spy thrillers. You’ll also find it in movies, tv shows, musical stage plays, puppets shows, and radio dramas. The Hunger Games isn’t even necessarily the best example. It’s just what comes to mind.

And if you’ve ever read, listened to, or seen The Hunger Games, you know that it begins with a protagonist who is not clear about the meaning of her life. Katniss Everdeen is a downtrodden soul on the bottom rung of a totalitarian society. Her only concern is the survival of herself and her sister.

She has been semi-abandoned by her mother, and that “semi” is important, because it calls into question Katniss’s worth in her mother’s eyes, whereas if she were totally abandoned, that would be a more concrete negative.

Katniss is also unclear about her worth in her own eyes, as she flirts with death by flaunting a few of the smaller laws of her community. She doesn’t yet foment a rebellion or do anything that would guarantee her execution. But she does submit her name multiple times for the upcoming battle royale in exchange for extra rations (though she doesn’t do this as many times as her friend does, showing that she is still unsure about how many rations her life is worth).

Katniss, in short, could go either way when deciding whether her life was absolutely vital to her family or if they would be better off without her. Only when her sister’s life is unquestionably imperiled does Katniss make a firm initial decision, concluding that her sister’s life is more valuable than her own, though that is more an appraisal of Prim’s life, rather than Katniss’s.

And, of course, by the end of the first book, is the value of Katniss’s life made clear. Not only is she the winner of the battle royale (in other words, the competitor whose life had the most meaning), but her life was so meaningful that the game master chose to spare the life of one additional player, against his own rules, rather than let Katniss die.

When she returns to her home, she is the richest and most famous person in her town. Her life undeniably has great meaning.

Same Goes for the Sequels

Since Katniss is also the protagonist of the two sequels to The Hunger Games, it will be helpful to show, briefly, how the meaning of her life is examined in the subsequent novels.

At the beginning of Catching Fire, Katniss is unsure whether her status as a Hunger Games victor makes her life have any meaning. Life in her hometown is now even worse thanks to a crackdown by the evil Capitol. Early in the book, Katniss is also exposed to all the other victors of the Hunger Games, and they are all such special people that it calls into question whether Katniss is remarkable at all.

But at the end of Catching Fire, it is clear that Katniss is the most important Hunger Games victor of all time. During her second battle royale, the other victors band together to protect her, even sacrificing their lives to keep her safe, because she’s such a threat to the Capitol. She de facto wins the second Hunger Games, becoming the only double-winner in the history of the event. And she is now the anointed figurehead of the rebellion.

Then, in the beginning of Mockingjay, Katniss is unsure about the meaning of her life. Yes, she’s the most important person in the rebellion, but it seems like that rebellion may be just as evil as the Capitol. Furthermore, her friend Peeta doesn’t think she is a hero and has publicly renounced her. Seems as if all her work winning those two battle royales may have been for nothing.

At the end of Mockingjay, the meaning of Katniss’s life is made clear when she not only kills the head of the previous government, but also stops the new government from taking power. She is now the most pivotal character in her civilization’s history, singlehandedly responsible for how society will be organized going forward.

And then the series ends, because it’s no longer possible to question the meaning of Katniss Everdeen.

It Can also Go the Other Way

Most of the examples I could give you, where the meaning of a life has been examined, conclude with the life in question having a great deal of meaning. Whether it’s Katniss Everdeen, Peter Parker, Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker, the conclusion tends to be “Turns out, their life was very, very important.”

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Sometimes, the life in question is not the life of the protagonist or viewpoint character. There are examples where the protagonist will sacrifice their own life for the sake of a tag-along.

And it can also turn out that the protagonist learns his life isn’t the one with the most meaning.

Remember, the journey does not always move from a point of low meaning to a point of high meaning. Rather, it moves from an unclear meaning to a clear one. You start with a question and end up with an answer, as every story should.

Time to Wrap Up

After reading this, you have no excuse for writing a story that lacks a sense of progress. Even if you have no talent for it, there are shortcuts you can take. If you don’t use them, you’ll have to answer to yourself and your audience.

Remember, when tacking problems, the best solutions are often small. It doesn’t take a lot to put an out-of-control story back on course. It can sometimes be done with a number of small optimizations.

You could call them “Hints”.

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