Good and worthy story problems derive from the small and the particular and the individual.
- Les Edgerton
You wake up one fine summer morning, trundle into the kitchen, and pour yourself a cup of hot, black coffee. You breathe in that rich coffee smell, deep and pure and invigorating, and then plunk down in front of the computer, where you're greeted by a screensaver cycling through pictures of LOL cats or your kids, or maybe, if you're really dedicated, photos of your favorite authors. It's a new day, a new future, and time to start a new book. So you say to yourself, "Ah... let's see. I think I'll write a book about freedom."
And... STOP. Back away slowly, and don't touch that keyboard.
Let's suppose, for just a brief, whimsical moment, that you are one Harriet Beecher Stowe (if you don't know who that is, you better back up even further. Like maybe to junior high). So, Ms. Stowe, here you sit, ready to embark upon a sweeping epic on the timeless and resonant theme of freedom. It's June in 1851, of course, and freedom is a hot topic. Everyone's talking about it. It's the perfect time for a novel about freedom to hit the steam-powered printing presses of New York. So what do you do, Ms. Stowe? You start outlining what will become a massive polemic on the evils of slavery, complete with a cast of thousands, as you begin in Mississippi and work your way east, north, west, covering the continent from San Francisco to Tallahassee. Not a single one of the 31 states of the Union escapes your blazing pen. You are Icarus, soaring to the sun. You are Prometheus, bringing the fire of the gods to the hands of mortal men.
And you're making a terrible mistake.
Thankfully, neither you nor I are Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thankfully, Ms. Stowe didn't write a sweeping polemic on the evils of slavery. Instead, she wrote about people. Individuals. An old slave named Tom. She focused on a particular person and his personal struggles, and consequentially, she wrote one of the most poignant and influential novels about freedom ever penned.
In his priceless little book Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go, Les Edgerton gives an example of how powerful details can be. A parent tells their kid to eat their spinach because "There are eighty kazillion people in China who would love to have what you're wasting." When Edgerton asks his creative writing class if this question ever actually persuaded them to eat that spinach, the reply was a nearly unanimous no. "'Now,' I say, 'what if your mom or dad had said, "Junior, eat all of your spinach. Old Lady Smithers, who lives just two doors down, has lost her job and her unemployment just ran out. Just last night, I caught her going through our garbage can looking for scraps of bread. She'd sure like that spinach!"'" A good deal more convicting, wouldn't you say?
"Eighty kazillion starving Chinese" is a faceless, meaningless problem. It's impersonal. Distant. But we can see Old Lady Smithers digging through garbage cans, and we can feel her pain--because she's close and real and cannot be ignored.
Get your writing down to the level of individuals. Don't write about sacrifice; write about a young single mom who works three jobs on two hours of sleep each night just so her kids can have new shoes for school. Don't write about the horrors of war. Write about a skinny Libyan boy running from refugee camp to refugee camp, trying to find his lost parents and instead finding himself forced to become a child soldier. Write about people, not ideas; if you want to talk about ideas, become a politician or something. You're a writer. Your job is to reach your audience on a close, personal, unavoidable level. Don't give us China; give us Old Lady Smithers.
Think about your favorite books. How many of them are charged by the lofty and the grandiose? Do you fall in love with an entire army--or the lonely, terrified soldier who just wants to go back home to Birmingham? When you watch the news, do you pay more attention to a story about how widespread an earthquake in China is--or a close-knit Chinese family displaced and separated by the catastrophe?
Let your ideas be side effects of your story. Freedom was a side effect of Uncle Tom. Obsession was a side effect of Moby Dick. Love was a side effect of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As soon as you sacrifice your characters and plot to your idea, however noble it may be, you have sacrificed the work itself. Write stories, not treatises.
As Les Edgerton concludes:
Always get your story down to the level of individuals. We can see individuals. We can't see the forces of Capitalism vs. the forces of Communism.