Make It Say Something – What Separates Good Stories from Great

Looking back on my years of writing, I’ve probably undertook half a dozen larger novels, have seen only three unto completion, and made a point to have one published.

So what seperates that one from the rest?

While some stories we write just don’t hold together so well because we’ve written them at a time of inexperience or immaturity, I would also venture a guess that sometimes we are more in love with the world we imagine or the idea (whether it be a character, plot, concept) than the utility of the story.

For years I fell into this trap of dreaming elaborate worlds that were honestly no more interesting than anyone else’s imagination. Though I naturally felt my characters, my world, my plot had an innate merit in it, I began considering how many of my novels never saw it to fruition because they lacked something deeper than imagination.

They lacked a statement.

I confess that the beginning of Masks was undeveloped during that early stage of writing my first “pilot” chapters of random characters. The world I was spinning had more to do with interesting character concepts instead of character depth or even thematic elements. It was going to be a flashy “what if Halloween never ended / what if ordinary people became vigilantes” sort of story.

Fortunately, early in the writing process, I made a distinct choice to go a different way with this story idea, to instead of write for the sake of exploring this imaginative rabbit hole of mine, that I’d make this story “say something” in order to give the writing process purpose. I wanted a story that wasn’t merely an escape from reality, but something that could fictionally parallel to my real life and to my real world around me.

This had a huge impact on my writing energy, fueling me to finish a project rather than to see how far the dream could self-perpetuate until it became dull. My story was no longer being written for the sake of being a cool idea, but rather the cool idea was the garment that the “say something” needed to wear, to “reveal” a message by putting on a colorful robe of imagination (if that makes any sense).

So, I made my writing say something.

What Does Your Story Say?

Baron & Sheepshead, Illustrated by Lexie Takis Arts

The image featured in this blog is the illustration from Part 3 of Masks, wherein we see Sheepshead–a former drug addict–attacking a drug dealer, Baron.

These two characters themselves put on new identities in order to say something of themselves. Sheepshead puts on the dead skull of a ram to remind himself of the “little goat” he still has inside of him from his past, to remind him of the stubborn impulse he fights against that could lead him to death. Baron puts on the façade of the Haitian Loa of death and debauchery as a commentary to the lifeless addictions of those whom he does business with, but in a way that celebrates the human weakness that he sees and exploits.

Masks could perhaps be broken down into two different messages…

The first theme is that of fatherhood. While every human being has a father, the roots and absence/involvement of fathers in each character’s life greatly impacts the direction that each character takes. More than that, the series hangs on the image of a father who will go to any means to find his lost child. This image was evoked to me in the music video “Everything” by Lifehouse, and the image today for me as a father has remained a particularly emotional one.

The second, and perhaps the more prominent message of the series, is that of deification. In this story, each primary character is moved towards putting on a mask in order to become something greater than their ordinary selves. This applies to both the heroes and villains of the story, and for good reason. While one typically sees deification as the process of becoming a saint, it is also true that the opposite direction of this path is an anti-deification, becoming an idol, a monster, a demon. The story speaks to how few steps it takes for one to cross the threshold between saint and monster, that sinner can become saint, and that hero can transform into the monster it fights. More importantly, it communicates how this battle between the two deified forces occurs invisibly in the midst of ordinary and mundane individuals, who either abhor, adore, or are indifferent to this conflict.

One such character, Overman, finds the maskless mass abhorrent for their inactivity, and although Overman is a menace and a monster in his motives, he is true to pick out the unmotivated mass as not participating or at least acknowledging something greater taking place.

In one sense, the masks in this book are the vehicle of this divine agency, the veil that reveals humanity’s nature and potentiality. The story is a book about sainthood in the sense of a transfigurement of the human, while also being a thriller of a creature feature where the mundane becomes a monster at night. This book hopefully challenges the reader to not remain idle and without identity, but to “put something on” and allow that idea and future self contest against other great Masks.

What I challenge each of you is to wonder if your book has a universal call to action, a message it needs to say that can compel a noble initiative.

And if your story is perhaps all dream, all illustrious, and without this core message, I challenge you: make it say something!

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