Do I know what my stories are about?

Folded Valley cover

In the past, I have said on this blog that self-consciously striving to put across a message in a story will invariably result in the writing sounding preachy. Instead, I try to simply write a good story with no intended message of any kind, because what is important to me will ultimately be inherent in the material.

With that in mind, this might sound strange, but sometimes it takes others to tell me what my stories are really about. I have often been surprised at the interpretations that have resulted, and in many cases I have agreed – in retrospect – that these interpretations are correct.

A few examples:

During my University days, I made a short science fiction film entitled Gardening and Other Crimes (incidentally this short was subsequently remade with a bigger budget by a friend of mine who is a member of BAFTA). At the time I didn’t intend the film to be anything more than a compelling future shock drama that showcased my ability to direct actors. However, one person who viewed the finished product commented that the whole piece was a political statement about the European Union. Looking back, I can sort of see what he meant.

More recently, I have been told George goes to Mars is about the threat of religious fundamentalism – particularly to women – and the journey to becoming a responsible leader. Again, I didn’t write it with any of that in mind, but yes, it does seem clear in retrospect.

A novel I wrote earlier this year set on Lundy Island – the content of which will remain top secret for now – turned out to be less scary and more melancholy than I originally intended. It was only afterwards that it was suggested to me that the subtext was about dealing with the loss of my father.

I didn’t consciously set out to write a book about grief. Never have. Never will. I mean, how depressing would that be? No, I try to write genre stories that hopefully grip and entertain. Yet in spite of this, I must admit in retrospect that the story does contain an undercurrent of coming to terms with death.

Speaking of my father, one of the comments he made on my upcoming novel Children of the Folded Valley was that it contained a message about the ironies of trying to hide from very serious dangers only to fall victim to those very same dangers by doing so. I have to be a little bit vague, for fear of spoilers, but I was very pleased to hear that he thought I had succeeded in writing something ironic, as that is, quite frankly, bloody difficult to do. But more on that in a future post…

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3 Responses to Do I know what my stories are about?

  1. republibot3 says:

    Rather famously Steve Kilbey was in a truck stop somewhere when one of his songs came on the juke box. A truck driver who didn’t know who Steve was started talking to him about “Under the Milky Way tonight,” and what it meant and all. Of course the guy was in no way correct, and Steve was about to tell him the truth when he thought, “wait…how do I know he’s wrong? I mean I know what the song is about, but clearly it really means something completely different to this guy, and it means something to him. So who’s to day he’s wrong? Maybe his interpretation is as valid as mine?”

    There’s a little bit of seeing shapes in the clouds in all but the worst writing, I think. What people see is based on their culture, prejudices, fears, hopes. Give you an example: I wrote a short, funny/morose story about the second coming called “just moments before the end of the age.” May of my atheist readers felt it was a waste of time because even though I was being ironic, they felt I treated the subject too respectfully. Conversely, many of my Christian readers were alienated by the same irony, and a few pronounced it “blasphemous” or nearly so. Neither of those interpretations were what I had in mind. The story is just a cautionary little ditty about being TOOOOO sure that you can read the signs of the times.

    But are the atheists and the Bible thumpers right about my story? I don’t think so, but I’m probably the worst person to judge

    • simondillon says:

      A friend of mine often says, it doesn’t matter what you meant to say, it’s what you actually said that counts. When one considers the possibilities of interpretation in stories, perhaps interpretations we don’t agree with are an occupational hazard.

      • republibot3 says:

        Undoubtedly. Language is, but it’s nature, imprecise. Even ver specific, meticulous documents like laws and contracts are subject to crazy amounts of interpretation. That’s kind of part of the charm: the sculpture keeps shifting while you work on it . And then language and perspective change over time, so something you write may have a radically different meaning 50 or 100 years later because the meanings have changed, or context is lost. We tend to think of books as permanent – and they can be – but their context is lost.

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