In my introductory classes on storytelling I often ask budding writers, why do you want to write?
The answers vary – a love for storytelling, a love for reading and movies, the need to make money, the belief that ‘I think I’d be good at it’, and the like.
The next question I ask is: What do you want to write about?
The answer is not as forthcoming, especially for new writers who have not yet found their niche. Some write in certain genres because of their popularity. But strict adherence to genre can often constrain the imagination. A western utilises must-have items such as guns, horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, although such stories can be made more flexible through genre-mixing. For example, Wild, Wild West, blends science-fiction and the western, expanding the canvas.
“Budding writers, on their way to finding their unique style, would do well to identify the themes that they feel passionate about and make them their hallmark.”
There are also writers who prefer to avoid sticking to specific genres, dwelling instead on the ethereal spaces between genres—writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. Their stories tend to distinguish themselves not through the spectacle of explosive events but through a unique style, imaginative language, and an unwavering focus on detail.
Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked that she finds inspiration everywhere—that people make up their own stories about life and the world, according to their taste or chance encounters.
Others use more deliberate methods.
Ransom Riggs collected old photographs as a child because he was fascinated by photography. It wasn’t long before he noticed patterns in these photos. The patterns inspired an idea for a factual book. Prompted by his editor, however, he repurposed the idea as fiction, something he had never written before. The result? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.
For me the answer is to write about the themes I care most about. After all, it is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound. Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?
Before the Light, a science-fiction novella, for example, is a tale about a quantum computer conflicted over revealing what it has learnt about the origins of the universe because it fears the effect this will have on a divided humanity on the brink of war.
The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative resonates with emotions that we recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.
But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and personal discovery.
My advice to emerging writers then is to write about recurring themes as an aid to developing their unique voice.
Budding writers should develop the themes they are most passionate about, even as they seek to develop their own distinctive voice.