How to Choose the Right Subject

How to Choose the Right Subject

I'm currently teaching an introductory creative writing class with students who are very new to the writing game. They are definitely picking up on the techniques I'm discussing in class, from vivid adjective choices to strong verbs, but there's one thing they continue to struggle with. It's something I find very difficult to teach; in fact, it's something that might not be teachable at all. It's the skill (or inborn talent, perhaps) of choosing the right subject.

It's funny, but no matter how many times I tell my students that stories need conflict and some sort of drama, I still get stories about vacations, trips to the beach, or other perfectly pleasant situations. While the writing in these stories can often be quite sharp, the message doesn't seem to be getting through that not all subjects and scenes are created equal. Not every premise is equally capable of becoming an engaging story; some are just too trouble-free. The easiest way to get the ball rolling in a story is to present us with some sort of problem, but it continues to be tempting (and not just to my students) to write about safety and normalcy. Why?

The dangerous power of the writer

My theory is that writers, particularly young writers, are very aware of the power of words. They know that words once said or written can do damage; they can break hearts, hurt feelings, start wars. Words and the power of imagination behind them can be very dangerous. When we're creating something, we don't want to presume that we're worthy of describing large, dramatic events; putting a fictional character in danger is almost as bad as putting a real one there. Perhaps our impulse is to apologize for ourselves, and to write small and humbly. We're left futzing with familiar, tame scenes, attracted by the security of them.

Choosing the right subject for you

Of course, great drama can be wrought from small moments in life. But we need to draw out the tension in those small moments. When choosing your subject, don't write about the Battle of the Bulge if that's not what you're interested in or comfortable with. Choose something that you feel you could probe from the inside out. At the same time, don't choose something that is inherently benign. If the story is benign, or harmless, then the reader simply won't care about it. Drama is what makes us care about a story, so start with a familiar setting, but give us a strong sense of tension. Always, always, introduce a problem. We don't want to read about Eden before the Fall; we want to see the fruit getting eaten.