novel, painful experiences, fiction, storytelling

Writing About What Hurts: 4 steps to identifying the story you want to tell

By Julie Tyler

Have you decided to Write About What Hurts, but can’t narrow what story, exactly, you want to tell? Have you been working for a while on a really great idea, but notice you need to refine your story’s premise or narrow its focus?

You’ve come to the right place.

We all need to identify THE personal experience that will captivate readers and draw them into the storyworld we create. But with all the possible stories to tell and all the ways of telling, it’s difficult to decide. Why? Because we have to use our HEAD to most poignantly express what lies in the HEART.

As I hunker down to begin a new novel project inspired by painful experiences with thyroid cancer, I’m promising myself,

“Self, we’re gonna follow a method. We’re gonna carefully identify THE story that ought to be told.”

Here are four steps to identifying your story:

Step #1 – Compose a purpose statement for the project

As I wrote in the strategies installment in this series, composing a clear purpose statement helps us stay focused on what we want to achieve. I never begin a writing project without composing a purpose statement first. It’s a great warm up to the creative part–you know, developing characters and writing scenes. It helps me reconcile my HEART with my HEAD. It should be the first step in narrowing a project’s focus.

This is gonna seem dry and boring, but I recommend starting with a generic template like this to get you going:

purpose statement template for writing project.png
Here’s a simple template for articulating a purpose for your project.

Be as specific as possible when you fill in the blanks. No doubt, your purpose includes getting your experience off your chest, inspiring others, raising awareness about an issue. And as noble as these aspirations are, we gotta dig a little deeper and set ourselves apart from everybody else who’s doing the same thing.

For example, I could revise my goal to “raise awareness about thyroid disease” to “show readers what thyroid patients experience on a daily basis, by including multiple points-of-view.” Just by specifying a goal, I get a rush of ideas.

Steps #2 – Make an EXHAUSTIVE list of possibilities

Once you’ve articulated your purpose, you’re now in a great position to narrow your focus. Don’t be too hasty though. You’ll need to list out all the possible aspects of your experience, angles your story can come from, incidents that will comprise your plot, and all the possible characters you’ll include in your cast. You’ll choose from among them later, once you can see them in front of you.

Listing possibilities may seem like a no-brainer, but as you jot down each item, couple it with a theme. Try something like this:

brainstorming chart.PNG

Once you have an exhaustive list of aspect-theme pairs, draw a circle around the items that most strike your fancy. But wait! Don’t make a final choice yet. There are two more steps.

#3 – Research books similar to your idea

Before you nail down THE story you want to tell, do some market research, just as you would if you were an entrepreneur  One thing you don’t want to do is write an awesome book only to discover there’s something like it already on the market. Scour Amazon, best-seller lists, book store shelves. Read dusk jacket covers, reviews, synopses. You can buy the whole book and support a fellow author or just send the free samples to your e-reader (don’t worry… I won’t tell!). Take notes on each book’s angle, focus, and other details.

Then go back to Step #2. Which of the possibilities you listed differ most from existing publications? What else can you do to differentiate your work from these publications?

how to distinguish a book in the market
Here’s a simple template for identifying what makes your book unique.

Completing this step makes it easier to provide readers with YOUR unique perspective. Write the story in the way that only you can. Differentiate your book by developing an innovative writing style, creating an original character, playing around with setting, and more.

BONUS: By doing this step at the beginning of your project, you’ll be much more prepared when the time comes to pitch to an agent. You’ll already have a great list of comparison titles AND you’ll have done the work of positioning your book firmly in the existing market.


#4 – Go with your gut

So, after all that intellectual effort, it’s important to listen to your instincts and include them in your overall plan.

For example, maybe market research suggests there are just too many books like Eat, Pray, Love out there. But … what if what you REALLY want to write in this genre? What if you want to share with the world YOUR disillusionment with modern life and journey toward spiritual and emotional fulfillment? Do it! But find ways to distinguish your project.

Writing is, as I stated above, simultaneously a HEART endeavor and a HEAD endeavor. The best of “writers” combine inspiration with careful planning. We negotiate between what WE want to write and what READERS want to read. And when it comes to writing about a personal experience, particularly one that HURTS, you want to give yourself time to make the best decision for the life of your project.

What’s your method for identifying the story you want to tell? Tell us in the comments!

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