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  • Kacen Callender

What's the Point?

Whenever I’m starting out a new project, I stop and ask myself: what’s the point of this story? For me, the point of the story is the equivalent of the story’s theme.

Sometimes I don’t have a theme in mind when I begin writing the first draft; I’m just excited by the world, the characters, and I dive right in to writing out the action-packed or romantic scenes that’ve played out in my head. And then… the scene is over. The characters are flat, the action just not as exciting as what I’d envisioned in my head. I’ve realized this is usually because there’s no spark, no heart, no life in these scenes—and that’s usually because I don’t know what the point of the scene is yet. I don’t know what the point of the story is yet. Not knowing the point of my first drafts as I look over scenes = me asking myself, “Why am I even reading this right now?"

I’ve jumped into many first drafts without knowing why I want to write the story yet, what point I want to make or question I want to ask, and every single time, the first draft falls apart for me within a few chapters, usually right at the start of Act II, right around where the “fun and games” (Save the Cat!) comes into play. It’s even more important for me to figure out what the theme is before the story’s fun and games, the promised concept, comes into play—because I could do literally anything, go in any direction with any novel, throw a bunch of explosions and murders and kissing and stabbings into the potion to see what happens.

Usually… the potion fizzles into an unappetizing muck. Knowing the point of the story—the theme, the spark, the soul, the heart of the book—is really was helps to organize my ideas. If this is a book about colonization and being stuck between privilege and oppression, chances are the conflicts will revolve around the colonizers and the islanders, like in Queen of the Conquered. If a book is about discovering self-love and self-worth in the face of transphobia, a character like Felix will need to face conflicts of transphobia and questioning their own worth until they discover that they are worthy of love.

I can have an amazing, rock star-level idea in mind for the “high concept” portion, but if I don’t have a point, a theme that helps to organize the story, then it falls apart. There’s no passion, no excitement, no questioning of humanity and pondering of what makes us all tick and no thinking, no feeling—just a bunch of meaningless scenes thrown together that leaves me asking myself, “What’s the point of this? Why I am writing this? Why am I reading it?”

One thing I’m discovering now as I work on a few WIPs is that it’s even better if there are multiple points and multiple questions, too. My favorites are when I legitimately don’t have an answer myself. Two questions drive both books for Queen of the Conquered and King of the Rising: do we need to play the oppressors’ game to win our freedom, or do we need to burn everything to the ground and start again? The answer is probably gray, murky, not an either/or situation; but the two protagonists, Sigourney and Løren, are each other’s antagonists as they symbolize each side of the question. They’re in a constant push and pull, a debate symbolized by the plot as they try to win against each other. The books originally started as me only wanting to tell a fantasy set in a Caribbean-inspired world. Again, there are an infinite number of possibilities for a plot set in a Caribbean-inspired world, so overwhelming that I could freeze thinking about which direction I’d want to go in. Asking myself the question, “Well, what’s the point of the story I want to tell?” helped me create guidelines, helped to create the DNA that would allow bones, flesh, skin to grow and create the story itself.

In my opinion, figuring out the point of the story might just be the easiest part of the writing process. We all have opinions, all have questions about our society, all have experiences that have sparked thoughts within us, and we all have lessons we’ve needed to learn in our lives, lessons we could have our characters learn as well. What is a lesson that we’ve had to learn to grow as human beings? What’s a question that we still grapple with, that we can use characters as debate pieces? With any of these elements, I think the point of the story will always come through, helping to eliminate the chance that someone might be left asking, "What's the point?"

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