I’m a writer. I write novels and screenplays, and what I’ve learned over the last dozen years is every good story has a single controlling idea. All coherent tales express meaning veiled inside an emotional structure we call plot. A story should convey meaning. After all, what is entertainment? It’s the ritual of reading or watching a movie, investing tremendous concentration into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Anything else is just porn.
Plato once urged the city fathers of Athens to exile all poets and storytellers. He considered them a threat to society because writers conceal meaning inside the seductive emotions of art, rather than presenting them in the rational manner of philosophers. Plato insisted that storytellers were dangerous people. He was right.
The same is true today. Every effective story sends a charged idea to our brains. Yet the idea is often not at all obvious. In fact, many writers, myself included, end up writing a great deal of a story before it dawns on them what that controlling idea is.
It is often when a writer fashions the final climax that the story speaks its meaning. It is one of the most powerful moments in writing, when the writer recognizes him/herself in the story. The climax mirrors the writer’s inner self, and if the story has bloomed from the deepest sources within the writer, s/he will, more often than not, be surprised by what the story reflects.
A writer may think s/he is a warm and cuddly human being, until they write a tale of dark, cynical consequence. But if the author is letting his/her imagination drive the writing process, then what is hidden deep within will find its way onto the page. The writer will express truth, at least truth as they see the world.
So does a writer have a social responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity? I’m not sure that’s possible. A story tells the writer its meaning during the writing process; the writer doesn’t dictate meaning into the story.
I believe that the only responsibility the writer has is to tell the truth as they see it. So when you finish a story, s/he must ask themselves, what is the main idea expressed within the climax, and then ask if that idea is true.
A great story doesn’t give profound answers to difficult questions. It is a living metaphor that says, “This is life.” Stories, the classics, down through the ages, give us clarity, not solutions. They show the problems all generations face and must solve to be human. And that is why we all crave stories. We need them to understand the world around us.