Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Writing from Your Core Message - How to Create Fantastic Fiction or Nonfiction that Reaches the Heart of Your Audience

I recently wrote a "new" story that is getting some great attention. I put "new" in quotations because in reality the story isn't a new one for me in the sense that I've been developing this story for around ten years. But I only recently wrote it. When I did actually write it, I've been pleased with the positive attention it has been getting. By that I mean the kind of attention that may result in bringing it to a large audience. But I wanted to stop to evaluate why this story is getting this attention. Obviously I'd like to repeat the experience and create another story or two (or ten) that get positive attention. (Tweetable) So why do I think this story is receiving such attention? I'm so sure in my gut this is the answer: Because this story comes from the core of my being, the core of what I know to be true. In other words, this story required me to write from my core message.

There are stories that are created just for the sake of telling a story, to entertain. But a story from your core message goes deeper.  (Tweetable)

Defining What I Mean by "Core Message"

I so remember where and when this idea became solid for me. The idea of it floated in the back of my mind, and I think that's true for every writer. But it was when I attended the Act One Writing for Film & Television Program* in 2010 that co-founder Barbara Nicolosi put it into words. She not only presented the idea to us but also challenged us to create a story from our core truth -- a credo from our life -- and present that story to the class before we left that program.

Act One trains Christians for write for film and TV
in order to influence film and television
for Jesus Christ.
Barbara called it our "Credo story." I'm calling it a "core message." You may have another name for it. I can't remember much more about how Barbara explained this, so from here on this idea is filtered through my own thoughts and understanding.

But I do remember that I knew immediately what mine would be because I had the "credo" or core message in my heart. I already knew it. I was working to build a story to express it. I just was still learning how to structure a story to work out expressing it.

What Barbara called a "credo" I'm calling a "core message." It is a deep truth from your life that you know in the depths of your heart to be true. (Tweetable) I'd say it's most likely something you've learned through the hard knocks in life. It didn't come easy. (If it did, it's more a cliche everybody already knows.)

Mine was a lesson I learned, a truth that came from hard places and tragedies in my life. I lived it. I learned from it. I grew from it. And I found a truth that helped me when I lived it. That truth has become part of my core being. And I believe that our core messages can help others in the same way they help us -- if we'll share them.

Our core messages may be hard to share because they are so deeply personal. They are hard-fought and hard-won. But they are truths of life. (Tweetable) And that means they apply to others, not just to us.

Core messages are also positive in nature. At least I demand mine to be, because there's no sense in taking an audience to a negative place and leaving them there. If a core message is negative, then you haven't lived through to the positive outcome yet and it's too soon to try to share the message. (Tweetable)

So the question is, how do you come to your core message?

*If you apply to attend Act One, please note on your application that you heard it from me, Dianne E. Butts. Act One would want to know. Thank you for remember me when you contact them.

How to Discover Your Core Message

You may know yours immediately. You may already have lived it and discovered it and stated it in words that you know and remember in your heart. Now is the time to write it down.

If you aren't to the place where you can write it down, then I'll warn you it may be harder than you think. (Tweetable) But you can:

  • Brainstorm. Collect words that express your core message. Work until you can form a sentence. Don't stop there, but massage and tweak the message until you know that you know that you know it is hitting the target exactly. 
  • Mind Map it. Use a large piece of newsprint. Write your collected words you brainstormed on it and then group other ideas around each word. The purpose is to get to the point where you can articulate your core message in a sentence.
  • Articulate it. Write it down. Make it a statement. A Credo statement. This is much like writing a Thesis Statement which I wrote about in my December 2014 article. A Thesis Statement is any core message (even an assigned message) you want to express in an article or story. A Core Message statement is a truth or deeply held belief from your own life.
  • Give yourself permission to own more than one Core Message. (Tweetable) I find if I limit myself to the core message, or one core message, I then have this battle raging about which one is most important. As if I only get one! No, you can have more than one. Just pick one for each story. Articulate it. Write about it, whether in fictional story or in nonfiction memoir or other. To write another story, pick another core message.

Develop Your Core Message Into a Story

Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, short pieces or long, you can develop a meaningful piece of writing out of your Core Message. (Tweetable) Please understand when I use the word "story" here, it could mean either fiction or nonfiction.

For mine, I wanted to express my "Credo Story" in a long story, meaning a novel, a feature-length screenplay, or both.

So I wanted to build a fictional story around my Core Message to express that message. This is where learning about story structure really helped me. In order to build your story around your core message, think about these points:

  • Create a story that expresses all sides of the issue involved. (Tweetable) Doing so allows you to show what happens when life is lived in contradiction to your core truth.
  • Develop story lines that look at the issue from all sides. This gives your story conflict in different views.
  • Use these different views to create "B stories," which are subplots.

In my opinion, as writers we don't just write a story. We have to build a story. We build brick upon brick. We journey through life step after step. We build or develop a story in the same way. (Tweetable)

  • Let it percolate. Let your story cook long enough to be fully cooked. You can't rush this anymore than you can rush growing up. You can only "rush" the expression of it by forcing yourself to do the hard part of articulating a fully-cooked core truth. If you never sit down to do this hard work of putting it into words, it can cook forever and you still won't have your core message in a concrete form. It will be there, but it will be in the mush that's cooking.

Tips for Developing Your Core Message Story

Along the way of my own writing journey, I've picked up some tips I've learned from mentors. Let me share some with you:

  • Don't be afraid to say it out loud in your story. I've often heard or been taught in workshops or writing articles that we should not start with a message. I think that's nonsense. (Tweetable) If we want our writing to be meaningful where else would we start? (For contrast, I've heard over and over in workshops and such we should start with an interesting character. Fewer teachers allow us to start with an interesting plot.) I say, start with something you really want to say. A core message.
  • Don't be so subtle no one "gets it." Again, we are told to keep it subtle, but from what I've seen subtlety often means the message is either missed or misunderstood. (Tweetable) I'd rather we simply state our message outright. Done well, it works.
  • Don't be preachy. The above cautions are so we don't come off as "preachy." Of course we don't want to be preachy. That turns off an audience. I'm sure you can figure out for yourself what preachy is. You already know not to do that. Sometimes we have to start preachy and then work through it to find a way to work out of it while leaving the message. It can be done. Take careful steps to make sure your final product is not preachy. (Some will call you preachy even when you're not.)
  • Let a character state your core message at the beginning.  Besides Act One, I've attended many other screenwriting and story-building workshops. I remember in a screenwriting class taught by Dr. Ted Baehr that he encouraged us to go ahead and state the theme (I consider that our core message) outright and up front. That is the direct opposite of what I've been taught elsewhere, but I agree with this! Ted taught that in movies, a character (often not the main character) states the theme of the movie or story in the beginning of the story. (Tweetable) I'd never notices that. But when I did, I then saw that the story develops and "lives out" that theme, and at the end we come back around to that core message, which is now a "truth." Watch for this the next time you watch a well-written movie.
  • Don't be afraid to have an agenda. Again, this is from Ted Baehr. Again, this is the opposite of what we usual are taught. However I remember him encouraging Christian writers to go ahead and have an agenda. He reminded us that everyone else in Hollywood has an agenda! Christians can too. (Tweetable) Others are not afraid to let their agenda be known. Christians can too. So go ahead and have an agenda...and let it be known in your story. This is not wrong. This is, instead, freeing.

Core Messages Reach the Heart of Your Audience

I believe writing from my core message produced a story that is reaching hearts on a deep level, and that is why it is gaining positive attention from people of influence. (Tweetable) There are stories that are written solely to entertain. But stories from our core, from the deepest part of our heart, that speak the deep truths we've learned from the hardest places in our lives, hold truth and meaning that connects with other people in a way that is far beyond just entertainment.

Stories from our Core not only reach hearts and minds, they change hearts and minds. While an audience may not be able to understand why some stories stick with them, hold onto them, and will not let them go, it is because that story is burrowing deep into their souls. (Tweetable) That causes change. That is what story, in its true purpose, is for.

That's the kind of story I want to write. Again and again.

Please Note...

  • New E-Book! Check out my newest e-book coming soon. If you have a book out, or plan to, you'll want to find ways to let people know your book exists. One great way to do that is to hold a book signing at a book store. That can be intimidating...until you do a few. In this new e-book I share what I've learned, what I've done right and wrong, and how to make a book signing work for you.

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