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What is my first novel really about or as Robert McKee puts it, how do you find your story’s controlling idea? This is the question I have been mulling over for the past three weeks. Now, I do know the story, as I wrote the whole thing in virtual solitude over 3 months of constant writing – not quite Jack Torrance from The Shining, but solitude nonetheless. When I stood back from it (via the failed editing attempt of May/June), I was unable to put my finger on what the story was fundamentally about.My head reeled with the messages that filled the pages and I knew that all these messages had to sum up to something of importance. But what? What exactly was I trying to say and what did I want to tell the world??
When I found myself in my local book store in a last ditched attempt to salvage the remaining shreds of my writing confidence, I needed something that would spell out to me in layman’s terms the fundamentals of telling a story that readers like to read. My fear was that my manuscript was a jumbled up brain-dump of unstructured narrative that failed miserably to understand what it was really about or what it was trying to say?
I left my local book shop with Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ – the only book in the entire store about how to tell a story, albeit in the guise of screen-writing, but I figured the principles would transfer to novel-writing. The book was like a god-send, mapping out the elements of story-telling as if I had wished for the book to be presented as such. And then there is was, on page 117 – How do you find your story’s controlling idea? In other words, what have you been writing about for the past 80K words?
McKee advised to look at the ending, the climax of you work and ask two things:
1. ‘As a result of this climatic action, what value, positive or negative charged is brought into the world of my protagonist?’
2. ‘Tracing back from this climax, digging into the bedrock, ask: What is the chief cause, force, or means by which this value is brought into his world?
The sentence you compose from the answers of the two questions becomes your controlling idea.
After I finished this exercise I left my writing desk and went out to sit in the garden, reading the sentence I had written over and over again. I don’t think I was prepared for what I had written down. Fifteen minutes later, when I re-opened McKee’s book and read the remaining paragraph, McKee talks about how this exercise works as a form of ‘Self-Recognition’ and that you can be shocked by what you see reflected of yourself in your storys climax. I was floored.
This tiny exercise was both incredibly insightful yet also quiet unnerving but it has given me a whole new outlook and perspective on what I have written. It has opened my eyes to strong elements of my story that I was unaware of, I guess mostly because the book is about me. Thanks Mr. McKee, finally I think I understand something about myself that I could never quite put my finger on!