The Forgotten Element of Story: The Author | Jane Friedman

The Forgotten Element of Story: The Author | Jane Friedman

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Today’s post is by book coach and Enneagram teacher Dani Abernathy.

Have you ever thought you put too much of yourself into your fiction?

You read through your manuscript and, woah, you are all over the page. It’s not just that characters reflect your own struggles, hopes, and personality traits, it’s that your hopes and fears are laid bare on the page. So you do your best to mute yourself. You alter characters, blunt your unadulterated emotions, make things a little less passionate. Writers aren’t supposed to put too much of themselves into their story, right?

Or maybe you’re the opposite. You don’t want your writing to seem biased, clouded by your own experiences. You shape your characters into people who don’t share your background, beliefs, or love for puppies in teacups, because good writers keep distance between themselves and the page.

Here’s what I think: the more closely connected you are to your story, the more impactful it will be.

Stories change people. They’re like a secret door, bypassing hatred and fear to engage the reader’s empathy, connection, and humanity. More than ever, we need true stories (even those set in fantasy worlds) that help people understand folks who aren’t like them. True stories don’t happen by keeping yourself separate from your story. They happen when you write bravely, honestly, and with purpose.

You are the most important part of your story.

It’s not your protagonist, or your plot, or your prose. You are the single irreplaceable element of your novel. You provide the life, meaning, and impact no one else can replicate. If story is a tree, you are the roots. The stronger the root system—the more connected you are to your story—the more vibrant, healthy, and enduring your tree will be. In my work with writers, I’ve seen how establishing your roots can get you unstuck, help you discover the story you really want to tell, and create a living narrative.

Here are three elements of yourself that can strengthen your story.

1. Your backstory

Our stories don’t come from a void, they come from the experiences, passions, wounds, families, and failures of our lives. No matter how much distance you try to establish between yourself and your novel, I guarantee that the seed of this book has been with you for a long time. When I ask my clients to explore their past in relation to their novel, they always find a link. When you identify how your novel was inspired by your own backstory, you’ll gain clarity about what this story means, excitement to keep going, and a greater sense of purpose.

Here are a few steps you can take to explore the ties between your novel and your past:

  1. List the most formative experiences of your life. These don’t have to be “big” moments. They can be small things that had a large impact.
  2. think about recurring events. Have you moved a lot? Do you have lifelong health struggles? Have you always felt like an outsider? Are all your childhood memories on the back of a horse?
  3. What are your passions and interests? List your current hobbies and those you’ve had throughout your life.
  4. Look for connections in your answers. What stands out to you? What ties these things together? What surprises you?
  5. Now consider your work-in-progress. Where do you see your backstory coming through in subtle or obvious ways? What does this reveal about your novel and why you’re writing?

2. Your values

Values influence every part of your life—your family, day job, relationships, habits, and yes, even your writing. When you understand and embrace your values, it gives you permission to go all in on them. If you realize your top value is love, the shame you sometimes feel about writing romance novels will vanish. When you embrace your value of excellence, you’ll stop beating yourself up for how long it takes to finish a project; excellence takes time. Identifying your values can provide clarity and direction in every area of your life, especially your writing.

Questions to find your values:

  1. When have you felt most alive, aligned, and purposeful?
  2. What do you most admire in other people?
  3. What makes you the angriest?
  4. Looking at your answers, identify three to seven values.

It takes time to find your values. If you found dozens of values, see if you can group them into categories like service, self-discovery, environmentalism, or comfort.

Whatever your values, I want to assure you that there are no wrong values. All values are legitimate and worthwhile. I encourage you not to manufacture values that seem noble and admirable, but to embrace your actual values. Trying to have someone else’s values will only lead you somewhere you don’t want to be. When we embrace the things we truly care about, we can move toward them and better not only our own lives but others’ as well.

3. Your impact

Most writers don’t think about the impact they want their writing to have. Perhaps you’ve considered your ideal reader, but reader avatar guides rarely reach the deepest levels of connection with your reader—the things that really draw your reader to your book like shared experiences and desires.

I teach writers to identify three levels of impact: world impact, reader impact, and self impact.

  • World impact: How you want to change the world through your book.
  • Reader impact: How you want your novel to speak to and affect your readers. This is the most obvious level of impact.
  • Self impact: How you want your book to change yourself. This is the hardest level of impact to find and the one least acknowledged. It can take years of therapy to realize what purpose this book is serving, so don’t worry if you can’t identify your self impact right away.

Finding your levels of impact will help you understand what you’re trying to accomplish through your writing. Yes, you want to write a book and get it into the world, but why? Why does it matter to you? What do you hope this book will do, for the world and yourself?

Use these questions to identify your levels of impact:

World Impact

  • If you got everything you wanted—the theme park, Netflix series, and bestseller status—what legacy do you want your book to have?
  • If your book was magic, what would it fix in the world?

Reader Impact

  • What do you want the reader to take away from your book? What do you want to linger with them?
  • If your book was magic, what would it change in your reader?

Self Impact

  • What questions are you trying to answer through your writing?
  • What wounds do you hope to heal?
  • If your book were magic, what would it change in your life?

Don’t write safe, write true.

If you want to write a book that impacts people on an emotional level, that changes them, don’t separate yourself from your story. You can only be as honest with the reader as you are with yourself, so take the time to understand how this story has grown from your experiences, is shaped by your values, and what you hope to accomplish through it. Embracing the you in your story can feel frightening, but it’s the best way to craft a novel that is truly unforgettable.

Dani Abernathy

Dani Abernathy is an Author Accelerator certified book coach and Enneagram teacher who helps people write the stories they need to tell so their readers can feel seen and can see others. She believes stories can change the world, one reader at a time, and that by embracing ourselves, we can write more impactful novels. Dani is an Enneagram 4, INFJ, Capricorn, and Generator. You can find her on Instagram or head to her website to take the Writing Superpower Quiz and learn about her year-long mentorship.

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