How is it that some stories endure far beyond the lifetime of their author? Shakespeare is a prime example. His plays not only endure, they adapt to modern settings, and yet people still recognize Romeo and Juliet even when it’s called West Side Story because the idea behind it is unchanged. Ideas are the questions the story raises, and the answers it chooses to provide. In Romeo and Juliet the idea centers around two people who wish to be together, but social/cultural forces oppose them, man vs. society.
Every story poses questions, framing them in the context of the narrative. Some stories focus on moral or philosophical questions, emphasizing the issue with a combination of allegory, symbolism, and exaggeration; stories like Animal Farm and the tales of Paul Bunyan. The characters are reduced to archetypes and stereotypes so that they express a few simple ideas.
Romeo & Juliet is a romance, but it’s also an idea story. Two individuals are pressured to conform, to abandon their personal desires for the sake of the community. What should they do? Who is right? To what extent does society impose on individuals? These are the questions that linger in the background as audiences watch the story unfold.
Other stories express the question openly through a puzzle or mystery. Crime stories are a prime example; where the protagonist is either a criminal planning his crime, or a detective trying to solve it. First the story establishes how difficult the task is, often making it seem impossible. Then the characters demonstrate their skills by incrementally chipping away at the problem, while also keeping the audience in the dark. This helps build up anticipation for the big reveal at the climax, where the full scope of the solution is revealed all at once, leaving the audience in awe of the characters’ achievement.
Handling Difficult Topics
No subject should be taboo, but some subjects require extra care, violence for example. Throughout history cultures have debated what warrants the use of violence. If you write a story featuring violence it’s important to provide a context and perspective on it through the characters, especially the protagonist. If the protagonist ignores it, that suggests such acts should be considered normal, both in the world of the story, and to a lesser extent in the real world. To avoid normalizing or condoning, use a combination of justification and penalties.
Justification is the idea that the alternative was worse. If we don’t put this man in prison he will hurt many other people. But justification is rarely used without penalties, and some actions can never be justified.
Penalties are any negative outcome. If the perpetrator is a protagonist then their penalties are often emotional; reluctance beforehand, coupled with guilt afterwards, but can also include a social stigma, and perhaps legal punishments such as imprisonment or death.
If the perpetrator is an antagonist then the story clearly establishes that they are wrong, and suffer severe punishments, often leading to their downfall and/or death.
The key is to have a character express some mix of reluctance, guilt, fear, anger, and/or revulsion towards the questionable activity. This helps show the audience that not everyone accepts it.
Finding Meaning in a Story