One of my instructors in Professional Writing, Sophie Lees, taught me and the rest of her class the difference between what a story is “about” and what it’s “aboutness” is. Though the two terms may seem interchangeable, they are, in fact, completely different.
You can tell what a story is about by the blurb on the back cover, the synopsis preceding it, the one or two sentence description. In other words, the about is the what of the story: what happens when protagonist meets antagonist and everyone fights and he saves the kingdom and everyone lives happily ever after The End. But the aboutness is a different beast altogether: it’s the why of the story. Not just the hero’s motivation or the villain’s overly complicated plot to overthrow the world. Rather, it’s the whole reason the story exists. It’s the purpose. Why is this story here in the first place?
I once tried to write a story about a guy working in Infrastructure Asset Management, and coming into work after a monster had torn through the city and destroyed most of the buildings. The story was about him having to deal with the colossal clean-up that was required. After spending a summer working in Infrastructure myself, I had more respect for how costly a building is and how devastating damage can be. Then when I watched Man of Steel or Pacific Rim, I could pretty much see the debt racking up with each new building that was razed to the ground. So with my story, sure it was fun to write and see the unseen side of every kaiju (or superhero, thanks Superman) versus city movie ever: the people who have to deal with rebuilding, and the unfathomable amount of political bureaucracy that goes into that. I got about two pages in, but couldn’t continue. I wasn’t able to write it because I couldn’t find its aboutness.
And, to be fair, some stories don’t have an aboutness to them. In fact, adding an aboutness to it would actually damage the story. Some stories exist simply to tell a good story, to show the audience a good time, not to reflect on the deeper meaning of life or the human spirit or anything like that. And that’s cool too, because sometimes you don’t need a deeper meaning to tell an enjoyable story. I mean, I’ve watched Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs more than any of the films it spoofs, from Star Wars to Alien, and I still laugh every time I watch it.
“Oh no. Not again.”
On the other hand, I’ve read stories that had clear aboutnesses right from the get-go. Friend and fellow writer Alexandra Elizabeth Harrison has the distinction of being the first student from our graduating class to be published in a literary magazine. So if you’re reading this, congrats Alex. Her story “The World Goes Mad (And It Needs Believers)” was published in the Spring 2013 issue of Grain. And really, what it’s about is pretty straightforward: a group of three travel across a post apocalyptic countryside, trying to find refuge in a world where art has been banished by the mysterious and dictatorial “Them”. But as the narrator, Ren, romanticizes the (possibly fictional) rebel hero Elliot who roused people to create art in defiance of “Them”, or dreams of being captured by “Them” and locked in a pure white room, which she proceeds to paint with her blood, the story is wearing its heart —it’s aboutness— on its sleeve, proudly beating and proclaiming its message to the reader: a world without art is a world without humanity. Other stories hide their aboutness deep in the subtext, in that unseen world between the lines where theme and metaphor and symbolism float just beneath the surface, and come up for air every now and then, such as in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
And so the question becomes, how do you find your story’s aboutness? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some writers just smash out their story and either let the aboutness find them as they write it, or look for it after the story has been written. Either way works. Others, like myself, won’t even start a story until I have a fairly decent idea what its aboutness is. Once I got it, the rest of the story follows close at hand. And that’s the beauty of it, too: your aboutness can change. Even if you’ve started with one direction, one aboutness in mind, that doesn’t mean you’ve gotta stick with it. Perhaps you’ll find a better aboutness, or perhaps you’ll settle firmly into an aboutness that’s comfortable and fits like a warm sweater. Even if you’re nearing the end of your story, you can always find your aboutness, or even change it.
And perhaps you’ll be able to find the aboutness in your own life as well.