Saturday, January 31, 2015

What "The Story Knows Best" Really Means, by KM Weiland

When writers start talking about the autonomy of their stories, non-writers are likely to give us looks that range from confused to concerned, especially when our comments include the following: 

"Nothing was working for me until I quit fighting my story and let it do what it wanted." 

"I have no control over my story. I just sit back and let it take off."

"My characters made me do it."

"The story knows best."

These comments may sound like wild exaggerations to our listeners, but, in truth, we mean every word of them. Our stories often do seem to have minds of their own, and those minds usually seem to understand the subtleties of story craft much better than we do.

What does this idea that the story knows best really mean?

As our by now nervous non-writing friends would be quick to point out, a story isn't a conscious entity. It can't know anything. Our characters are just figments of our imagination. Outside of our own minds and the words we've put on paper, they don't exist, much less exercise control over us or our story worlds. How can we claim to "listen to the story" when the story is an emanation of ourselves?

To some extent, the phrase the story knows best is a pie-in-the-sky concept used by writers to describe the indescribable. When you're in the throes of creative passion, hammering away at words that seem to appear on your computer screen faster than you can think of them, when the story does things you never planned for it to do, when your characters take the bit in their teeth and gallop away onto trails unknown-that's something almost too magical to put into words. How do you explain any of that to someone who's never experienced it, when you can barely grasp it yourself?

We can't. So we say the story did it. Or our characters took charge. Or we were just a conduit through which higher inspiration could flow.

None of that is really true.

What’s true is this:
The story doesn’t know best. The characters don’t know best. You know best.
Yes, you.
When we say the story knows best what we really mean is “our subconscious story sense knows best.” Even when we can’t consciously articulate what we’re feeling, something deep inside of us understands how to craft our stories into something perfect. Every author needs to make a point of not just acknowledging this underlying story sense, but of recognizing it in action and refining his ability to interpret and channel it.
Talking about how our “stories know best” is a fun and easy way to describe the process—but it not only sells us short, it can also inhibit our ability to see that story sense for what it really is and to work toward harnessing it in perfect tandem with our conscious, logical story skills. The next time you’re talking about your story with a hapless non-writer, let that twinkle in your eye shine out as you unnerve him with your announcement that your story knows best. But don’t forget to remind yourself that, really, it’s your inner story sense doing all the heavy lifting.

About the Author:

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors. Her newest writer's help book, Conquering Writer's Block, released in December, 2014.


  1. Thanks so much for having me today!

  2. First off, I want to say thank you for Structuring Your Novel. There are a number of points in there that I'd never considered when writing my first novel, but have definitely worked their way into my current WIP :)

    Now then, regarding this topic, I can ALMOST agree with you 100%. I think there is, however, a point where the story DOES in fact take control... or should. Agreed, it is NOT a conscious entity, but it does in fact have a life apart from your own, a set of rules and regs that, while originating with you, are necessarily binding to itself in ways that do not bind you. This is an important point, I feel, because we as writers tend to want to control the world of our making -- sometimes to the contradiction of the world that we have made.

    Example: Billy Bob has XYZ attributes, and he tends to act in XYZ way, but in this situation, I want him to do ABC. This is OUT OF CHARACTER for Billy Bob, but it's where I want the story to go. If we do this without showing how ABC is actually AGREEABLE to XYZ, we create an inconsistency in the story, and the reader must suspend disbelief.

    Of course, you already know this. You referenced it in your book ;-)

    The point is, in such a case, you've laid a foundation for "now" earlier in your story, and now, while YOU might like to take the story in this direction moving forward, the story that you have ALREADY ESTABLISHED has enough life, enough separation from the author, that it demands to be taken in a DIFFERENT direction. I would say that THIS is, in fact, legitimizes the claim that the story writes itself.

    Well, at least for me it does. I mean, my own story made me say that ;-)

  3. Actually, I totally agree. It's just that when "the story takes over" what is really happening is that our subconscious creativity is taking over.