Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Stories with Soul
October 13, 2003
Exchange between Orson Scott Card and John Brown
I just finished Crichton's Prey and when I finished I felt hollow. There was no swelling of
triumph or joy or anything really. Yet the story was clear and quick. There were some cool ideas.
I DID have a number of problems with belief, but I think it's more than that. I've noticed this with
a number of stories lately--I finish them and they have no soul. I don't feel edified or a catharsis
or a triumph. It resolves and I think: Hm, ok, now that's done, hm.
So here's the question. What gives a story that soul, that resonance? Here's what I'm thinking. It,
of course, must be clear and believable, otherwise I don't enter the story. But it must go beyond.
It seems I need these elements to take it to the next level:
1) POV penetration--motive, reactions--and not the most obvious always, sometimes needs a
twist, I think.
2) Quirky characters for variety.
3) Noble characters--altruism, honesty, humility, all the traditional values...
4) A story that has the dramatic soul to it--savior, sacrifice--the hero gives up something to do a
great good for others and self. He may win or lose, but he performs a great sacrifice.
5) The reader feels the dramatic anxiety for the character--wants something for the character. I
think this is the result of 3 and 4.
6) A plot that doesn't just follow one question. There's got to be a variety of story questions. (I
don't know about this last one.)
Your thoughts? Or is the answer simply everything you wrote in your characters and viewpoint
about what we should feel for characters? Or is this simply a matter of taste again and there are
no principles that apply broadly?
Part of what gives the story a "soul" is the reader. Stories you would have believed in years ago,
you now recognize as a familiar pattern. They don't stir you because you've become too
sophisticated for that particular kind of story.
Sometimes when a story fails to have a soul, it's because the writer has become jaded with his
own stories. Maybe he or she only had a few stories they deeply cared about and believed in, and
they've already told those stories. Or maybe it's because they're trying to "write well" and by
following someone else's rules it's killing their stories. Or maybe they're terrified of losing
something and so they're imitating their own past success/es in order to try to recapture what
Or maybe you as a reader aren't yet ready to receive what the writer is giving, so the story leaves
you cold - after more experience or more reading, or simply more years, you may find a cold
story to be much more powerful than you imagined.
But one thing is certain: You, as a writer, can't be thinking about that sort of thing. "What's the
formula for deeply honest, moving writing?" Think about it for a minute, and you'll realize that
this is precisely the question that probably got a lot of writers into trouble ...
Alright, I've thought about it, and I want to make sure I'm crystal clear on this. You're saying:
1) Soul comes from both the reader and the writer.
2) To read a story with soul, a reader needs to care about and believe in the story. Each reader
comes to the story with different experience. A story may be hollow because, for that ONE
reader, it's too familiar, trite, or complex; the language may be too impenetrable; or it's simply be
about something the reader doesn't care about. Or for other reasons, but as a writer, I have NO
control over what a reader brings to my story. I try to make it accessible to as many as possible
by being clear, but that's all I can do.
3) For me to write a story with soul, I need to FIRST care about and believe in the story. That's
the beginning. If I try instead to begin (a) by following some set of "bestseller"
rules/requirements listed by others or even a list of common elements I create through analysis of
my favorite stories, or (b) by trying to write the same story I wrote in the past (isn't that what you
did with Ender and Songbird?), then I may tell a story (if that's even possible), and it may
perhaps resonate with some readers, but that's not likely. It's not likely because I'm writing blind--guessing at what moves instead of feeling it.
So the conclusion is to quit worrying about small things like how much dialogue or pov
penetration or if I have the funny sidekick or the right size for my chapters. Instead, make up
stuff, steal what works (structures, magic systems, dramatic situations, conversations, character
types, settings, etc.), reject what does not--just invent a story I believe in and care about. If I start
out copying things I like in someone else's work or working within a set of parameters or rules
because we all invent within parameters of genre & form--it's going to be YA mystery novel--that's fine. The gauge is not in ticking off a list of elements in my story that have been in others,
although I may steal them if they work. The gauge is that I believe and care about the story.
Is that what you're saying?
You got it.
In truth, you'll learn those "small things" like you learn "figures of speech" in a language - you
use them when they seem appropriate, and ignore them when they don't. And your skills increase
all the time. But the most important thing is always the honest outpouring of what you truly
believe in and care about, using all your skills to make it as clear and accessible to the widest
possible audience you can reach without violating the truth of the tale.