We celebrate the Republic day of India on the 26th of Jan. This is the 68th year of India’s republic. On this occasion I would like to talk about writing socially relevant stories.
The trick with writing socially relevant stories is telling people something they already know in a way that seems fresh and intriguing. This is simple, very simple. But it isn’t easy. Simplicity would be the salt, the ingredients, and the garnishing of your story. Imagine your story as a gift on your birthday. Now you would expect a gift, but still the unwrapping should build the excitement. If the wrapping is unduly complicated and convoluted you would feel a twinge of agitation. You see when you expect a gift, unnecessary craftwork is a pain. The wrapping has to be inviting and a bit of a tease but, nevertheless, simple. This is very important while writing a socially relevant story. The wrapping is the body and structure, and the gift is the message. As you saw in my previous post, let’s divide the story into three parts; the set-up; the body; and the conclusion.
The set-up in a socially relevant story can be in two ways; direct or indirect. Direct set-up is when you just jump into the obvious concept of the story. Let’s see an example with the backdrop of the Republic day.
“It was a cold morning that day, I remember, and I sat on the floor snuggled in a blanket. I had taken up this position in front of my television, eagerly awaiting the live coverage of the Republic day parade. It had been a long weekend and my cousins had stayed over at my house. They were already playing and chasing each other. It didn’t bother me. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is not like everyday, its special’.”
As you see here, in the first few lines, you can decipher the body of the story. You know the basic concept of the story deals with the parade on the Republic day. A reader can expect an easy and simple perspective of an innocent child. You can use this to put the reader at ease. This way you can control the pace of the story effectively and the reader would, probably, follow you. In a direct set-up, all the essential elements of the main story line are shown outright. This is also effective while writing a historical piece where the reader is already expected to know the major details of the events being covered. For example, if you choose to write about Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and his efforts while leading the development of the constitution, you can expect the reader to already know the major facts. The trick here then would be to create a sense of belonging by humanizing all aspects of the struggle and make it relatable.
The indirect set-up, as it is obvious by now, would involve creating an elaborate introduction without giving away the concept. Let’s see the same example (That morning) with an indirect set-up.
“Five more minutes, I thought to myself. I might have said it aloud as I felt my mother shaking me up. I sat up from my bed, still drowsy and obviously unsatisfied. It wasn’t fair, I thought, and it was quite apparent on my face. My father guessed by discomfort and sat beside me. He put his arm around me as I tried to snuggle back to sleep. It was a holiday, incidentally a nice long weekend, and I just wanted to crawl back into bed. It was a cold morning, I still remember.”
In the first few sentences here, the reader would not be able to figure out the path the story would take. Then when it actually becomes apparent, it may come as a surprise. This is an interesting tool, but has to be used judicially. You should manage the expectations of the reader, and not take them for granted. You should divulge just enough to keep the reader hooked. The indirect set-up is effective when you have to showcase a known fact in a fresh perspective. If you were to tell a person that he or she should respect the Republic day, they would just reply by saying, ‘That’s obvious’ and probably ask you to get off your high horse. A reader doesn’t like to be patronized. You can, however, present the same concept by making the reader feel random emotions before revealing your main message. This sudden change would create the illusion of freshness and the reader would consider your ‘often-stated’ fact as a reassuring and original suggestion. It doesn’t matter if it has all been done before; you can still be different and unique.
The body of your story would capture and exhibit most of your concept. You have to increase the pace of your story in this area, irrespective of how you started. A reader can understand your message either in terms of logic or in terms of emotion. I always prefer the later. The actual socially relevant message would, generally, be something that the reader has come across many times. The reader would even agree with and believe in that message. In such a case, catering to the logic of the reader might seem banal. As a writer, I would rather create a relatable situation to create an emotional high, or at least an emotional surge. I would try to get some of the adrenaline flowing. It is not enough to give a socially relevant message. It is, at times, more important to remind the reader, why he or she believes or should believe in the message. Let’s see the example of the story mentioned above with the direct set-up. Let’s continue with its message.
“My aunt, who was also with us, picked up the remote and changed the channel. I had heard a lot about the parade from my teachers and I didn’t want to miss it. I tried to cajole her into switching it back to the parade. She smiled in a way that seemed distant and all-knowing. She said that there was nothing new in the parade. According to her, if you have seen one, you have seen them all. It’s just a bunch of people showing off, and then you never see them all year. At that age, it was a little above my pay-grade in terms of experience and knowledge. I got bugged and said out loud that it was my first parade. My mother came in from nowhere and reprimanded me for talking to my aunt like that. It was a little funny how no one even bothered to hear me out. My aunt did, however, switch the channel back to the parade. Everyone around me then began discussing the perils of the country.”
The body given here is not so unusual or unrelatable. It is something that you might see in any average household. Every citizen has an opinion about their country and the freedom of speech entitles them to express it. You can initiate a discussion with such experienced and knowledgeable people and you will have a conversation filled with ‘but’, ‘only if’, or ‘I hope’. Everyone has the right to discontent. I have created a scene where there is apparent discontent, but I have a fresh mind in the middle, as the incenter. So it all becomes suddenly a perspective story. You can always state a contradictory argument to your concept within your story; this goes a long way in making your story seem realistic. Of course, then you have to create a compelling counter argument to reinstate your message. This leads us to the conclusion.
Let’s just jump into the story where we just left it.
“The ‘elders’ gathered around me voicing their concerns right from the country’s governance to the smog. It was more information than I could digest. I don’t remember much that was said but I do remember the statement, ‘Forget it, it’s pointless’. Just then I caught sight of the flag onscreen. The flag was being hoisted by the Prime Minister. I dumped my blanket and jumped up to stand straight. Perhaps the elders were a little surprised and confused, but I didn’t notice much as my eyes were stuck on the flag. I heard giggles which grew into laughter. My cousins began calling me names. I felt a little twinge of sadness. Then it began. The national anthem. My father decreased the volume and asked me to settle down. I felt a tear roll down my cheek, and I knew they were right before, so I said to myself, ‘Forget it, it’s pointless’. I raised my hand slowly and took it to forehead in a salute. I stood as erect as I could. And I began singing the national anthem. People looked at each other stunned. I went on, I didn’t care anymore. All I cared about was the flag. My cousins came beside me and sang with me. They too raised their hands in a salute. I think it was my aunt who stood up next, and then before I knew it, I heard all of their collective voices behind me. We all sang together, stood together, all as one. When it was all done, my father hugged me. I remember that day more than any other day. Maybe because that led me to grow up with one thought, it’s never pointless.”
This conclusion has a very simple message. But it is wrapped in a situation that would create interest and sustain it. More importantly, it creates an image in the mind of the reader. Delivering a compelling message is important but it’s only half the work. You have to create a false memory in the mind of the reader. A false memory is something that didn’t actually happen but still seems like an actual memory. The idea is that when your message, or scene, occupies this space, the reader is likely to remember it far longer. You can always play around with how you showcase your message. You just have to make sure that it gets ample attention. Your message, in a socially relevant story, is the star of the show. It should get center stage. You want the reader to recall the story when they think of the message.
I want to deliver my own message through this post. When you celebrate the Republic day, remember that it’s never pointless. Enjoy it.