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If you don't know what to write fiction about, write about this. 

How game shows changed my writing.

By Kieren WestwoodPublished 2 years ago 4 min read

A little while ago, I figured out what I want to write fiction about, maybe for the rest of my life. I want to tell you what that is, in case you feel the same. 

I've been writing fiction for over ten years now, with varying degrees of skill and success (not always in as straight a line as you would think) and many times I've asked myself:

What am I going to write about? 

I daresay every writer asks themselves that from time to time, staring at a blinking cursor, or tapping a pen on a notebook, but we normally think of this question in a certain way. 

We think - what's the story, what's going to happen? 

But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm not about to profess that there's one great way to come up with a plot, or a universally appealing story, or a formula for keeping readers interested. I don't believe in that stuff. 

I'm not talking about plot or events either. In fact, the way I figured out what to spend my life writing about wasn't from reading novels I love or short fiction I admired, I was just listening to music one day. 

My record playerThere's this song. Not a popular one, for whatever releveance that has, not one you're likely to hear on the radio, but it taught me a very valuable lesson. 

As I exhaled air out of my nose at its bleak and clever lyrics and its stark but weirdly beautiful subject matter, I realised this song was a story. As much of a story as any novel or any short fiction I've read. 

It's a story that knows what it's about, and that's why it's so good. 

And it's about game shows. 

I know what you're thinking. Game shows? Really?

But that's exactly my point. It's not really about game shows. It's not about the events, what's happening, it's about everything else. 

If you listen to the song, all the lyrics are poignant, but I'll quote a particular few lines, the ones that taught me what to write fiction about. They're the lines that made the penny finally drop for me. 

Game Shows Touch Our Lives by the Mountain GoatsWhat those lines are about, as I've said, isn't events or happenings. In fact what they're about is hard to pin down, but when we're listening to the song, we feel them. We recognise them. 

That's why I exhaled air out of my nose and smiled sadly to myself on the very first listen, years ago. It's because these lines have the unfathomable ability to comprehend and translate parts of life that are nameless and fleeting and often momentary. 

They're about the gaps in between our lives, the lost moments of no importance, yet all the importance in the world. They're about how the mundane can be profound, if we catch it in just the right light.

Turn the volume up real high

All of that money look at it fly

And you smoking like a chimney

Shadows crawled across the living room's length

I held onto you with a desperate strength

With everything with everything in me

There's no epic journey of discovery or battle to the death in these lyrics, yet they tell a story. Better yet, they tell a story that is universal, that every listener can understand and relate to in their own way. 

They're about that ghost in all of our lives. That feeling, or irritation, or habit that we know as the human condition. We can't see it, we can't really understand it, we can't fix it, but it's always there. 

Sometimes we feel it more than other times. When we do, it reminds us of our vulnerability and our smallness and sometimes our insignificance, as we exist as simply one of billions. 

Carried you up the stairs that night

All of this could be yours if the price is right

I heard cars headed down to oblivion up on the expressway

But the thing is, though these moments may remind us of that insignificance and the unavoidable fact that, as my wife Hayley always puts it, 'we're just specks on a rock floating through space', they also remind us that we're not alone in our insignificance. 

That is what stories are made of. That is what I'm going to write about. 

You can have that epic journey, you can have that action-packed battle, but to me, the story isn't found there. It's found in the inbetween moments. The traveller finds it sitting at their campfire, wondering if they really escaped anything by leaving. The warrior finds it staring blankly at the walls of their tent, hands trembling and armour bloody and dented. 

It's those nameless inbetween moments that I think are the most worth writing about. It's those moments, hearing distant cars on the expressway, watching shadows crawl across the floor, and trying not to think about the state of that rock we're all floating through space on, those are the ones that will connect with readers. Those are the ones that will stick with them, I think. 

Here's my favourite line of the whole song, the one that gives me shivers every time I hear it. 

Our house sinking into disrepair

Ah but look at this showroom filled with fabulous prizes

It might sound bleak but to me it's not bleak at all. It reminds me that I'm far from the only person that thinks too much and still can't figure out what the hell any of this is about. The human condition. 

So, if you're a fiction writer and you're wondering what to write about. You'll find your story, we always do eventually, but a simple suggestion from me would be to think less about the huge moments and more about the small, quiet ones, the before and afters.  

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is a fiction author himself, which makes total sense. I think we should do what he did, focus on the inbetween moments, those are where the real meaning comes from. 

We should try to do the impossible and translate those moments and parts of life that are nameless and universal and transitory, so that some reader, somewhere, can recognise them too. 

That's what I'm going to try to do, anyway. 

Thanks so much for reading. I make videos about writing too, here's my latest!


About the Creator

Kieren Westwood

Kieren Westwood is writer of short fiction and novels usually focussed on the meeting point of literary and crime fiction. He also shares writing experience and flash fiction on his YouTube channel.

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