Writing big topics for the small page, by Jess Gately

[Image Description: A silhouette of a soldier carrying another soldier who is presumably injured or dead across an empty battlefield. The text reads ‘The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.’]

Maybe you’ve seen this quote before. Maybe you haven’t. These famous words by Richard Price have been a guide for writers all over the world wanting to express some of the biggest and most abstract issues that face the world.

Technology and, in particular, television and the internet have brought many of the biggest issues in the world to people who would otherwise have never been exposed to it. Things like war, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, cultural appropriation, mental health, divorce, abortion, loss, grief, marriage, parenting, celebrity culture… the list goes on and on and the ideas are big and in our face all day, every day through news and social media. The concepts can feel so big that they are abstract. But they’re also real and can feel so close to home.

It’s no wonder therefore that as writers we’re drawn to write about these ideas. We’re also told that good writing is writing that makes you think. Award-winning stories are those that discuss big ideas. But writing about big ideas is also where a lot of writers go wrong.

It’s common for those approaching these sorts of topics for the first time to feel they need to write big epic stories that show the extent of a problem. It’s something we see quite commonly at Underground when we receive work from new writers. While the message is clearly there, it doesn’t hit home with any strength. The hugeness of these concepts makes them hard to grasp, hard to feel for, when we talk about them on that epic scale. Both as writers and readers we need to bring the story back down to something small and manageable.

But how do you do this? How do you bring such high-flying issues back down to Earth? The key is in simplicity.

In a YouTube video from Heinemann Publishing, author Ralph Fletcher describes how he, for example, might approach the concept of senility and aging. He describes how his grandfather was a proud man who was always impeccably dressed. He never had a hair out of place. One day, his grandfather comes down for breakfast, and he notices that his belt is sitting outside one of the loops on his grandfather’s trousers. He says nothing but six months later he notices when his grandfather arrives that his belt is now sitting outside two of the loops on his grandfather’s pants.

You can see how Ralph’s story might continue, with his grandfather steadily declining. Rather than starting with an unkempt elderly man who doesn’t quite remember anything, he instead starts with a proud and agile man and shows the gradual decline to make his statement on the process of aging.

‘You have to trust that your reader can make the jump to the bigger issue’, he says. In this way, we can see how he’s used small moments to paint big pictures.

So now it’s your turn to try! Whatever big issue it is that’s nagging at you, it’s fine. You CAN write about it. But here’s some things you need to focus on if you want your reader to feel as strongly as you about it:

  1. Who is the face of your topic?

Thousands of faceless soldiers are not as engaging as that one soldier sitting fearfully in a truck with a gun he’s never fired at a living target before. A room full of A-list actors aren’t going to stand out as much as that one old woman standing in the corner who used to work in the silent movies and was a big star until the ‘talkies’ took off. A nation full of people in poverty is harder to grasp than that one child who hasn’t eaten in days and her brother is sick. 

  1. What is their goal?

Ok yeah, they’re trying to survive, but what do they personally want? If we work on from the examples above, maybe the soldier joined the war because he’s trying to protect his best friend who is headstrong and brave but not particularly smart? Perhaps the old silent actor wants to be famous again or maybe she’s glad that she doesn’t have to run every comment through a publicist for fear it might go out in the daily news. Maybe the young girl whose brother is sick has to trek for three days to reach the nearest town to get medicine for her brother.

  1. What part of the topic do they represent?

Your character cannot possibly represent every single nuanced angle of the topic that you want to discuss, so don’t try. Pick one or two main things about your topic that you want to convey and stick to them. The issue is big. Your job is to make it small. Your job is to take just one part of that issue and make it manageable for the reader. If you really feel like you need to add complexity, then add in meetings with other characters or situations but don’t let those moments overtake the main story.

If you’re struggling to identify which angle you should take perhaps it’s time for another quote:
‘As a writer, you try to listen to what others aren’t saying… and write about the silence.’ – N.R. Hart.

Making a big issue small falls within the same line of thinking of show don’t tell. It requires that you trust your reader to make the connections on their own. It’s a scary step to take but it’s a necessary one and your writing will be all the better for it.

If you’d like further examples of making the big issues small, I’ve included a list of recommended books, movies, tv shows, and graphic novels that have tackled some very big issues very successfully. Check these out look at how they’ve used characters and their personal moments to bring these big issues to life.

On the topic of war, check out the movie Grave of the Fireflies directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Don’t let the animation fool you, you’ll need a box of tissues for this heart-wrenching story about the horrors of war on the home-front.

On the topic of systematic racism, check out Claire G. Coleman’s debut book Terra Nullius which explores how society creates ‘others’ in order to justify otherwise questionable behaviour.

On the topic of living with disability, check out the Defying Doomsday anthology edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench which tackles how people with disabilities might survive apocalyptic events better than their ‘able-bodied’ counterparts due to the day-to-day experiences they’ve faced prior.

On the topic of politics, check out the graphic novel or the movie adaptation V for Vendetta, which examines how governments manipulate people to gain more power.

On the topic of casual racism, check out Oscar winning movie Get Out written and directed by Jordan Peele which explores the subtle racism experienced by people of colour in modern society.

On the topic of what it means to be human, check out Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was also adapted into the movie Bladerunner directed by Ridley Scott, which questions what it is that makes us human.

On the topic of domestic abuse, check out Holly Ringland’s debut novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, which follows the fallout of a girl trapped in a history of domestic abuse.

On the topic of society’s view of AIDS, check out Oscar winning movie Dallas Buyers Club directed by Jean-Marc Valee, which follows the experiences of a man diagnosed with AIDS and the misconceptions around the disease. This movie also raised a lot of attention for examining society’s view of transgender people.

On the topic of environment, check out the graphic novel Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean which examines the link between humans and nature and the way humans exploit nature.

On the topic of education, if you’re prepared for something a bit zany and different check out Yusei Matsui’s manga Assassination Classroom (or you can check out the anime adaptation) which explores how modern education systems are designed to fail certain students and what it takes to help those students get back on track.

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