Writer’s Weekend Edition – Writing About Issues

Desiree Burch, Writing Excuses Guest, Episode 11.45

Desiree Burch, Writing Excuses Guest, Episode 11.45

It’s no secret that I’m an avid fan of the fabulous podcast, Writing Excuses, hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. I have learned so much by listening to these smart, funny, generous authors and their many guests. This season’s series is about “Elemental Genres,” a fascinating topic that has given me a whole new perspective on what defines the different kinds of stories we write  and why readers love them.

The November 6th episode was relevant not only as a continuation of the conversation on writing craft, but also in the context of all that is happening on the global stage. The elemental genre the panel tackled in episode 11.45 is “Issue,” and in addition to sharing their own insights, the usual team welcomed actor, writer, and comedian Desiree Burch as their guest.

In the wake of the U.S. presidential election that took place earlier this week, I have heard from many writer and artist friends and acquaintances who are struggling with a wide variety of hard questions: How do I find the energy and heart to create? How much of my personal belief system should I incorporate into my stories? Is the writer really separate from the writing? What’s my purpose as a writer? How can my writing help me become the change I want to see in the world? And so on.

I don’t have silver-bullet answers for those questions. I believe that the answers to those kinds of questions are very personal and unique to each individual. As I’ve been thinking about my NaNoWriMo novel, I’ve begun to tease out the themes that drive my primary plot and subplots. Listening to this podcast, I realized that I may be writing a hybrid (note: most stories are hybrids when it comes to elemental genres) that includes aspects of Wonder and Issue.

I encourage everyone who wants their stories to “make people think” to listen to this episode.  It’s only twenty minutes long, but there’s a lot of great information and inspiration. Here are a few “teaser highlights” that really struck home for me.

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Understand the Balance Between Feeling and Thinking

Mary points out that while other elemental genres typically want to make the reader feel something,  stories in the Issue elemental genre want the audience to think about something.

While Mary’s 30,000-foot statement is ultimately true, Desiree also points out that, “Getting [readers] to think about something goes hand in hand with them feeling things … for the most part, people don’t do one or the other. They do a kind of back and forth of both.” So, being specific and making a story really personal is also a good way to amp up your ability to make the reader feel something, which will – in turn – get them thinking.

Stay off the Soap Box

The biggest risk with stories in the elemental Issue genre is that they might become preachy or polemic. The key to avoiding this trap is to remember that Issue stories raise questions, polemic stories answer questions. As a bonus, Desiree rightly points out that raising questions is a much more interesting line of exploration for both the writer and the reader. She recommends that when you experience an emotional reaction to something, you ask yourself questions like What is that feeling? Why does that make me angry? Why does that make me feel so wounded? Why does that make me feel so giddy?

But don’t ever forte that even Issue stories need to be entertaining first. In other words, don’t get so mired in your issue that you aren’t telling a good story that keeps your reader turning pages.

Use Specificity to Reach More People

Desiree also makes an excellent point about the most effective way to tell an elemental Issue story:

“My work is intensely personal. I think that the more specific a work gets the more broadly it relates to other people.  The more you want to reach people, the deeper you have to dig and the more specific you have to be.”

Read that one again: “The more you want to reach people, the deeper you have to dig and the more specific you have to be.” Inexperienced writers who try to take on an Issue story often make the mistake of trying to tell EVERYTHING about the issue. This won’t work. As one of the men on the panel explained when he described his approach to an Issue story, “I’m not speaking for a population. I’m speaking for an individual who is part of a greater discussion. When you do that, the issue becomes personal.”

Using specificity in this way also helps you, as the writer, avoid situations where readers try to punch holes in your work. As Desiree put it, “If you make it very specific and say, ‘But, no. For this person, this is absolutely true and this is the story of this tiny world of everything,’ the more people have to go, “Well ok, respect, I will respect the rules of your world because you didn’t try to diminish mine in the creation of yours.'”

Write Better Villains by Learning to Understand Them

Everyone on the panel acknowledged that it’s hard to write characters who are on the other side of an issue about which you are passionate. But they still encourage writers to make a real effort to explore those characters. “Find the other side of the issue and discuss it in a way that’s intelligent,” one of the men on the panel explained (sorry, I can’t always tell their voices apart). “For instance, racism – you find someone whose life has been impacted by racism at the other side of it. It’s hard for me to empathize with them because I don’t like their position, but it is also much easier to understand them when you describe how their life as a racist is affected when race relations change. And until you understand that, until you can articulate that, you can’t tell a story about that changing without being preachy and polemic.”

Desiree summed is up nicely, “This is an exercise in being a better human being in some ways. I think we tend to easily demonize anyone who has fallen outside the realm of ‘normality.’ However, everybody is a person. Everybody had a series of actions and circumstances that led them to be where they are. Even that villain is his own hero and has a whole arc in which what he is doing is for some kind of greater good, even if it is just for his or her greater good. In looking at ‘let’s empathize with the racist that we don’t empathize with or that we don’t want to empathize with,’ the scary part is the more you start to, the more you realize that you are pretty much the same in so many ways and that you are potentially a racist for something else or that much of a bigot in some other kind of way where you don’t understand the person on the other side of the table that you’re pointing that finger at until you take the steps to get there and go, ‘Oh, I can be that person, too.'”

Acknowledge the Grace of What You Are Doing

And finally, Desiree offered this observation which I think applies as much to real life as it does the the writer/reader relationship, “It’s important to note that your audience is doing you a gracious thing by listening to you, just as you are doing a gracious thing by sharing your unique and very important perspective on some aspect of the universe with them. Both of you are coming with something that should be respected as it’s really tender and important and generous to do.”


Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.

19 thoughts on “Writer’s Weekend Edition – Writing About Issues

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Edition – Writing About Issues — Live to Write – Write to Live – anewme

  2. RE: Write Better Villains by Learning to Understand Them
    Incorporating criminals into my stories is actually made more difficult by my long time experience in Kairos Prison Ministry International; perhaps because I know lots and lots of incarcerated convicted felons, and I know them as human beings and not as criminals. Some of them I know very well as the relationships go back as much as 15 years, and they are far more complex than a superficial character can represent. Most of your readers will not likely know people in this context, which is much different from knowing them as an officer of the court or the law. My last novel (Fort Davis Rocks) included a motorcycle gang member; a very complex person who is my most honest and true character. Another ex-felon is a character in Enchanted Rock Blue(s); a Marine who served long and difficult deployments in Afghanistan before being convicted of assault as a civilian. He is based on an amalgamation of several inmates I know who are combat veterans, all of whom served their country well in the wars and are all ashamed of their convictions. What is most helpful in writing these characters? I don’t know or care about the crimes my incarcerated friends committed; I only know them for who they are today, I don’t start with them as bad guys, I start with them as good guys who did bad things. It makes a world of difference. I was inside at an event when an inmate came up to me and asked if I could sign one of my books! In a few minutes there he was, with a copy of one of my novels belonging to a guy I know called Doc. Doc is brilliant, and his review of the novel was this: “Your best yet. Edgy.” I only wish he could write that on Amazon.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your detailed insight, Robert. I LOVE this piece especially, “… I start with them as good guys who did bad things.” That’s brilliant, and so helpful. It also dovetails nicely with what the podcasters said about the villain being the hero in his or her own eyes. It’s a major shift in perspective to be able to look at the “bad guy” in this way; but it’s clearly the only way to be able to create and write believable and three-dimensional antagonists who can bring so much depth to your story. Thanks again. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Edition – Writing About Issues — Live to Write – Write to Live | gramirezblog

  4. Good discussion, Jamie. I’ve been careful to keep politics out of my blog, for the most part. It isn’t what it is about. But I couldn’t resist after the election. It touched me too deeply. I had to speak out. Thanks. –Curt

    • I think a lot of people are feeling that way, Curt. I know I am really struggling with the question of whether and how much to share my world views. I think writers are in a particularly challenging position since our work is all about stories and communicating, so it’s very hard to just ignore what’s happening in the world. It’s all woven together – external factors, our personal lives, and our work. Very tricky, to say the least.

      • Tricky is a good word here, Jamie. My blog is designed primarily as a travel, travel/adventure blog. I normally don’t cover political issues. But my post on ‘what children learned from the election’ generated much heart-felt conversation among the people who usually comment. I think it was important that I spoke out. –Curt

  5. “My work is intensely personal. I think that the more specific a work gets the more broadly it relates to other people. The more you want to reach people, the deeper you have to dig and the more specific you have to be.”

    Personal is my banner but I doubt if the majority can relate to my stories. They are intense and seem far-fetched. It’s a cliché but in my case reality is indeed stranger than fiction.

    • I interpreted their comments to mean that it’s better to tell the personal story of a single person against the backdrop of a larger issue than it is to try to capture the larger issue in broad brushstrokes. That personal story will likely be fueled in part by your personal experience, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell your own story. I think it’s mostly a matter of scale. We may, for instance, tell a story about a war; but we reach people more directly and deeply if we tell it through the eyes of a single person.

      • This is helpful. I always thought every character in every story carries a personal experience from the author even though the story and the characters are fictional. I thought it is very hard to describe anything you never see with your own eyes or never experience. Thanks for the idea Jamie.

  6. Pingback: Hey, writers. Need a laugh? | Live to Write – Write to Live

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