how to find the Big Meaning of your novel (+ blog) that will make your readers fall wildly in love with you




So I realized I was coming at my novel from the outside in.

I’d created a complex storyworld with a cast of characters and tangled backstory shaping the frontstory. It was like I had the map, but couldn’t find the interstate freeway leading to my destination. I was going down some dark country roads, and it was only a matter of time before I’d end up in a town of cannibals or something.

(Cue the sound of a chainsaw.

…On second thought, DON’T.)

As Roz Morris suggests in her book NAIL YOUR NOVEL, one way to help yourself get unstuck is to remind yourself why you wanted to write the damn thing in the first place.

For me, for this book, it was the idea of repetition compulsion: how we recreate relationships and situations from the past in an ongoing effort to resolve them. I’m using reincarnation as a metaphor for that.

But what is the point of the book? If art is the creative demonstration of a truth, what is the truth I am trying to prove? I needed to get at the novel from the inside out.

Back to basics: a story is about a character who wants something and must overcome obstacles to get it.

But in order to do that, she’s forced to change in some way.

It’s in the overcoming of those obstacles that she finds what she lacks, and acquires what she needs, to achieve her goal (or not). The meaning of the story – the thematic significance – is in that character growth. That shift in consciousness that makes a new life possible.

In her book THE PLOT WHISPERER, Martha Alderson advises you to look to your own life, for your own truths, that you can then bring to bear on your novel. What are the big truths of your life?

I’m talking what Jim Signorelli refers to as big-t Truths, those metaphysical truths that we can’t measure or quantify but recognize, somehow, as right. We vibe with them.

In contrast, little-t truths are the facts and figures we find in the history books, for example. So-called objective information. (It’s not like history is, you know, written by the victors or anything.)

Little-t truths can be manipulated.

Big-t Truths cannot: they are what they are, and they remain the same from Homer to Shakespeare to Spielberg to Joyce Carol Oates. They are the abstract truths that live behind, and in between, and beneath the other kind. Little-t truths inform us; big-T truths live inside us, and a writer doesn’t teach or preach so much as stir them to life. We feel that shiver of recognition, that sense of deepening alignment with the values of the novel, as we live vicariously through the characters and arrive at a sense of what it all means.


Big-t truths live in your platform as well, your blog – that is, if you want to create something powerful enough to attract and engage new readers and deepen your connections with your fans.

It comes back to the question: What do you stand for? What is your purpose? What is your defining value or ideal?

The nature of blogging (and online writing in general) is to provide information that solves problems, that illuminates or improves your reader’s life in some way. Think of that information as the bait on the hook that draws your readers to you (you just want to make sure that it’s the right bait for the right kind of audience).

But to turn those readers into fans, you need to deepen that engagement, because information on its own isn’t enough.

The gurus will say that you need to connect with readers emotionally, and that’s true. But more than that, you need them to resonate with you. And that happens when they can sense the big-t Truth living behind that information, shaping the delivery of that information, and they recognize it as their Truth as well.

Community develops around shared values.

To find yours, Signorelli suggests what he calls the “laddering interview”, or what is elsewhere known as “the five whys”. You explore the motivation behind your motivation behind your motivation until you get to its root cause. That’s where you find your Truth.

For example:

Why blog about creativity?

Because I think it’s important to a well-lived life, a healthy society.


Because it deepens your connection to yourself and the world.


Because it helps you explore and develop your identity, your voice, your vision, and project that into the world.


So you can interact with the world as your full-bodied, amplified, authentic self, which allows you to stand in your power and connect with like-minded souls.


So you can work together to create a movement, raise awareness, find innovative solutions, that change the world. And sell your work and make some money as a side benefit.

You try it.


Getting back to my novel, this is the thematic statement I came up with:

The hunger for love leads to distortions of love, but only real love can heal and transcend the cycle of abuse.

So my character has to grow toward genuine love and intimacy in a way that helps her save herself (and others). I have to create the events, characters and situations – the objective information, the little-t truths, the ‘plot’ — forcing her to do that.

Wish me luck.

What are the Truths that you’re working with?

Feb 17, 2012

14 comments · Add Yours

I’m haven’t asked myself the ‘five whys’ yet, but I’ve sensed for since the inception that there was something more going on than, as you say, the ‘side-benefit of making some money.’ I sort of stumbled into creative community, and continue to stumble across the ongoing benefits of sharing the power of connection with like-minded souls. My capital T truths continue to emerge from within as I strive, both from the inside–from the work itself–and from the outer forces of community. It’s the greatest ride of my life.

Thanks for the ‘five whys,’ and with your t’s, capital and little alike, Justine.


“why you wanted to write the damn thing in the first place” That’s a very good thought to keep in mind. One that I have gone back to frequently while writing stuff.

I like the concepts you’re dealing with in your novel. They sound very compelling. “how we recreate relationships and situations from the past in an ongoing effort to resolve them” is fascinating.

For me I’m always drawn to creating the strong male hero. You know, that person that the rest of the cast can look up to and believe in. A sort of Messiah/Dr. Who type figure. That says something about my life I guess (maybe I want to be that person).

I also like to play with conversations and have witty dialogue. Because I get bored easily. =D


This is such a great blog. I’ve been writing all my life and I really appreciate your posts. Thank you for sharing all this, Justine!


Lots of information to think about … thanks for the mental stimulation.


Wow, thanks for the shoutout, Justine. Everything we do is about connection. Blogging, social media et al are all extensions fo what writers have always done, naturally – connect through words.
Interesting to think about the motivation behind motivation. Let’s, uh, see. Mine is that I love it when people share a sense of wonder and make me understand why they are wonder-struck. So that’s what I do.


Great food for thought in general, and especially for writing/other creative projects.


I’m very new to all this and slide headlong into incoherent mumbling should I actually talk about my writing and someone ask me what it’s about – I NEED a vaguely coherent stock response and I realise this will probably help me keep on track with my novel and (in the distant future) be able to communicate/market it… I love the five ‘whys’ but I especially think the remembering why you/I started writing it in the first place is a great way to capture the essence… Not as easy as it sounds though!
Great blog, thank you for sharing your insight and ideas.


That I wish you luck goes without saying. In any case, good luck.
That said, I wonder if this post doesn’t nudge the cart out in front of the horse. Finding Truths (which don’t, I think, exist outside of the language with which one articulates them) and finding thematic statements may be essential to the heart of one’s book, but only, I think, at a relatively late stage of the writing. A novel isn’t an argument or demonstration; it’s a dramatization that puts competing truths into contestation. (Hegel, I think, said something like, Tragedy is the choice between competing goods). I do think a project needs a “spine” as Twyla Tharp calls it, or a “through-line” etc, but instead of beginning with that, a writer has to write her way into it. That is, she looks at her draft(s), the all over human mess of them, and after some (often painful) brooding, she finds her through-line then, and rewrites accordingly. The old Williams adage: no ideas but in things. Start with image, not idea. Otherwise, a writer risks hobbling herself for the sake of the idea, rather than finding within herself what really needs to be said. Sorry if that sounds preachy-ish or over-neat. God knows my own process is messy and slow and sometimes painful. So, again, good luck (and maybe consider sending out excerpts to a supportive circle that can help with spines and through-lines and maybe even truths. . . ).


Funny when I’m writing a fundraising proposal, this is exactly the process I use – and I call it using storytelling techniques. That why, why, why… is so very useful.


@Adrian I hear you. I’ve been working on this book off and on for several years and carrying it in my head for longer than that…And nothing is ever fixed in stone. Everything in a novel should be allowed to develop and evolve as it will, including theme, truth, etc. — I see things like this as tools to help you get unstuck and re-oriented (or oriented at all). But then, I always like to have a sense of what I’m driving toward. So I am an outliner, but the outlines I work with are very loose and are constantly changing as the writing demands it.

I suppose the problem with blogs like mine is that they deal with something intensely personal — the creative process — which differs for everyone, but they present it as a series of ideas that should apply evenly to all. Note to self: open the blog up a little more, make room for other voices, other sensibilities, rather than just mine own.


I put you in my book of quotes Justine, along with T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Heraclitus, Socrates and about a hundred more. You’re in the company of the greats!


I never set out, in any of my previous novels, to dissect any particular truth but, in each of them, that it exactly what I ended up doing and it was usually once I had articulated that truth that the books started to make sense to me and they felt like meaningful propositions and worth finishing. Of course in the first two novels having Truth as a character helped. He started out as a mere literary device but became so much more.

The problem with truths, especially the big ones, is that there really aren’t that many. What we need to do is personalise them. Not make them into persons—that works once and then where do you go?—but act them out. Big truths are impersonal: everyone dies, actions have consequences, if you pick at it it’ll get worse. These aren’t meaningless but they are a bit on the antiseptic side. In my book Milligan and Murphy the ‘truth’ I ended up dissecting was: There’s a reason for everything. I have two people do something on the spur of the moment without giving it any thought and watch them struggle to find a reason for what they’d done. The new truth I came up with was: There are no reasons for unreasonable things. Sometimes people just do things because it feels right; no reasoning takes place.

The big truth that I’m absorbed with about the moment? The truth about memory. I have never had the best of memories—for trivia, yes, but that’s about it—but nowadays it’s worse than ever and I can’t see it getting any better. But what exactly am I hanging onto? The truth of my life or some fictionalised version of it? Are my ‘true memories’ for want of a better word already long gone? I have no answers yet but that’s where my head is since you asked.


I like your five whys and your example of how it deepens a simple Q/A into something progressively deeper and more focused. Thank you!


I think you’ve found your interstate on the roadmap of your novel.


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