‘Meaty’ Stories, and How to Write One

I watched The Dig on Netflix last night, after several writer friends told me it was good. It was, and it got me thinking about stories that you think are about one thing, but are really about something else.

Spoiler alert – I will tell the ending!

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer:

It looks like a movie about digging up buried treasure in a rich English woman’s field, right?

Only part right. It’s more about the people, and life and war, and…well, a lot.

I was thinking about other ‘meaty’ stories – I came up with the following

To Kill a Mockingbird: you think it’s about a little girl, growing up. And it is, but it’s also about segregation, prejudice, race and the culture of the South in the 30’s. It’s also about the human experience, and being kind, and good, and sacrificing for others. And how we segregate and are prejudice not only on color – but people who are different.

Dances with Wolves: You think it’s about a soldier in the west. And it is, but it’s also about the dying of the Native Nations, questioning morality, love, nature, shifting viewpoints and opinions.

Hunger Games:  YA Dystopian Fantasy, right? Yes, but also a treatise on society, how power corrupts, and how and why we make heroes.

In fact, I think if you look at any ‘big’ movie or book, you’ll find it’s about more than what it appears on the outside. Pick one and try it. I bet you’ll agree with me.

Okay, say you’re convinced. How do you write one? I think there are several commonalities in these types of stories.

I’ll use The Dig as an example, but you can use whatever one you chose.

Historical backdrop

It helps if you set your story in a time of strive or change, even to the point where the time period is a character. It adds a ticking clock, universal understanding, and a backdrop of emotional resonance. Think: Gone with the Wind, Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserable, The Help and many others. It doesn’t have to be ancient history, either. My whole life has been during a backdrop of sweeping historical events.

The Dig took place on the cusp of WWII. They had to hurry to uncover the treasure before the government turned it’s focus and it’s manpower to defeating Hitler.

The outside shell of the story is enticing

The dig itself wasn’t the important part of the story to me, though it’s why I clicked on the movie. It was the lives of the people it brought together. The ebb and flow of human drama within the capsule of an archeological expedition. This is perfectly illustrated when, in one scene at the end, the ship becomes the shell to hold the dying woman (sorry for the spoiler) and her young son.

If the movie were just about the people, it would have been good, but I probably wouldn’t have chosen to watch it…the dig was the bait to lure me in.

Life and Death Stakes

I don’t think it has to be literally life and death, but it helps ;). It can be the threat of emotional or spiritual death. The absolute worst thing that can happen for that particular character must happen. In The Dig, a young boy’s father is dead, and now his mother is dying.

Unforgettable Characters

Everyone had high stakes in this story, and they weren’t all about ambition

Basil Brown – a self-taught ‘excavator’ – a good man, who is looked down on by the professionals, despite the fact that he’s in demand for his skill. He yearns for recognition and legitimacy.

Edith Pretty- A grieving mother who is alone, and all her money can’t help her. She wants to shield her son from the harshness of life, and worries about him growing up with no father figure. And of course, eventually, no mother.

Margaret Piggott – A young aspiring archeologist, recently married and already in a loveless marriage. I had the feeling her husband was gay, and hadn’t recognized or accepted it yet, but I could be wrong. At one point she has to tell her husband her name (she goes by) is Peg – a sure sign of a problem if your husband doesn’t know that. She is decent and set on making the marriage work, until she falls in love with Edith’s nephew. You cheer for them.

Charles Phillips – Odious, arrogant, elitist archeologist from the British Museum. All characters either hate or kowtow to him.

I could go on, but you get the drift. Not only unique characters, but ones that will spark off each other.

I’m sure there are other aspects of ‘Meaty’ reads – What have I missed? 

What book/movie did you chose to illustrate this?



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