“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”Alexander Hamilton
We’ve all had the misfortune to read books that are confusing, scattered, and filled with irrelevant scenes, or in Hamilton’s words, books that fall for anything. As writers, recognizing these mistakes gives a call to action to prevent that from happening in our own work. While Hamilton’s quote above isn’t given directly as writing advice, it does show how to keep ourselves from stumbling into the trap of distracted stories that fray in a thousand places.
Looking at the quote, here’s the equation I get: Standing for nothing= falling for anything. The second, implied equation I see is: Standing for something= standing solid. Knowing clearly what your story stands for is crucial to bringing the focus and cohesion that helps it become a solid, satisfying read.
What does it mean to have your story stand for something? Simply put, it’s the deeper themes that form the soul of the story. Some people like to say it will detract from the plot to have the author moralizing, and I’m not suggesting fiction books should be turned into a grand lesson filled with the author preaching. However, I am saying that a book that lacks a more meaningful foundation than pure entertainment will be likely to “fall for anything.” A great example of this is the Harry Potter series, where I would say the underlying soul is love. Deeper themes don’t have to be pretentious, nor does it have to culminate in some lesson. In the end, the most beloved books, the ones that stick with us the most, all stand for something meaningful.
The most natural way to find what your story stands for is to look at the initial ideas that got you excited to write it originally. What is the core of those? Incredible character growth? Forgiveness? Vibrant worldbuilding that asks a reader to look differently at what they know? Selfless bravery? An unexpected hero? Giving voice to the grieving process? The list goes on. Knowing the core of what inspired you to write in the first place will not only keep the story unified, it also means you get to focus more on what you’re passionate about.
The question of “what does this stand for” can be applied on smaller level too, giving insight on how to set up scenes and what scenes to have. If you find a number of scenes are deviating from the soul of the book, you can either cut a couple or revisit your main theme. Likewise, noticing that key scenes don’t seem to fit can be a clue that they aren’t in harmony with the rest of the story. The goal here is not to mercilessly cut anything that doesn’t further the “message,” but to bring cohesion and a tighter plot to the story you actually want to tell. This tool should enhance your craft and its purpose rather than add stress.
Ultimately, knowing what you’re story stands for translates to knowing what makes it meaningful. This is what the masters of the craft do. They infuse their works with deeper themes, creating books readers return to again and again. Gaining this simple clarity will prevent your writing from falling for anything.