Menu

Writing 201: What’s Your Angle?

Your angle is the precise way you choose to tell your story — it’s the element that sets your story apart from all the rest. Let’s look at how to identify your story’s angle and how to build on it to create engaging, original prose.

Welcome to Blogging U! This course isn't currently active, but you can learn more about what we offer and register for upcoming courses on the BU home page.

What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.
— Rebecca Solnit

They say that there are no new stories. In fact, author Christopher Booker suggests that every story ever told is a variation on seven basic plots. So, how do you differentiate your story from every other comedy, tragedy, memoir, quest, or rebirth? The answer is in the specific angle you use to tell your tale.

Consider Eric and Charlotte Kaufman’s story.

According to CNN, the Kaufman story is a dramatic US Navy rescue. The Kaufmans’ storm-damaged boat is far out at sea — three weeks away from medical attention — when their baby becomes seriously ill. Legions criticize the Kaufmans for putting their daughter’s life in danger simply by being so far from land and modern medical facilities.

Same topic, distinct angles: Think about how people from all walks of life tell tales on a single topic. In the New York Times‘ column, Modern Love, you’ll read a mix of stories about love, relationships, and marriage.

What’s your take on a topic?

Ira Glass tells Eric and Charlotte’s story on This American Life, but from a very different angle: Eric and Charlotte are experienced sailors. They’re similar to many families who routinely make the same sea crossing with very young children. A series of mishaps forces Eric to call for help to ensure their baby’s safety. Calling for help, Eric and Charlotte knew they’d lose their boat — their family’s home — and all their belongings.

Anyone can tell a story using straight facts — the who, what, why, when, where, and how — of a story. What makes for the most interesting writing and the most interesting reading is discovering a new angle from which to tell that story.

Writer Rebecca Solnit on stories: “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”

Consider Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. In the book, she examines her somewhat fraught relationship with her mother through boxes and boxes of apricots harvested from the tree outside her mother’s house. Solnit could have just stated that her mother was a difficult, jealous woman. It’s much more interesting to consider a relationship through the metaphor of a box of fruit. Solnit writes:

Sometimes a story falls into your lap. Once, about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There, they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed…The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother’s tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer where a new round of trouble began.

Finding your angle

To gently nudge your muse:

  • Is your story simply about a childhood trip to the beach, or about how your perspective on your dad changed when he taught you how to swim that day?
  • Is your story about a fight you had with your best friend, or about how you learned that in giving in, you’re really gaining?
  • Is your story about the drudgery of taking your know-it-all, impoverished father-in-law out for lunch each week — or that sometimes love and duty are the same thing?
  • Is your story about the chaos and culture shock of traveling to Vietnam, or about how much you need and crave the growth that traveling offers?
  • Is your story about the fact your mom was often mean-tempered when you were a child, or that you’re terrified that you’re exactly like her?

Finding your angle can be the most challenging and rewarding aspect of the writing and editing process. Here are some ideas to help you find your angle in a piece of writing.

1) What makes you you?

Which elements of your experience and unique perspective couldn’t possibly be present in someone else’s story?

Canadian author David Bergen recalls overlooking the unique story angles that were right before his eyes as a young writer:

At the age of twenty, having published nothing, and having had little guidance in my reading, I decided that I wanted to write. I was driving a feed truck that winter, making runs to the Canada Packers in Winnipeg where I picked up meat meal, ground-up bones and meat that would be mixed in with grain, which would then be fed to layers and broilers. The smell permeated my clothes and my nostrils. As I waited in line behind other truckers, I decided to use that time to write.

Looking back, I should have been writing about the characters I met at Canada Packers, about the stories they told, spoken in great vernacular, about their lives, which were so different from mine. These were men who were in their forties and fifties and had worked at the same job for years. I was young, working a temporary job. I had my whole life before me. I was aware of these men, but didn’t see them as subjects for a novel or a story.

2) What original details do you see in your story?

Collecting original details: “If you ask a group of people to write about the contents of their closet, each person would likely approach the same subject from a different angle.” Adair Lara offers more tips to help you find your specific angle and gather the details you need for your story.

In Solnit’s case, the apricot tree (and one-hundred pounds of its fruit in various stages of decay) was the original detail that makes her familiar mother-daughter conflict unique. For Canadian author Lisa Moore, original details she collects during her day form what she calls the “glimmer of a beginning.”

Something might coalesce, a story charged with the significant, shimmering detritus of a single day, the flotsam of dreams and flux of crowds, intimate moments with strangers in elevators, errant lusts, the crunch of a peanut in a curried prawn dish. The thick scent of the organic oil of oregano I’d bought to fight a cold, a dense furry smell still clinging to the hotel glass I drank it from, just before dawn, a long way from home.

3) How can you mine your personal history for just the right angle?

Pennies by Rattan Amol (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pennies by Rattan Amol (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Finding fodder in your own life:

  • Dig into memories of “magical” childhood adventures.
  • Tap into your inner world of dreams.
  • Think about the experiences that have moved, affected, or changed you.
  • Recall fleeting, unexpected encounters.
  • Consider your peculiar passions, esoteric interests, and pet peeves.

In Seeing, Annie Dillard begins her essay by recounting a story from her personal history — her childhood delight in hiding pennies for others to find. She expands that idea into writing advice to us all, to always be on the lookout for the small treasures that surround us.

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

4) Once you’ve got detail, look even closer — a new angle may be waiting to surprise you.

Take a page out of Amy Tan’s book. She finds new details by looking closely at familiar items.

Identifying new angles in the familiar:

  • Revisit old diary pages or letters and compare past you and present you.
  • Research an event you once attended to gather big picture details and to place yourself within it.
  • Compare notes with others who were also there.
  • “Build up” a memory with outside sources — then see where and how your perspective fits.

I try to see as much as possible — in microscopic detail. I have an exercise that helps me with this, using old family photographs. I’ll blow an image up as much as I can, and work through it pixel by pixel. This isn’t the way we typically look at pictures — where we take in the whole gestalt, eyes focusing mostly on the central image. I’ll start at, say, a corner, looking at every detail. And the strangest things happen: you end up noticing things you never would have noticed. Sometimes, I’ve discovered crucial, overlooked details that are important to my family’s story. This process is a metaphor for the way I work — it’s the same process of looking closely, looking carefully, looking in the unexpected places, and being receptive to what you find there.

When you consider an event in your personal history, try to immerse yourself in the memory: what did it feel like to be there? What emotions did you have, if any? Thinking about this event years later, have your perceptions of that event and the emotions around it changed or evolved? It’s perfectly okay if things feel nebulous or you’re not sure where a thought or memory might take you. Revision takes time and perseverance. The important thing is to keep at it.

5) Consider using an object as a way “in” to the story.

Writer Andrea Badgley suggests that objects hold their own stories — that any object can be a talisman infused with meaning.

Objects are evocative; they hold stories…Take something small, and concrete — a thing, a noun — and use that as a starting point. You may simply want to describe the object: what does it look like, how does it feel, does it have a scent, a flavor, does it make a sound? Or you may want to use an object as a focal point to expand into something bigger. I wrote about rolling pins once, and a cookbook another time, and both led me into old kitchens, and musings of grandmothers, and recollections of favorite family meals. A piece on pie led me into my son’s Buddha soul. You never know where you might end up. Show us where an object leads you.

What objects are most important to you, that you keep from move to move, refusing to throw away? There’s a chipped, yellow ceramic teapot that sits on my fridge. I never use it to make tea. My husband hates it. Why do I keep it? It belonged to my grandmother, who has long since passed away. Every time I see that teapot, I see my grandmother’s smile and remember her easy laughter. What objects speak to you and what do they say?

Using an inanimate object might be the way to find your unique spin on a universal story.

Apply it

Sometimes, the struggle to find the right angle becomes part of the story itself. Consider Wendy Rawlings’ love story on Bending Genre, in which she struggles to find the precise angle from which to write about her romance with an Irish man.

And now, over to you. Choose any piece of writing you’d like to improve and reread it. What’s your angle? What’s your spin? How can you approach this topic or issue or tale in a way that shows your imprint and your experience?

Worry not if the angle isn’t immediately apparent to you. Editing takes time and thought. Writing often needs to sit and steep, just like the best tea. If you’d like, set this piece down for a while. Take a walk and return with a fresh mind later today — or in a few days. You never know: the perfect angle might come to you while you’re in the shower or doing the dishes.

If you’re not interested in working on a personal essay or piece about you, you can still apply these ideas and techniques to other forms of writing, or if your subject is someone else.

Also, remember that there are no official assignments this week, and you don’t have to publish anything on your blog (unless you want to!). If you’re not sure you’ve pinpointed the angle for the particular piece you’re working on, or have questions about the ideas in this workshop, head over to the Commons to share an excerpt of your work and get feedback from your peers — they may think of an angle that never occurred to you.

Show Comments

110 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

  1. That’s really interesting thank you! If I think my angle is a bit predictable I try to subvert expectations by concentrating on other less important details, that make it a bit more realistic and funny. But this is definitely something to bear in mind in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post has made me think of a poem I wrote not too long ago. I am not sure if there is a place on this forum for poets. The poem was inspired by a gang shooting in my neighborhood. A girl was caught in the crossfire and sadly passed away. I wrote a poem about it but it got very little attention until i changed the perspective of the event. I then proceeded to write the poem from the bullet’s perspective. The poem then got a lot of praise. I haven’t posted it though. perhaps I should? Are angle and perspective 2 different things?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have also always written from my own perspective and therefore primarily my writing has been based on my opinion of the subject. I have frequently audited myself so that my writing appeal to a broad audience but I’ve been reading a lot lately that writers should find their true voice and use that fearlessly. Could this be “our angle”?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, lots to think about here. I’m bobbing around on a sea of nothing right at the moment 🙂 Need to get my thoughts organized and see what shapes up. Great start for this course.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds interesting, but what I don’t quite understand is whether you would like us to write something completely new (from scratch), or focus on an old piece and re-do it? Just trying to get my head round it, sorry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Every time I revisit something that I’ve written–whether a short story, a trip journal, or even software code, I’m struck by an “I can write this better” moment. Which is often true, but also is sometimes just that I’m in a different place and mindset than I was when I originally wrote it. And sometimes perfectionism is an awful thing! 😉 Definitely some things to think about here.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for all the richness of this post. I’ve been writing metaphors all month as a way ‘in’ to various writings. Taking a specific image as a way to start makes the writing feel unique right from the start. Tweaking it later for consistency and interest . . . well, whose else COULD it be then?! Definitely looking forward to/already enjoying this challenge. With gratitude abundant for all the sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. My angle is predominantly from my point of view. I invariably relate a topic to something in my own life, my work or my family.

    At times I wonder if that means a lack of imagination? And isn’t imagination an inseparable part of storytelling? Do I sound confused? That said, I am glad I joined this workshop.Editing is as essential a tool as writing itself. Looking forward to the next few weeks.

    Aruna

    Liked by 1 person

  9. In Writing 101 I was always confused as to where to add my post, so ended up duplicating it. Can we post the links here?

    I would appreciate feedback on two stories that I have been re-doing and editing, planning them as chapters of a book (hopefully).

    I like to write in third person, as I feel this gives me freedom to shape my characters better. Can you see this as part of a series of stories in a book?

    The first one is: http://notanothertallblog.com/2014/06/30/no-morning-sex/

    And the second one is: http://notanothertallblog.com/2014/07/17/invitation-to-an-interview/

    I would really appreciate feedback from those of you who have experience in writing fiction (and maybe have published a book). I think I have definitely found my own angle though – do let me know if this is the case or not!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just read “Invitation to an Interview.” Damn, you can write! The voice is very much your own, and confident enough not to be trapped by correct grammar, so you catch the sense of the spoken language. I’d quibble with you categorizing it as romance. It’s about a relationship, yes, but it strikes me as deeper than romance. It’s about the realities of a relationship, not the illusions. Other quibbles: I’d have loved a better physical sense of what work looks like–just a detail or three. You could probably cut lines like “the feeling of being trapped grows.” We’re feeling trapped right along with you, and I don’t think the abstract statement adds much here. (Sometimes abstract statement add a lot, but save them for when they’re essential.) I like that you don’t let yourself get sidetracked by the police cars and that thread of the story. It would be easy to chase the most sensational element. That you don’t makes me trust you as a writer. And yes, I can see it as part of a book. I didn’t have time to read the other story, so I’m not sure how tightly they link together, but if you have your eye on either a novel or a series of linked short stories, it might be worth thinking about the endings. This one feels like an ending. That’s great if it is. If it’s part of a novel, that will be probably be a problem–you want to motion to pitch the reader to the next chapter. You might want to keep your eye on how and whether you’ll need to rework them to fit a different form.

      Like

      1. Wow, thanks so much for such a detailed response!!! I do appreciate the time you spent analysing my story, and all of your comments/suggestions make sense. Thanks for your flattering praise, too. As for the stories being part of a novel, this is what I haven’t quite worked out, whether to have each story finished off as an individual piece, and they gradually lead towards the culmination and the ‘real’ ending, or whether to link them continuously. I feel like I am strong in writing short stories, but not too sure about a long story, as I would probably lose focus. It all takes time, effort and love. I hope to get there one day, but in the meantime, I am enjoying myself in the process. 🙂

        Thanks so much once again!

        P.S. Could I possibly ask you to do me a favour at all?? Do you think you could copy and paste your comments under the actual post on my blog? This way I will have them there permanently, and will be able to refer to them when I need to. I am worried that Writing 201 will close at some point and I don’t want to lose such valuable comments and suggestions. I hope you won’t mind that! Thanks in advance.

        Like

      2. Angie,

        I can’t seem to find the Comments button on your blog. That sounds really dense, but tell me where to look. If all else fails, copy and paste from here, or let’s trade emails.

        I wasn’t sure I’d make the transition from short stories to novels either and my first novel started its life as linked stories. I didn’t have the nerve to call it a novel–the publisher did that. We all have to find our own fit, but for what it’s worth, the nice thing about the long form is that you’re not starting over all the time, which I found hard.

        Like

    2. Hi @Angie K — you’re more than welcome to post your links here, though my sense is that you might get more feedback if you post in the Commons as well. We’ll be closing comments here on this article in the next day or so. The Commons remains open for the duration of the course — four weeks.

      Like

      1. Hi, @Krista, thanks very much for your welcoming comment. I was worried that this duplication may get on people’s nerves. ::-) Thanks for the reassurance!

        Like

  10. Ever since I began blogging, the life in my head- memories, musings, fleeting thoughts have all become more precious than ever. They’re not just my inspiration, they teach life lessons as i ponder over them for story ideas.

    Like

  11. Being in sort of limbo for such a long time I must gather several pieces that I have blogged and see what sort of “angle” that I come up with what a challenge which will take me a day or so but I welcomed it

    Like

  12. Interesting how different a story can turn out based on the perspective it’s written from. For each story, there are dozens of hidden ones just waiting to be written! (:

    Like

  13. I am currently working on my first novel. The most common comment I get from others is that it lacks voice. After re-reading it, I realized that I am just reporting facts. It is a fantasy fiction work. So, it does really need something. After reading this, I realized that I just need to find my angle. Is it alright if I work on a excerpt from that novel?

    Like

  14. An exercise I like to use when planning character arcs that intersect is what I call “the Rashomon effect”. I try to see the events through the eyes of the different key characters, and determine their personal interpretations (and truths/conceits/lies). It’s an engaging process, though it has derailed me on more than one occasion…

    Like

  15. As a volunteer, I often read college essays for high school students, and I help them see that their “angle” takes mundane events and makes them both more interesting and helps reveal their personalities to college admissions officers. This article does a great job of explaining how a shift in perspective can capture reader interest.

    Like

  16. OH no. I’ve registered for the wrong class. 😦 I thought this was Blogging 201. I’m not yet ready for Writing 201 as I haven’t done Writing 101 yet. Please remove me from this group. I’m going to work on the Writing Challenge until the Writing 101 class starts. Thank you!

    Like

  17. I was hesitant about doing this class because I wasn’t working on anything at the moment, but as timing would have it, I have two pieces I am starting. Well, one really, but the idea for the other one is forming slowly, mostly because I don’t know what the angle is yet! This post really did help though with the one I’ve just started. I feel like I will revisit this page quite a few times!

    Like

  18. I have a post with similar topic from previous prompts, and it’s a good start up in that matter, this workshop comes on hand, I think to begin with, to rewrite it a from different point of view, how to get feeds?

    Like

  19. I wrote a memoir, but feel it needs a total rewrite. I had the time line very disorganised. This time I’m trying to make it more logical, but I hope I don’t take away the interest… and make it boring. Shall be glad to get feed back.

    Like

  20. Excellent kick-off. I tried to log in under my previous registration but for some reason couldn’t, so I created this new personna and applied for access to the 201 commons this morning…sigh.

    Regarding the topic, I realized from reading Andrea Badgley’s idea of using an object as my ‘in’, that is exactly what I am doing with my first novel. Although the novel is built around the conflicts affecting the two main characters, the entire story arc begins and ends with a particular object. Although I didn’t necessarily think of it that way as I’ve been writing the book, it will definitely color my editing process as I move toward publication. Thanks!

    Like