Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why Did It Grab Me?

Over the weekend I watched The Ten Commandments.  I hadn’t seen that Charlton Heston movie for many years, and I didn’t mean to watch it this time.  I wanted to paint instead, but I turned on the TV as background noise.  Every once in a while the movie pulled me away from my art.  Before I knew it, I got completely sucked into the story, in spite of how dated that movie is in oh, so many ways.  So, why did it grab me?  

1.  It’s familiar.  The story of Moses is a story I grew up with.  It’s appeared in books, songs, and lessons that I’ve heard and read over and over.  Moses is a role model, and his life has become almost a formula.  It’s part of my cultural heritage.  

2.  Passion.  The three major characters—Moses, Rameses, and Nefretiri—are all driven by an almost over-the-top passion, and of course their goals are in opposition to each other.  This makes a recipe for conflict and disaster.  

3.  Unrequited love.  For various reasons, the major characters desire someone he or she can’t have:  

  • Nefretiri desires Moses but can’t have him
  • Rameses desires Nefretiri but can’t really have her
  • Moses’ wife desires Moses but can’t have him (and doesn’t complain—how do you compete with God?)
  • The slave girl desires Joshua, and Joshua desires the slave girl, but they can’t have each other, thanks to…  
  • The governor, who desires the slave girl but can’t really have her, either. 
Am I missing anyone else?  

4.  Theme of persecution.  This is a personal favorite.  I love stories dealing with persecution in its many forms, maybe for the conflict, maybe to see justice win in the end.  Or at least to root for justice over adversity.  

3 & 4 especially create strong feelings of sympathy for the character.  They increase conflict and the threat of disaster and pull me through the story.  I want to see those sympathetic characters win in spite of the odds against them.  And in spite of knowing how the story ends.  

These are all good lessons I can apply to Good Storytelling!  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Good Storytelling—1

In my quest for studying good storytelling, I started by soliciting recommendations from a wide range of people.  Then I picked some of the authors from that list, authors who are very different from each other.  I want to see what their stories might have in common, aside from great storytelling.  

Kate Morton writes what I like to call “lush” novels, that is the storyline is complicated, rich and deep.  Her stories often uncover family secrets, and they span generations and multiple characters.  I get sucked into stories like this and don’t want to leave the world the author has created.  

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, on the other hand, is a disturbing book, with none of the pleasing connotations of the word “lush.”  It’s an excellent book, mostly about one complex character, whose problem is peeled back, layer by layer.  I have a push-pull relationship with books like this and can’t escape this type of fictional world fast enough.  This could be the dark secret behind someone close to me, and I don’t want to delve into the darkness.  At the same time it draws me in.  

Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast is also disturbing.  It’s not only about complex characters but also about the complex political/historical situation that tears them even further apart.  It’s too real, and I react the same to this as to Flynn’s:  push-pull, can’t get out of the story fast enough, can’t turn the pages fast enough.  

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a laugh-out-loud romp.  And oh, yeah, by the way, there’s a super serious problem, too.  It feels very real, but we know it’s not (which is comforting, because the problem is very, very serious).  But the book isn’t really about the problem.  It’s about the character, the Martian, who is so lovable and becomes like the reader’s brother.  We root for him, and it’s sad to leave him when the romp is all over, never mind the setting.  It’s not a place that either the Martian or the reader wants to stay.  

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is another romp with dark moments.  It’s a fascinating, complex world, and the reader is treated to the details of its wonders.  Readers immerse themselves into this world.  It’s so very different from the reality of our world, and yet there are just enough glimpses of reality to fire our imaginations and make us wonder…could it…possibly be…real?

  1. Hmm, the word “escape” keeps popping up.  These great stories either allow me the reader to escape reality or else make me race through their stories, trying to escape their darkness.  And I can’t escape, because…
  2. Great stories suck me into their fictional worlds.  I want to know what’s going to happen, because I’m invested in the characters, their world, and the situation.  The story pulls me through to the end, whether or not I want to go along for the ride.  
  3. “Complex” is another word these great stories have in common.  They all have complex characters and/or complex subplots and situations.  There is not only one story going on, but multiple stories.  
  4. “Real Setting” is another element in common.  These stories have settings that are either very real (sometimes overly real) or else seem very real.  Seeming so, they make this reader wish they were real.  Whether real or not, the setting feels real enough to make me feel as if I’m there, inside the story.  

So…even though these stories are quite different, they still have certain qualities in common.