Welcome back, inkblots! I hope you’re enjoying the snuggly fall weather! Here in San Antonio, we’ve only been teased by a few fleeting hours of autumnal temperatures, but that hasn’t stopped me from lighting my pumpkin-scented candles, making chili, and busting out my warm jammies! Once the temps drop below 60 (or Halloween’s over – whichever comes first), it’ll be time for Christmas music – I can’t wait!
If you’re like me, the fall season brings with it a special dose of inspiration for us creative types. Maybe it’s just my hopeless-romantic side getting the better of me, but there’s something about crisp air and colorful leaves that make me think of a cozy fireplace in a giant room lined with bookshelves. I imagine myself as Belle from Beauty and the Beast when Beast gives her that magnificent library, except in my dream library, there’s also a Starbucks barista to serve me Americanos at the snap of my fingers, plenty of notepads and highlighters for outlining, a laptop, comfy armchair, and most importantly, WiFi!
Before we get writing in our make-believe 18-century castle library, it would behoove us to know what not to do if we want to create stories that resonate emotionally with readers.
Last week, I talked about the first type of “bad story” identified by storytelling expert Robert McKee which is portraiture, i.e., a story that sounds more like facts being reported than a narrative being woven. There is nothing, no subliminal theme or underlying truth, supporting this type of story, and so it fails to connect meaningfully with its audience. Readers may very well be struck with the beauty of its language or the verisimilitude of a scene, but they won’t be invested in the characters or their journey because the story is purely superficial, mistaking truth with a small “t” for big-“T” truth, that is to say truth that is indirectly observed throughout the telling.
The second type of bad story is spectacle, what McKee calls the “guaranteed commercial success.” These are novels or movies that place over-the-top action sequences on a pedestal and depend on sensory overload to engage their audience. This writer thinks, at least subconsciously, that if she includes enough high-speed chases and heart-stopping thrills, the audience will be won over.
“Spectacles of this kind replace imagination with simulated actuality. They use story as an excuse for heretofore unseen effects that carry us into a tornado, the jaws of a dinosaur, or futuristic holocausts. And make no mistake, these razzle-dazzle spectacles can deliver a circus of excitement. But like amusement park rides, their pleasures are short-lived” (emphasis mine).
What do you think of when you hear the words “classic literature” and “classic films”? I think of Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca. Sure, there are some epics too that feature ferocious monsters and flashy fights (e.g., The Odyssey and Indiana Jones), but these works balance their thrills and frills with sufficient attention to characterization, theme, and characters’ goals and motivation.
I love this quote from Maya Angelou. It applies to life, and to today’s topic, too:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As moviegoers and readers, we rarely hail a film or book as our favorite because of the cutting-edge CGI, the exotic locations, or the incredible fight scene at the end of Act II. Our favorites are our favorite because of the characters who stole our hearts. Because of the empathy we had for them and the raw emotion we walked away with and still carry with us. Being ever conscious of the overarching Why of your novel will keep spectacle in its proper role, as the cherry on top of an already delectable story.
That’s it for this week! Next week I’ll dive into the positives of portraiture and spectacle and how we can use them to create deep, well-rounded stories that both electrify the mind and captivate the heart.