This week I’ve been obsessively searching for the magical ingredients of successful story writing. Not like the obvious stuff that we always talk about–character, theme, plot, blah, blah. And please don’t suggest I go read Joseph Campbell.
I’m talking about the magic! Secret somethings that pull you in and keep you reading (or watching or listening), and make an otherwise fair story, unforgettable. What are the must-haves that move a reader from shoulder shrugging to responding to a story with vigorous head nodding? Like, YEAH. That was a good story.
After paying close attention to the story elements in my week’s menu of movies, TV shows, books and short stories, here’s what I’ve learned: Stick to basics (fine, I’ll go back and read Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey, follow my bliss, etc). The thing is, I have a tendency to make things way too complicated.
So, anyway, “basics.” The one thing that the week’s good stories had in common: Clear motivations.
As a reader (or watcher or listener) I appreciate knowing what drives characters. Right out of the gate I want to know what they want. Maybe so that I can want along with them. Vicarious pining, you know? Or at the very least, I can stand on the sidelines and cheer for them. When they get what they want, so do I.
The problem: I forget this fundamental concept when I’m writing. My characters want everything. Or nothing very clearly. Or they’re just having experiences. So what’s the story?! What does a reader have to root for?
Characters with clear desires in conflict with the desires of other characters are like sugar, butter, flour and eggs. It’s hard to go wrong if you mix them together in the right amounts. And no need to invest too much creativity on coming up with fancy desires. Generic human desires actually seem to work well.
Yesterday I took my daughter to see Mirror Mirror, a cinematic retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. To my surprise, I liked it. A lot.
The movie wasn’t complicated, but it felt complete in ways that my own stories often don’t.
No, it wasn’t life-changing and may not win film awards, but it was fun and fulfilling and I left the theater thinking, that was a good story.
Then I immediately asked myself, why?
I replayed the major character motivations–a wicked Queen who wants to stay young, a locked-up princess who wants to find her father and/or freedom, a prince who wants adventure–and realized how simple–almost overly so–their motivations were.
When I started to really analyze the story, I noticed holes like, why would a princess stay totally demure until her eighteenth birthday then get all brave and adventurous simply because a cook mentions troubles in the village? Why would the Queen bother keeping the princess around for a decade? Why did the Queen send her henchman to do the killing mission when a perfectly good forest monster was available and up to the job?
It was like human desires had been distilled into the most simplest forms: good, evil, love, hate. And maybe that’s an attribute of a fairy tale. Overly simplistic character desires.
BUT PEOPLE LOVE FAIRY TALES! And maybe things don’t always have to be so complicated.
Now what should I do? I’m not planning to write a fairy tale. And I’m not going to limit my characters’ emotional ranges to that of one-dimensional caricatures.
However, I do think honing the desires of each character and revealing their core desires in straightforward ways right from the beginning is probably a good idea. It takes discipline to know what is driving your characters and to stay focused on the main desire(s).
I guess that’s what makes stories different from real life. Writers add clarity. They control the ride.
Could the magic be in the clarity? Delivering a sense of order and meaning to readers in ways that life doesn’t? I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I do believe that as writers we have some obligation to be intentional and deal with ambiguity, but in the end, should our stories be more or less confusing to readers than their/our own lives?
I’m not sure. I just wish it was magic. And that I had a fairy godmother.