Some heart touching stories are so well written that, as readers, we can’t but to feel grateful for having the opportunity to read them.
Indeed, there has been times when I’ve finished reading a book and remained there, staring into the distance at nothing in particular, just savoring that particular mix of joy, sadness, and wonder that for me is the natural hallmark of a great read.
One day, when I was in my teens, I let a friend of mine read a story I had written, and by the end of it she was crying. For me that episode was a revelation. For the first time I realized that using mere words I too could make other people feel what I felt.
But back then when I wrote I relied solely on instinct. I never planned my stories. As a result they were all a matter of hit or miss. Sometimes they worked nicely. Some others they showed a lot of promise and then petered out into yawning nothingness, like wet firecrackers. Yet some others sucked beyond belief.
It took me a while to grow tired of that erratic approach. But I ultimately set out to find a way to transform my natural style of writing into a more considerate one. The following is what I discovered. Especially about how to handle deeply emotional scenes.
KISS — or, more simply, don’t overdo it
Keep it simple, stupid. This is the first and most important suggestion. It means that as a writer you have to walk the tightrope between emotional, compelling prose and purple, melodramatic prose.
Purple prose is a style heavily ornate and full of melodrama. It’s characterized by exaggeration, sensationalism and is excessively sentimental.
Of course, there isn’t any way to measure in a perfectly objective manner how much a piece of writing is affected by purple prose and melodrama.
However, as a general rule, irrespective of genre and personal taste, the more you move toward purple prose the more the writing tends to obscure the story and call attention to itself.
If you notice this telltale red flag chances are you really are in purple territory. Go back and revise. Mercilessly.
For me a story is like a window. The window can be embellished at will. But no architect should ever forget its main function, namely that of letting the light in to illuminate the inside of a building.
Heart touching stories and concreteness
Keeping things simple isn’t enough. You have to make sure your writing closes the distance between what you want to tell and your readers. You can’t simply wait for your readers to do that.
Of course, all art is a sort of collaborative endeavour between creator and public, but this doesn’t mean the public is willing to pour over your works and try to understand their truest meaning.
Jenny was desperate. She had lost the last train, and now she would have to wait two whole days before she could catch the next one.
With her eyes full of tears and the straps of the backpack biting hard into her shoulders while she ran along the sidewalk, Jenny stared at the train while it disappeared behind the gentle curve of a knoll.
“No,” she gasped.
The idea of having to wait two whole days before the next train arrived filled her with dismay. She would sit in her home, inanely watching TV and listening to the usual playlists while her friends would go to the beach and meet new friends.
The second version is longer. But in most cases a longer passage is never a problem for your readers if what they read is a passage full of concrete actions and people.
Of course, also telling is important. However, it works best for those passages that would bore your readers but need to be written all the same to make the story work.
(Well, telling is useful also in some other occasions, but I’ll write about this in another post.)
Themes are your friends
Always strive hard to identify the essential themes in your story. These rarely are the stated objectives of the hero in your story. In fact, often they can be broken down to their essential ingredients using the seven stage model of hierarchy of needs or some other useful psychological tool.
For example, Marlon may well have built a manor for his sweetheart. But that’s only the external objective. The real reason he did so is what really matters. Did he so out of selfless love, of pride, or self aggrandizing madness?
If you know perfectly well the themes of your novel, no matter how intricate a story can be, you’ll always have a northern star to rely on to steer your story toward a safe harbor.
Beware of appearances
This is probably a personal preference of mine. I mean, I don’t particularly care how a person looks, not in literature at least. When I’m reading I fall in love with what the characters do and say. So keep your descriptions at bay.
But remember that when you write you can use words in such a way as to give your characters a halo of vagueness and mystery that in movies is much more difficult to pull out.
You can write that Elmore was always clad in elegant outfits, but there was something gipsy about him. It takes you almost no effort to say that. Yet in a film to show that would present an interesting problem.
Too bad backstory is bad
Backstory has to be avoided at all costs. This seems to be the imperative these days.
But, really, it depends. If your backstory is dull and uninteresting then by all means you should cut it. But if your backstory is interesting I would consider keeping most of it. After all, I willingly read many pages of backstory and in most cases while doing so I also completely forget about the main story.
It is difficult to master how to exploit backstory effectively. But backstory can help you connect on a deeper level with the characters in your story. It can shed light on what makes them tick. It can explain certain idiosyncrasies they have. So deciding against using it because it can be tricky to pull out adequately isn’t the best approach.
After all, you learn by doing. We all learn by doing.
A piece of your heart
The story you tell hasn’t necessarily to relate to what happened to you. But it is true that it must be uniquely yours.
I mean. You can decide to write a story that’s based on an article you read in a newspaper. That’s perfectly fine. But even so you have to make it your own.
This means the newspaper story has to go through you, the writer, like a beam of light through a prism. You have to analyse and dissect the components of the story and decide what it is you want to work on, and the way to do it.
It is by doing this that you place bits of your life experience inside the story, that you make sure the emotional heart of your story rings true.
Besides, when you use, as modified as it may be, material from your own life experience or material related to people you care deeply for, it is easier for you to feel when the piece is working, when it’s finally pulling all the right chords.
Just a word of caution: avoid using material that is still too fresh in your mind. I’m saying this because you would find it difficult to attain the right distance from the subject you want to write about.
And you, what are the ingredients you think a heart touching story must possess? Chime in and tell me =)