Friday, October 9, 2015

Alchemy of the Writer Magician

The Author’s Alchemical Process—Do you have it?

Some additional highlights from the Central Coast Writer’s Conference not mentioned in my post last week:

Keynote Presenter - Karl IglesiasThe Keynote speaker, Karl Iglesias addressed The Emotional Core of a story. He was certainly clear on what a successful storyteller must have. He used Pixar, winner of 27 Oscars for animated pictures, as a model of great story telling.

Certainly, we have to be concerned about our protagonist’s reactions when we draft our stories, but what struck me most was that we need to be cognizant of the emotional reaction in the reader/listener/viewer (movies). If the reader doesn’t feel anything, why finish reading? 

Caring and conflict are what make a good story. We know that. But, there must be empathy and a chemical connection established with the reader. (When women read fiction they release more oxytocin than men—probably why more women read romance. Who doesn’t want to feel good?)

I’m reading The Martian presently. While everyone is raving about it, I was half way through and had no emotional connection—exactly what Iglesias is talking about. The empathy and chemical connection that makes a successful story was not there. The author failed to make me care about the protagonist’s plight of being stranded on mars—and that’s something to care about. 

It was fascinating to read all the scientific information, but after a while, I became bored. If it were not for a friend that told me it gets better, I would probably have put the book down and just gone to see the movie. 

So, writers, what makes the reader feel that empathy? There needs to be caring and conflict—hope , worry and tension. Iglesias suggested a few ways to make the reader feel that connection by using:

  •   An undeserved mistreatment, injustice of a defenseless character
  •  Undeserved misfortune
  •  Physical and/or mental handicap
  •  Frustration or humiliation/ embarrassment
  •  Abandonment
  • Betrayal
  • Loneliness and neglect
  • Sharing your humanity in private moments (if privacy is invaded and humiliation is endured 
    (For more—get his book: Writing for Emotional Impact)

Many of those suggestions fit The Martian, so why didn’t it work for me? 

It has as the major stake an astronaut being stranded on Mars with possible death. Although he’s engaging because of his sense of humor, the author has not made me care. There’s definitely conflict. I watch him struggle, use his unique set of engineering and other scientific skill sets. I watch with fascination. But am I connected to him as another human being? No. The writer has not made him come alive for me. He remains a character on a page in a book—not a real life person I might want to spend time with. Now the movie might be very different, depending on the skills of the actor (and we all know who that actor is so I’m sure I’ll care).

I know there are readers who have more logical minds that will love the book for its technical information.   

Would you keep reading?

Peter NicholsAnother session I went to was on writing Memoir with Peter Nichols (What you remember is up to you) and I found insight into writing fiction beyond just memoir. 

And here's  why The Martian didn’t work for me:

The technically accurate ‘truth’ is not where the story is. 

That’s why fiction has such value.

When writing memoir, keep in mind:

  • It is not a biography that needs to be fact checked. It may not be the “truth.” Memory is elastic/plastic and changes over time as our synapses change. A memoir is a reconstruction of memory—not the actual moment, and everyone that occupied that moment will remember it differently.
  • It is how a memory affects the writer (and memory is a funny thing—we will all remember the same incident differently). Ask yourself, ‘how does that memory make me feel?’

There is a commonality in human experience. That concept ties in with what Iglesias said. It is not the factual truth we care about but the emotional truth. Our opinions are formed from our memories. But the memories evoked from looking at old photos are never the factual truth. 

If you don’t remember all the details of the time period you're writing about, it’s probably not important. What happened inside you is where the real story is. Where did you come from psychologically and how did it color how you view life? 

When writing a memoir, write it in any way that will help you get it out, in whatever voice you need to tell your story. Realizing it does not need to be published, gives you the freedom to get at the emotional “truth.”

Find the center point on which to hang your story:

  • Where are you writing from—what incident or time?
  • Identify the emotions you feel when remembering.
  • There needs to be commonality and surprise.

The dysfunctional family is a familiar model for a memoir—it gives the reader a point to relate to and find their own humanity.  Harper Lee’s style was to write To Kill a Mockingbird from the viewpoint of a child with all the knowledge and wisdom of an adult.

We all tell ourselves stories about our lives. Make what you remember very real, whether it's true or not. Focus the details toward a goal of your story. What is it you want your readers to glean?

Nichols advice: When you've gotten it all out, you then fit it into a shape you can sell, if that's your goal.
     "A story is a problem or a stressful situation." 
     "Forgetting is the compost of the imagination." 
     "What you remember is up to you."

Both these authors are saying the same thing whether writing fiction, a movie, or a memoir—the emotional reaction in the reader is key--brought about by the magician author’s alchemical process.  

Keynote Presenter - Karl Iglesias
Karl Iglesias is a screenwriter and sought-after script doctor and consultant, specializing in the reader’s emotional response to the page.  He is the author of the best-selling Writing For Emotional Impact and The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, and a contributor to Now Write! Screenwriting and Cut to the Chase. He’s an Adjunct Professor at California State University – Fullerton and an instructor at UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program, where he received the Outstanding Screenwriting Instructor award in 2010.  
Follow him on Twitter @KarlIglesias

Peter NicholsPeter Nichols is the author of the novel The Rocks (Riverhead Books, 2015), and the international bestsellers A Voyage for Madmen, Evolution's Captain, and three other books of fiction, memoir, and non-fiction. His novel Voyage to the North Star was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC literary award. He has taught creative writing at a number of universities, including Georgetown University, Bowdoin College, New York University in Paris. He has also worked in advertising in London, as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, been a shepherd in Wales, and sailed alone in a small boat across the Atlantic.

What are your reading limits? Do you need that emotional connection when you read?

Have you read The Martian?--I would love to know how you saw it in this context.


Unknown said...

The Martian worked for me on all the levels described. It is not a romance, or an erotic story of bondage - there is not one smidgen of sex in it. And it is not a horror story, though there is a lot of suspense. It is an adventure based on a high level of reality on a freaking other planet. It is the quintessential show not tell story where the character all alone deals with survival on a very personal level. To a vast majority of people it is a compelling read that, as I just saw tonight at the theatre, makes a very good movie.

In addition, there are many characters and scenarios surrounding Mark Watney's plight. Even though the story has a lot of technical stuff, the author does a great job making the reader follow along and see how the science works. Or at least the reader thinks he does and that is just fine.

So, as you listed in your tutorial above, all the dynamics that make a compelling story are there in this story. You just didn't connect with the main character.

But I know you will like the movie!!

Gloria Getman said...

I saw the movie because my son read the book and thought it was great. The movie was really well done and Damen was very good in it.
I'm having the same trouble as you described while reading The Silkworm. I'm a quarter of the way into it and I could care less. I'll keep trying, at least until I reach the middle. I liked the first book, Cuckoo's Calling. I found the characters much more interesting in that book.

Cora said...

I have to concede that not all stories are going to have that emotional connection. We read for different reasons and techies love The Martian. We can read a book and not particularly connect with it, and still get a lot out of it. Now that I've finished the book, I will say this. His ending was so much better than his beginning. If he had started it there and went back in time, I might have been more engaged. I stayed with it because it was fascinating on another level. But emotional connection-No, did not have that. I was more connected to the astronauts on the ship. Now the movie is another animal. I know I will love that because I'm sure Matt Damon will bring that emotional connection to it.

Thanks for comment Gloria and Kris. Differences of opinion make for scintillating conversation!

karl621 said...

Hi Cora,

Thank you for writing this post and sharing information about my workshop on Pixar's Emotional Core, but you should know that your opening paragraph is incorrect: I do not work at Pixar, nor have I won 27 Oscars for animated pictures. The Pixar animators have. I'm just a storytelling expert who uses Pixar as a model of great storytelling. Thought you might want to correct your post before it spreads out into the interwebs :-)


Anonymous said...

Hi Cora-
I think a story must resonate with the reader at a personal level to draw in the reader. Elnora used to pound into our heads that the reader wants the writer to tell me about ME. A shared emotion, a high school incident, something the reader is familiar with on a visceral level and you have the reader wanting to share your story. This Elnora's other favorite head banger, Know Your Audience.

Cora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cora said...

Hurray, you figured out how to get past the robot doorkeeper. Thanks for your comments, Joanne. Always welcomed. I think you are echoing Iglesias' ideas just stated another way.