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:
The 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
- 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?
Another 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.
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 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.