It was physically grueling. I can’t remember the last time I spent four eleven-hour days in a row sitting in a lecture theater, and it’s been more than thirty years since I had to take notes longhand. I treated myself to a new notebook and pen for the occasion.
It was mentally challenging. I had mixed feelings about Mr KcKee’s teaching style (to say he has strong opinions, robustly expressed, would be to understate the case), but no reservations about the quality of his analysis. Even though much of the material was familiar to me and I only made extended notes where I thought it necessary, I still filled more than sixty pages and went home every night with a head full of new ideas.
I could blog for the next year or more about the things that I learned, but three nuggets top my list of things to chew on, because I think they will be especially useful to me when I get on to writing Alexis’s prequel story. All three were superbly illustrated during the final session of Story—a six-hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca and again during Love Story’s breakdown of The Bridges of Madison County.
Top of the list is empathy. We’ve all been told that while it’s not necessary for the reader to like the main character, it’s vital for her to empathize with them—to feel that if she were in the same predicament, she’d make the same choices. I always think about that requirement when introducing a protagonist. I had not considered that the character must maintain empathy throughout the story or risk losing the reader. When a character makes a choice which risks alienating the reader’s empathy, it is the writer’s job to make that behavior understandable and relatable. So in The Bridges of Madison County, isolated housewife Meryl Streep sets eyes on fascinating stranger Clint Eastwood and chooses to cheat on her boring but respectable husband, cooking dinner for Clint in the family home, sleeping with him in the marital bed, (almost) leaving her family for him, and remaining in love with him throughout the rest of her married life. The husband is not a bad guy, and it takes a lot of hard work on the part of the writers and the director to make Meryl and Clint’s affair palatable, let alone inevitable, let alone a course of action that the audience is willing them to take.
Second is curiosity. Have you ever stuck with a story you weren’t enjoying because you wanted to know how it ended? Me, too. Apparently it’s because human beings are endlessly curious. So another way to persuade the reader to stay with you through a book or a series is to keep some juicy story questions open, and in such a way that the reader can’t guess what’s coming. And it’s important to do at least as good a job on your antagonist’s story as on your protagonist. Readers are well versed in story and genre conventions, and if you tip your hand, even a little, they’ll see everything.
Third is subtext, especially in the big scenes when the stakes are high and emotions run higher. There should be at least as much going on under the surface for the reader to figure out as there is front and center for them to see and hear. If you put everything on the surface, your story will feel flat and melodramatic and there’s nothing left for the reader to interpret.
I had Alexis on my mind the whole weekend. The prequel novella is the story of how her parents met and parted. We know Alexis’s mother ran and that Alexis was born in hiding. We know that some time after that her father married and had a son with another woman. I am the goddess of my story world, and I know both Daire and Annis are deserving of empathy, but I’m going to have to work super hard to deliver that experience to the reader. Last weekend I got some good thoughts about how I might do it. Curiosity I think might be a little easier. The choices the characters make cause consequences that raise major questions that will power the whole of Alexis’s series. Subtext will, I hope, help to keep the reader engaged as the story unwinds.
What do you think?
Have you ever empathized with a story character even though their choices were morally questionable or even repugnant? Stuck with a story just to find out what happened? Do you love it when characters leave the most important stuff unsaid?