"God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform..." William Cowper

Monday, February 28, 2011

What We Bring To A Story

Last weekend, after the kids were snuggled in their beds, my husband and I settled down to watch Titanic. I was a sophomore in high school when the movie first came out and I watched it several times as a sixteen-year-old, completely engrossed in Jack and Rose's love story.

Last Saturday night, when I made the suggestion to dear hubby that we watch the movie, I looked forward to reliving the romance and adventure.

But I was in for a surprise. One scene (really a snip of a scene) shook me to the core and had tears pouring down my cheeks. And strangely enough, it had nothing to do with Jack and Rose. In fact, I had barely noticed the scene when watching Titanic as a starry-eyed teenager. So why the emotions? Twelve years later, I am a different person. I brought something different to this story: my experience of motherhood.

The scene that grabbed my thoughts wasn't the one that latched on to them years earlier--that of Rose releasing Jack to the cold ocean depths at the end of the movie. I was prepared for that. I knew the inevitable. Rather, the scene that took me by surprise was of an underprivileged mother and her two children. They'd been locked beneath the ship to die. Water pooled around them. The mother leaned over her little ones cuddled on a bottom bunk, stroked their foreheads, and told them a story. Calmly. As if this night were like all the others.

The scene was but five seconds, but it tugged at my heartstrings in a deeply personal way and sent my imagination flying. How would I react in such a circumstance? Could I be so brave? What stories would I tell my children? What sweet words of Jesus would I whisper in their little ears?

And why did the scene barely impact me all those times I'd seen it years earlier? Had my heart been cold? Did I not value children?I don't think any of these were the case. In fact, it was what I now brought with me to the story. My children are the same age as those in the movie. I could relate to this poor mother's predicament in a way I couldn't as a sophomore in high school.

This got me to thinking--what makes a good story? One that evokes emotion from a reader will most certainly be more successful than one that doesn't. A skilled author creates characters and situations that draw on our own emotional experiences. Love, protection, fear, hopelessness. We all know these feelings. It's a writer's job to tap into them. I need to pay more attention to this in my own writing.

Have you ever had a similar experience--either in reading a book or watching a movie? What do you think makes a story worth reading?

Monday, February 21, 2011

How To Improve Your Plotting Exponentially

After reading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, I could hardly wait to try this handy little technique and share it with all my writing friends who haven't yet been able to get their hands on this wonderful book. Here's a very basic summary of the exercise Bell outlines in Plot & Structure.

1) Obtain six novels of the type you wish to write.

2) Read one book. Think of how it resonated with you. Did the characters and plot move you? What did you think overall? Read the remaining five books in the same fashion.

3) Go back to the first book. With index cards, summarize each scene in the book. Number the cards, using one index card per scene. Record the setting, the point-of-view, and what type of scene it was (setup, action, reaction, etc.). Repeat for the remaining five books.

4) Choose a stack and go through the cards quickly, reading each one. Repeat with the others. James Scott Bell says "At this point, you're going to have an incredibly powerful new sense of plot bubbling in your brain."

5) Spread out one stack of cards on the floor. Divide them into the three-act structure. "Identify the scene or scenes that compose each doorway of no return." Repeat with the other cards.

I've just begun this exercise, and am already benefiting from it. If anyone else tries (or has tried) this technique, come back and let me know how it helped. I'd love to hear from you!