I got a lot out of Michael Hauge’s two-day seminar last weekend. More than I’d gleaned four years ago when he visited WRW the first time. I think his presentation is better today than it was back in 2008. Well worth the money I spent. He’s refined his material and deepened the concepts.
One of the
biggest points to hit home for me was that all story must elicit a positive emotional journey for the reader/viewer and that emotion flows out of conflict. If I think about the books I read and the movies I watch, this is definitely true. When I say positive, I don’t mean all happy-go-lucky. But a journey that strings me a long and draws me into sustainable conflicts and believable barriers and setbacks, as well as triumphs. I want to experience the highs and lows with the protagonist. And I want to experience her growth over the arc of the story.
Readers pick up books and movies for the emotional journey. They want to lose themselves in the stories of someone else for a little while. At the hands of skilled writers, we find ourselves laughing, cheering, cringing, and crying with the best of them. It’s the credible twists and turns, confrontations, conflict, and successes of a character that allow us to experience universal truths that resonate with us all and showcase what makes us human. In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge says: “People do not go to movies so they can see the characters on screen laugh, cry, get frightened, or get t
urned on. They go to have those experiences themselves.”
I’d argue this is why we see certain movies and why we read certain books--because we enjoy the emotional journey that particular genre gives us. The tropes or reader/viewer expectations of that particular genre draw us like a magnet and speak to us in a satisfying way. I read books across the spectrum of genre fiction and enjoy them, however, I adore romance novels. And romance novels are the novels I choose to write.
No matter what the characters go through in a story, no matter what their personal arc, in a romance I know I will not get a tragic ending. While I know the ending will be happy, it’s the believable setback or the point where all hope is lost that makes me worry that these two characters won’t get their happy ending. Will the character be courageous enough to push through that final setback to find their happy ending? Or will they revert to their old life, the status-quo where they live a desperate life of mediocrity trapped by their fears? Isn’t it the secret hope we all cling to in life? That we’ll make a difference and that when adversity strikes that we’ll rise to the challenge and push through to find triumph?
The importance of getting this final setback right in a story and pinpointing an emotional journey directed at a particular audience hit me hard twice in the past two days. First, as I sat watching The Proposal with my youngest son and then as I sat watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II with my middle son. At the point of the final setback where all hope is lost for the protagonist, in each case, I heard my son sniffling.
These are two totally different movies. Drastically different stories. However, in each case, that final setback spoke to that teenager. So much so that the setback moved them to tears. In The Proposal when Margaret realizes she’s forgotten what it means to be part of a family and then admits to a roomful of people that she blackmailed Andrew into marrying her and then she runs back to New York, she sets off a whole series of events that show the other characters how much she truly loves Andrew to give him up and give him the life she believes he deserves. The audience is rooting for them. We know they’re perfect for each other. And when all hope is lost, we worry for them.
In the recent Harry Potter movie, the final setback where all hope is lost is where Harry realizes he’s the eighth horcrux and he must sacrifice himself--he must die--at Voldemort’s hand. J. K. Rowling is masterful. She makes us truly believe that all hope is lost--that Harry dies and all is lost. When I read the book for the first time, I sobbed uncontrollably at this point. The author builds a credible setback that rips our hearts out and makes us believe that this teenaged boy will not triumph.
And it’s this mastery of sustainable conflict and believable setbacks that prove the hallmark of a great writer--a writer who provides a satisfying emotional journey for her readers/viewers.
So what stories have worked for you on that emotional level? And tell us the genre.