Shortly after seeing the musical, Les Misérables, I ran across this post by Joe Bunting: How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables
It started me thinking. Why do some stories like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick have such staying power? They were written over a hundred years ago. What makes them so compelling artists find new ways to retell them, over and over again?
Bunting believes five elements make a story compelling.
- Your character has to change. He calls this test transformation. We want to see how characters change, how they struggle to become better.
- Write about something with historic significance like the revolutionary war, or some other life-changing event for a country, not just one person.
- Have a big cast, many characters people can relate to. Instead of a story about one man’s journey, create a story about many character’s journeys.
- Show what your characters want. Give every character an arc. This gives us more characters to root for. To use Bunting’s example: Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous. (man against self) Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean. (man against man) Cosette wants a loving family. Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution. (man against society) Éponine wants Marius, and The Thénardiers want money.
- Sacrifice Everything. In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this rebirth. A character who risks everything for a virtuous goal, including his life, returns a hero and someone worthy of respect.
In school we’re taught there are three story types: man against man, man against society, and man against self. If a writer can incorporate all three, his story has a better chance of being compelling, one others will want to relate over and over again.
The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself, why is this story important? What can I add to make it more compelling? Then pick up your pen and begin to write.
I have been a Pam Houston fan ever since I read Cowboys are My Weakness. Her stories resonate so true, it’s hard to know what is real or invented. In her essay on craft–“Corn Maze”–Pam explains her writing process.
By the way, Pam’s new book Contents May Have Shifted, will be published by W.W. Norton on February 6, 2012.