I recently finished a book called Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. I have seen the movie many times (Natalie Portman & Ashley Judd) and thought the book might be nice. And it was. It was a nice story, some sweet moments here and there, until I came to the end. I found myself in tears at the breakfast table. That’s when it occurred to me: what do readers really want?
Okay, let’s extend this question a bit. What do we all want? Readers, movie goers, theater audiences, pretty much everyone who likes to hear, see and read a good story. We make it through an okay book because there is this one page at the end that gets us. We sit through two hours of a movie to come to one moment when we are touched by what’s going on on-screen.
What we want, as readers, is to be transported to a place beyond our daily experiences; a place that is not accessible to us in normal life; a place that connects us to something inside of us that we have forgotten somehow. We associate this place with our childhood maybe, or a relationship we’ve had. But I think it goes past even that.
As writers, we can’t fake this moment, can we? Just writing, “I loved you for as long as I can remember,” doesn’t do anything unless we come from that place within us that remembers the longing, the heartbreak, and the powerful struggle we experienced. Just before Where the Heart Is, I read a book on Adele. Talk about coming from a place of heartbreak. Adele is probably the epitome of writing directly from an experience and transferring this place within her out and to her audience without much interference. That is as much a craft as the writing itself. From what place within us do we write?
I have had an acting teacher once. Her name is Sande Shurin. She taught that, in every scene, forget the character and what he or she is supposed to feel. Be yourself, your authentic self. How do you feel right now? Be authentic. From that place of authenticity, there is a connection, a bridge that leads outward to reach across the gap to the audience. In that place we are joined somehow and it is in that place, where both of us can go beyond our normal experiences.
I’m not a fan of Nicki Minaj’s music per se but she said something during the last season of American Idol that stuck with me. She said, as advice to one of the contestants, “If you can feel it, we can.” I totally agree with that and I realized that this is the same with writing. If I can go to that place where I am touched, where I am lifted up and carried somewhere, where I experience heartbreak or fear or love, my readers will most likely feel the same way.
The other aspect that struck me was this: When I read Where the Heart Is and reached the end, I could sense that the decision to make the movie was probably made at that one moment. It’s a nice story, don’t get me wrong, but there are thousands of stories out there from thousands of writers. But all each story really needs is one scene that touches the reader. Think back to movies you really enjoyed. They weren’t touching all the way through. You weren’t sitting there weeping for 90 minutes (okay, some movies do that to you but mostly because they are so bad you cannot but cry). No, there is usually one scene the whole story leads to that makes it or breaks it; that lets you remember it forever or forget it instantly.
I’m going to be a bit more conscious of this from now on. To tell a good story is a great goal. To tell a good story and to give the reader a moment that moves us both past our day-to-day experiences, is probably the greatest gift a writer can give to her readers – and herself.