The Wizard of Oz. Old Yeller. Harry Potter. Treasure Island. Les Miserables. Star Wars. Romeo and Juliet. It’s a Wonderful Life. These are unforgettable stories.
They are the stories we pass on to our children, or revisit over and over again, enjoying new insights at different stages of our lives. They are the movies we rewatch, the characters we adore, that one chapter or scene that moves us to tears every time.
Have you ever considered what specifically makes those stories so memorable?
The stories that stay with us are the ones that made us feel connected to something or someone. Be it the main character, the setting, the plot, the theme, or some other element, the authors of memorable tales captivated us. The stories in the list above present new and magical worlds, render strong emotion and passion, impart messages warm and dire. The connection we felt to the story remained once we finished reading. That connection can last years, even lifetimes.
If you want to write stories that last, here are some points of connection to focus on developing:
Hone your voice
Your writer’s voice is the most important tool you have if you want people to remember your words. You use it to create characters your readers will relate to, sure, but it starts with whether or not they like (the sound and style of) the person telling the story. Be thoughtful about your tone and inflection, and try to capture on the page how you speak to others.
Think also about the stories to which you are drawn. What can you say about their authors’ voices? Are they self-deprecating and dry, warm and bubby, sarcastic and witty, smart and straightforward? And do they do what they do consistently? If every word you write is “in-character,” then your readers will begin to trust your voice. If they trust your voice, they will trust whatever you tell them in that voice.
Now, what kinds of voices do you like best? How would you characterize your own voice? Bring that self-awareness to new work and to drafts floundering on your desk. Be willing to evaluate what you’ve written and identify, address, or cut the parts that do not feel authentic to your voice.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, doing so in a voice readers recognize and trust paves the way for them to connect with your story. Just as readers trust a voice they have come to know and love, they will likely empathize with characters they know and love.
Those characters and that connection are your creations. A strong, charismatic main character—the protagonist—will be attractive to readers. Dig deep to develop that strength and charisma. Who is the story’s antagonist? Who and what will challenge and test the main character? That we like who is speaking or acting is not enough; we long to see our favorite characters evolve, mess up, rise to a challenge, and win the day, because that’s what human beings do. Readers want to imagine themselves in the books they read, see themselves reflected there. The best fairy tales and fantasy stories will have their young viewers reenacting them for years. The books we recommend to our friends are the ones that made us feel empowered and uplifted.
Our most beloved stories make us feel larger than ourselves. They transport us to other worlds or light the way in our own world. Without empathy, that emotional connection to the characters or narrator, that transport rarely happens.
Strive for distinction
With a unique voice and a roster of relatable characters in place, you can focus on the narrative itself. Has this story been told before? Ideally, it will be brand new; but since we can’t all write The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the goal should simply be to capture the familiarity of the story's larger theme with your own unique voice and details.
Don’t mistake familiar for unoriginal or cliché. Most writers explore the same topics over and over again: getting married or divorced, having children, finding spirituality, grappling with disease or addiction, speaking up about abuse, and more. Humanity needs these stories. Do not let the fact that they are common themes deter you from telling your own versions of them.
But be distinct in your telling: 1) use your unique voice, and 2) incorporate original details and some unexpected language. Make the familiar less predictable. Instead of writing that your heart sank like a stone when your husband divorced you for another woman, say it descended like a submersible, rooting into the muck of the abyss, yes, but also exploring, gathering new resources, and eventually ascending once more. Now there’s an original metaphor (the heart as a deep-sea vessel) to spin an entire, unforgettable book around—especially if, say, you took up scuba diving in the aftermath of your divorce. Now you are telling two stories, and have created a metaphor to connect them. The story of divorce, already highly relatable, becomes distinct in your hands, for this version of it is one only you could write.
Make a list of your favorite stories. They can be books, movies, plays, fairy tales, or true stories that have passed down through your family. Your list might even include some of the same stories from the start of this post. Think about why you love these stories. Jot down a few notes about what makes each one so memorable for you.
Now, choose two of the stories and weave them together in an entirely new story. Connect the characters and plots; braid them so that the already-memorable elements become even more interesting. What would happen if Dorothy and Toto met Darth Vader? If you have fun writing it, you can bet readers will have fun reading it.
What is one story you come back to again and again, and why? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: 4 ways to write yourself out of isolation
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