Helga’s Post #119: What makes a story really and truly tick?
We all know the answers, so no point preaching to the choir. What does get overlooked more often than what’s good for us writers, is this:
The power of relationships.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it’s so common to forget about it and rather focus on getting characters right. Powerful characters that we hope will keep the readers turning the pages of our story. In fact, it’s the relationships between these strong and interesting characters that is the make-or-break aspect between a flop and a bestseller.
Sure, a good plot helps. Suspense and pacing is crucial. Setting will frame the story. Credible, three-dimensional characters are all-important. But interesting characters by themselves are not enough to make a book roar.
It’s how the characters relate to each other that defines the story – and may well determine the book’s future success or failure.
This was brought home to me again after watching the movie Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks.
Never wanting to miss a Steven Spielberg flick I expected much and was not disappointed. In fact, I was quite shaken, not because of the plot, setting or acting, all of which were exceptional, but by the superbly acted and unusual relationship between the Russian spy and the American lawyer assigned to defend him. I will not do a spoiler here, rather I recommend this movie to any of you writers out there. Go and watch it with a view of judging what makes this film as powerful as it is. Then go back home and try to weave these aspects into your own story.
The plot and genre also acted as a huge attractant for me, so please keep that in mind about my starry-eyed review. The setting of the film is late 1950s Brooklyn and later East Berlin, height of the Cold War scare. Height of the hysteria and hatred around Soviet Russia. Spies working each side of the two worlds. Time of the apocalyptic fear that gripped America during the dark days of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’. Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States.
I loved it for its excellence but also as it reminded me of my novel Closing Time (unpublished), the manuscript collecting cobwebs under my bed for the last five or six years. Its setting is 1958 Vienna, the story based on true events but with fictionalized characters (other than President Eisenhower and Nikita Khruschev). Its focus is also the Cold War, the topic negotiating the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the superpowers. It was the second novel I wrote. At the time I thought it was pretty good but a number of rejections from editors and literary agents made me doubt my earlier enthusiasm. And so it lingered since.
Watching ‘Bridge of Spies’ however made me rethink my own story. Perhaps it’s worth dusting off the cobwebs. Sure, it needs a total re-write. I may have to change my protagonist and the antagonist, but these are relatively small details. I have the setting nailed, because that’s where I grew up. A little later than the time of the story, but I can relate.
The major part of the rewrite will be my characters’ relationships to each other. My mind is going into overdrive as I write this.
Thank you Steven Spielberg, not only for a great movie, but also because you have done me a great favor. Maybe you have spawned a book worth publishing. Thanks for the memories.