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Lessons from the Movies—The Force Awakens

December 18, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 18, 2015

I hadn’t planned on writing about the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I’ve actually been working on an article about correlative conjunctions (and apparently it doesn’t have my full attention). But I was struck by one of the reviewers’ comments and thought that fiction writers and editors might benefit from the reviewer’s observation.

The line was from Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek, and out of the many reviews I hurried through yesterday and today, it’s the one that stuck out the most. Not as much for her opinion of the movie but as a spur to others who deal with fiction.

Zacharek pointed out that while J.J. Abrams—director of The Force Awakens as well as co-writer of the script—worked diligently to get much of the production right, she felt that he’d missed in some areas.

“But somewhere along the way, Abrams begins delivering everything we expect, as opposed to those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted.”

Those nebulous wonders we didn’t know we wanted—what a musical phrase. And what a result to work toward before a work is released to the public.

Many times I’ve reminded writers that one of a writer’s primary tasks is to satisfy the reader. I’ve also stressed that including genre conventions is necessary to meet reader expectations—some readers come to a particular genre searching for the genre elements that make a book enjoyable and satisfying to them. They read a particular genre expecting to find certain story elements.

And yet at the same time, stories shouldn’t be predictable. Readers don’t want the same story, they just want some of the standard ingredients that make great stories great. Beyond that, they do want new. And they definitely like being surprised.

We’ve talked about that as well, about surprising the reader.

Readers like satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they want only the same plot or character types again and again. Satisfaction, soul-deep satisfaction, comes through universal truth that pierces the heart. For some of us, such truth may be recognized only when it’s presented in a new way, through a new voice or with a different approach.

We love those aha moments, those times when fiction speaks to us or moves us. But that doesn’t happen for most readers if the story they’re reading now is the same by every measure as the previous one.

Elements that are new or fresh or surprising grab our attention and help us notice what we’ve never noticed before. The truth might have been hanging around for centuries or millennia, but until we take it in and understand it, it means nothing. If we don’t get it, whatever the truth is, it won’t move us. Not to tears or to action.

The good news for writers is that there are many, many ways to include unexpected and satisfying wonders in story.

A character can surprise and delight. A plot may go in an unexpected direction, requiring all the reader’s attention. Dialogue may enchant readers, creating an unexpected affinity between those readers and a story and its characters.

Mood and the emotional impact might be what surprises readers, twining around them and grabbing hold in ways that change those readers.

A philosophy presented through the characters may open a reader’s eyes.

Even word choice could be a wonder, a delightful, captivating, stirring mix of poetry and prose that shakes a reader from complacency or boredom.

Nebulous wonders—I’m going with a definition of nebulous as not clearly defined or hazy rather than confused or vague—when presented in just the right way, can tease readers. They can prod readers. They can create an itch that needs scratching, an itch that must be seen to.

Wonders are natural attention seekers.

Wonders stand out as something different, as something other, turning the readers’ attention toward whatever you want them noticing.

And wonders, if they are true wonders, can satisfy. They can push a story over the top in terms of reader satisfaction.

If the expected parts of the story satisfy, meeting the reader’s needs, and then a mysterious, wondrous element complements the expected elements, a reader gets it all, gets the complete package from a story. Gets the oh, good as well as the oh, wow.

Satisfy your readers’ expectations, but not at the expense of surprising them. Meet the needs they don’t even know they have.

Meet the needs that your stories raise in them. Yes, you get to create the need and satisfy it.

Satisfy readers on a variety of levels.

When we write, one of our tasks is to create stories that satisfy but that do so in novel and surprising ways. We want to write a complete story that hits all the expectations in ways that are new and eye-opening and arresting.

Our task is to engage the reader in every way, to tap into the mind, the dreams, the memories, the fears, and the imagination of our readers. Our task is to present vibrant truth, yet not in a tired way that rehashes that truth, dulling what should be arresting so that readers no longer pay attention. No, we should be creating with a fresh approach that has readers sitting up and noticing.

Like the young child seeing fireworks for the first time, readers should find awe and wonder in fiction. And writers should delight in giving that wonder to them.

Nebulous wonders . . . Have you included wonders in your work in progress? If not, why not consider adding an element that readers didn’t know that they wanted until they found it in your book.

Satisfy readers, but don’t be predictable. And don’t only fulfill the readers’ expectations.

Do satisfy them, of course. But satisfy with the unexpected as well as the expected.

Give readers both what they want and what they need.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Writing Tips

18 Responses to “Lessons from the Movies—The Force Awakens”

  1. David Pfaff says:

    Excellent article and all the best elements of what good writing is all about!!

  2. Your last two posts have been quite inspiring, Beth. So much to ponder, digest and take into battle.

    Sometimes, these nebulous wonders, you speak of, are a surprise to the author as well. Often those wonders spring from our subconscious. If we allow them to come out. You have to dive in to deep water and swim. Swim, and keep swimming, until you absolutely must come up for air.

    There’s a passage, in a dream sequence, I wrote this year for a short story — “My Yellow Cup with the Tiger On” — about a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome. In her dream she becomes the tiger:

    “On the street outside the zoo I walk my tiger body fast. I walk my tiger body so fast I start to run. And when I run I run so fast I can fly. I fly my tiger body into the sky. I can do that. I fly so fast I race the moon. I race the moon and the stars all the way into tomorrow. At tomorrow I fly across the blue sky. When I fly across the blue sky fire from my yellow fur burns behind me and smoke from my black stripes comes out behind the fire.”

    For me, that was a nebulous wonder. It wasn’t planned. Hell, I didn’t even know the girl was going to have a dream. Even more nebulous, I can’t really say that I know what “I race the moon and the stars all the way into tomorrow” means. But I understand it. And all these many months later, it still gives me a nebulous thrill ;-}

    Frankly, I’m still taking in everything from “Why Writing Fiction is Hard.” This new post feels like a nebulous wonder that continues the thread of that previous post.

    You’ve given us a lot to chew on. Now, when is “The Magic of Fiction” going to be available in paperback!?

    • Scott, your observation that writers can be surprised by what their subconscious offers is important. If we do our homework our subconscious will work for us when its ready. Two of the greatest surprises are the discovery of what our story is really about and an image that contains the essence of that, which helps us control what actions and images are meet and right for the story at hand.
      Beth, how pleasant that you focused on the music of the words. Too often we read silently without really hearing the words. The cadence of words is part of the beauty of great writing. The basic pattern of the ordinary English sentence often shows itself to be iambic pentameter. The iamb is a marvelous foot, meter; it is not only the unstress-stress sound of the heartbeat but also the tic-toc of time.
      I think writers should read their words aloud. Not only is the oral tradition thus reinforced but writers will discover many things in hearing their words.
      And as you indicate, finding and sharing universal truths is at the heart of Story. Aristotle said that what gives a story unity is not as the masses believe that it is about one person but that it is about one action–a universal, archetypal, enveloping action that uses the actions proper to act out what is our common human condition. Add to that Faulkner’s statement that the great stories are the stories of the human heart in conflict with itself, and a writer can fulfill readers’ expectations and yet surprise the reader with a fresh vision.
      Thank you for all you do.

      • Frank, such great points. Yes, discovering what our own stories are truly about is an eye-opening moment. And such a satisfying one.

        I love the music—the sounds and rhythms—of phrases and sentences. We can create a great variety of effects simply by changing the rhythm of a phrase. I love playing around with wording, moving the words around—or using a different word or two—and listening for the words to drop into place as they create the perfect sound for the moment in the story, for the emotion the character is feeling, and for the impact required.

        There is nothing more satisfying than getting the words exactly right for the variety of purposes those words serve.

        And thank you.

    • Scott, I’m so glad that both articles struck a nerve.

      I know exactly what you mean about surprising the writer as well; your example is a wonderful expression of surprising writing. I too love your line about racing the moon and stars into tomorrow. Sometimes the subconscious is simply ahead of the conscious mind and it spits out beautiful phrasings that are perfectly apt.

      The same thing happens with light-bulb ideas in other fields—all the ingredients are inside us waiting for the moment of revelation.

      My formatter assures me that the manuscript for The Magic of Fiction is being formatted this week, so the next step will be for me to proof it and finish up the cover. After that, I’ll order a copy for myself, proof it again, and get it up at Amazon. Since I’ve never done this before, I’m not sure how long it will take on my end, but it will be my priority as soon as it’s back in my hands. Of course the holidays fall in here too, but I definitely want to make the book available as soon as I can.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Beth. And thanks to Frank and Scott, too, for their insight into story writing. I’ve shared this generously as usual. I like to read my writing aloud to listen for that special cadence in the language. It isn’t always there, but sometimes I surprise myself. Specific images, poetry add to the reading pleasure, but writers must remember to surprise the reader through plot details as well. thank you again for your informative posts.

    • Well said, Ms. Lees.
      I heard on NPR this morning–or maybe yesterday–a reader say that some of the poetry (in the book she was reviewing) she found to be so good that she wanted to read it aloud. My unspoken comment to her and the radio was Since poetry is musical language, it must be read aloud. I wondered if she could really hear music in her head by reading the notes on the sheet. Maybe she was good enough to do so, but I’m not.

    • I love being surprised by movies and novels. And when the surprise fits perfectly, I love it even more. There’s something wholly satisfying about the perfect surprise, like someone giving you a gift that fits your personality and needs and deepest dreams when you didn’t even know that the person knew what you liked.

      Thanks for sharing the article.

  4. Thank you, Beth, for more thought-provoking words of wisdom. As I continue working on my current project, I’ll certainly be looking for ways to include “nebulous wonders.” You’re the best.

  5. Roy says:

    Maybe in some ways it’s like playing the Blues. No one is wondering what the next chord is going to be–they just want to hear how you’re going to get there. Or the sunset. It’s the same old story, like the Titanic, and you know she’s going down, but what will you see?
    Thanks as usual for the food for thought.

  6. I believe that we can learn a lot from the movies as well as from the books. But it is necessary to be careful of what you watch. The Force Awakens is great example of the movie to learn from.

    • Your comment about being careful of what you watch deserves amplification. Certain books, writers, and movies can give the apprentice and journeyman entirely the wrong idea about what is good and what is dangerous to try to emulate.