What makes a great story?
What drives plot forward, besides a strong, identifiable goal?
You could have nailed all of these things, but your story could still bore people to death. What else makes a story shine and rise above others?
The little things.
What do I mean by the little things? Well, think about your favorite movie, or your favorite play. Do the characters just stand there and yammer at each other in a white-walled room with their hands hanging at their sides?
Warning: almost all of these examples include SPOILERS for the movie or book mentioned
Examples of “the little things.”
#1 A day at the park…
(okay so this is not a movie…just something that happened to me)
Just like in a play or a movie, the little things are what really add life and vibrancy to a story. For example, I was at the park the other day watching these 3 guys talking, they were in their 20s, and the one guy the whole time while he was talking, kept putting one leg on the bench, then he’d set it down. He would shuffle side to side, then put his leg up again, then put it down. DUDE YOU ARE WEIRD OK! But that’s the stuff that adds life to your story. What weird mannerisms does your character have?
#2 The Pursuit of Happyness:
At one point in the movie, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) receives a very fortunate call late in the evening, a man inviting him to interview for an internship. Literally, while he’s on the phone, he’s scouring, digging all around his messy apartment for a pen and paper but can’t find one. The man gives him a 10 digit phone number AND a 4 digit extension. He is forced to commit the number to memory. Then he heads down the street to a liquor store so he can borrow a pen; the whole time he’s repeating the phone number while he walks. Before he can reach the store, an acquaintance runs into him and starts talking about the basketball game, who won, by how many points, how many seconds were left. Gardner’s like, “Dude, don’t talk to me about numbers right now,”
While your characters are talking with each other, what are they physically doing?
#3 The Heist: by Laura Pauling
The little things also has everything to do with what your character sees and hears, what they smell, touch, taste. But also even perhaps, what they don’t hear, or what they don’t see. What does your character see or hear, or taste or smell while they are interacting with others?
Just read this beautiful passage from Heist by Laura Pauling. It’s amazing.
Some setup: There’s an art festival going on outside. This boy is searching for his dad.
After several deep breaths, I shuffle down rows and rows of tables lined up on the side of the park closest to the museum. I barely notice the paintings and sculptures.
The sound of popcorn popping rattles my nerves. The smell of fries, hot and crisp, just pulled from the grease turns my stomach. I want to grab the next whiny kid begging for food and shake him. So many people dressed in green velvet coats and green wigs. Overkill. All the sounds and smells blend together in a buzz.
The way people interact with their environment is crucial to a story’s success. In Piixar’s Up, (SPOILER ALERT. But really if you haven’t seen this movie. you need to go watch it RIGHT NOW. It’s one of my favorites, can you tell?
Anyway – the beginning sequence paints a beautiful picture of this young man who falls in love with a girl. They get married, grow old together, and promise to go on adventures. However, before they can visit Paradise Falls, she passes away. Then he ties thousands of balloons together, strings them through his chimney and somehow creates a flying house. So he ‘flies’ toward Paradise Falls.
Everywhere you look inside this man’s home, you see pictures of his wife. Items that his wife loved. A bird. Dinnerware. Etc. When the flying house hits a massive lightning storm, the first thing he dives to catch are the picture frames. Anything that his wife valued, he hangs onto for dear life while the storm rages.
Why? Because those are the things important to him in his environment. What is important to your characters in their environment?
I could pull up any number of well-crafted movies or books for this particular post. I could go on and on… but I’ll save you and I the repetition.
If you want to learn how to write with the little things in mind, here is my advice.
- Think visually. Watch a movie closely and see what the characters are DOING during dialogue. Are they clumsy? Very Proper? Are they relaxed? Stiff? How do they interact with the stuff around them? Apply that to your writing.
- Think with the five senses. Taste, touch, seeing, hearing, smelling.
- Don’t rely on how a person is ‘feeling’. That is also important and it’s what sets a book apart from a movie and/or play, but it can be overused. Again, think visually. How can you turn that ‘feeling’ into an action or a physical sensation? (AKA SHOW DON’T TELL)
- Also, read. A lot. Read good authors. Read in your genre. Read outside your genre. Read!
By the way, most of these little things will be added as you revise and edit your drafts. It’s very hard to write like this automatically unless you’re a very experienced author. So don’t beat yourself up over not being able to write perfect drafts. But what you do have to do, is remember to weave them in later on. Of course, always remember that every author’s style of writing and implementing those ‘little things” into their stories will be different. Just because your favorite author does it one way, doesn’t mean you have to copy them. Find your own style.
What little things do you love to add within the tapestry of your stories?
Check out the rest of my What Makes a Great Story? series posts