As writers, we often struggle to learn how to entertain readers, to hook them into our stories, to please wide audiences, to keep them hanging onto our every word.
But sometimes I read stories that entertain me very well yet leave me feeling unfulfilled. The author may have perfected a lot of poetic Kung Fu but leave me feeling hungry.
What are we hungry for? What nourishes us? Real knowledge. Vital information. The kind you need deep in your soul.
Years ago, one of my students asked how to write the bestselling young adult novel of all time. I told her that it would be a romance mixed with wonder. She said she wasn’t interested in “writing about sex,” but I pointed out that “romance isn’t about sex.” It’s about human bonding. It’s about finding someone that completes you. It’s about recognizing when you are in love and how to love and how to stay in love forever. It’s about how to become one with another person.
If you understand this, and your story incorporates valuable information on how to do this, you will do well. Her first novel went out and did fabulous and has sold over 250 million copies so far.
But the same is true in any genre. When you write an adventure novel, what are you really writing about? Perhaps you’re writing about how to defeat a larger and vastly more powerful enemy. Maybe you’ll need to talk about how to take a blow that life deals you. Perhaps you’ll need to discuss how you forge on when all your companions turn and run. Or how to dig deep inside and find the internal resources that you didn’t know you had.
Or if you are writing drama, perhaps you need to deal with death. You might have to write about acceptance and show readers how the deepest peace they will ever know comes not from clinging on, but from learning to let go.
Doctors who are studying the effects of stories on the brain have come to recognize that there is a point at the climax of a story where readers experience an influx of oxytocin, a hormone that helps turn short-term memories into long-term memories. If a reader reaches that point in a story and finds that there is nothing of value in the story to learn, the reader will leave feeling hungry.
For this reason, we reach a point where we as authors need to bring all our experience and genius and wisdom to bear, and feed our readers some real, something valuable and of lasting import.
I know, some of you are going to say, “Don’t be didactic.” That’s another concern, one that we’ll have to talk about later. When I talk about feeding the soul, I’m not talking about cramming the equivalent of intellectual Twinkies into a reader’s mouth as she screams and begs for you to “Stop!”
I’m talking about finding real food for the soul, bits of wisdom that nourish and satisfy a reader and feed them at the deepest levels.
T.C. Christensen is an American filmmaker who has won over 270 national and international awards for his work in directing and photography. In 2010, he was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers.
Claudia Mills is an American author of children’s books. She is also an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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