What Makes a Story Memorable?

book-2170910_1280

Have you ever read a book that stayed with you long after you finished reading the final page? Or watched a movie that kept you awake all night as scenes replayed over and over in your mind?

There are few stories that are so memorable that they grab you by the throat and throttle your senses, or grip your heart so tightly that you want to cry or scream. Most reactions to stories are more subtle, of course, but still effective. Sometimes, a film or book drains you instead, so all you want to do is clutch a warm, soothing cup of tea and sit huddled on the sofa staring into space trying to relive the story in your mind or erase it because it was too horrible to experience again.

Recently I re-discovered one of my favorite all-time films on cable and again, I experienced that “stickiness” of a good story. I grew up watching Fiddler on the Roof enchanted by the music and the romance in a time and place far away from the here and now. The story is about a Jewish peasant in prerevolutionary Russia contending with the marriage of three of his daughters. It wasn’t until I was older and watched it as an adult that I understood the historical and religious undertones of the story. Still, as I lay in bed that night a few weeks ago, the story, the characters and the music continued to play in my head, delaying sleep.

What stories have you read or watched that made you feel sad, angry, joyous, surprised, frightened or ecstatic? What films have made you take notice of an issue, a person or a piece of history that you had not noticed before? What stories or characters made you want to take some sort of action — to dance and sing, to hug your children to make sure they were safe and felt loved, or hop on an airplane to a place you had never been before, just because you saw it on the movie screen or read such a vivid description that you had to see it in person?

In the business world, the term “stickiness” refers to a website’s ability to keep eyeballs browsing its pages. I suppose the same “stickiness” can be applied to a story’s ability to stay on in your memory long after you closed the book. The story gives us so much pleasure that we want to experience that pleasure again.

So what makes a story memorable? What elements do memorable stories have in common that make them worth seeing or reading over and over again? Here are a few common elements, based on my own observations.

Fully developed characters. If fictional characters were real human beings, they wouldn’t be flat, emotionless people. Characters need depth, flaws, and qualities that makes them more like one of us. Strong characters don’t necessarily have to be good characters and they certainly shouldn’t be perfect or we wouldn’t be able to relate to them. Complex, multi-dimensional characters make the most memorable characters, and they aren’t always the most likable. Think Ebinezer Scrooge or Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort.

Sense of time and place. We might remember a story for its unique setting or its place in history. For example, the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz is memorable because its unusual color transcends what we believe to be true of traditional paths that are made of other materials and other colors. It makes us realize that this is not part of our world.

Emotional connection. A story can be memorable by the emotional connection it creates between the characters and their readers or viewers. We can sympathize with Topol’s father figure in Fiddler on the Roof because of the emotional conflicts he faces. We feel the love he has for his family and his community, and we witness the pain and confusion in his eyes as he sees his old comfortable world falling apart, and he feels helpless to do anything to stop it.

Suspense. Without suspense, there isn’t much of a story, just a bunch of scenes with no connection to one another. Suspense creates tension, which is the engine that drives the action forward. As each chapter unfolds, another clue, character, or plot twist keeps our interest. If we want to know what’s going to happen next, we have to keep reading.

A satisfactory conclusion. There is nothing more disappointing than reading a page-turner only to get to an ending that makes you wonder, “What happened?”  The ending may not be what you or I have in mind, but it makes sense from the author’s or director’s perspective. We are so conditioned to believe in “happily ever after” that we expect happy outcomes in movies and books. So when a story ends differently, like Thelma and Louise driving their convertible off a cliff, or two young lovers split up at the end of La La Land, it can be a bit startling. The satisfaction comes with understanding that there is a resolution to the conflict in the story; it just may not be the one we wish it to be.

Granted most of these examples are films, but these tips work just as well for books, TV shows, even song lyrics. They tell stories too. Whether you write stories, or just enjoy reading them or watching them on film, remember that stories aren’t worth experiencing unless you can make them memorable.

Review: Writers Museum A Perfect Showcase of American Writers and Literature

American authors
If you’re like me and you love to read and talk about books, then you will want to check out the American Writers Museum (AWM). After a soft opening to the public last spring, AWM is finally beginning to draw more visitors and book fans to its location on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. For anyone visiting Chicago and looking for a literary hangout, AWM may be just the ticket.

I had the opportunity to visit the museum for the first time, thanks to a friend who is a member who invited me as her guest. While she listened to a talk about the life and career of Chicago writer Nelson Algren, I wandered through the exhibits, marveling at the history and literary genius of American writers, such as Algren, children’s author E.B. White, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others.

I particularly enjoyed the temporary exhibit Capturing Stories, which featured the visual works of photojournalist Art Shay who photographed notable authors such as Hemingway, Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks. Another temporary exhibit featuring the life and career of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series, reminded me how much a writer’s personal and family life influences their creative work. It also reminded me that I had read the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods when I was in fifth grade.

Permanent exhibits include a chronological presentation of the writing industry and the significant historical events that overlapped it; profiles of Chicago authors and the impact their work has had on our society and the city of Chicago; a children’s author section with a sparse collection; and a collection of games and exercises throughout the museum so test your knowledge of authors and their works. One such game, which could be played with one or two players, displayed a paragraph from a known published work with missing words. Players select a word from a list provided and can earn 25 points if they choose the word that correctly matches the published work.

Another example of the interactive nature of the exhibits is the ongoing survey of visitors about their favorite American authors and favorite published works. On my visit, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the top named book, and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the top named authors. The list is continually updated based on visitors’ survey responses.

The program calendar also has something for everyone — from gallery talks and children’s story time to conversations with first-time authors and discussion groups. AWM is rather compact in size, taking up the entire space on the second floor. Figure to spend at least two hours navigating the exhibits.

If I have a complaint at all about AWM, it would be the noticeable gaps in the exhibits. For example, the children’s section featured only four authors: Langston Hughes, E.B. White, Louisa May Alcott and Maurice Sendak (author of Where The Wild Things Are). I wondered why other prominent children’s and young adult authors such as Dr. Seuss, Charles M. Schulz, Judy Blume, Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew mysteries) and R.L. Stine, were not included.

Overall, the American Writers Museum does a pretty good job of collecting, organizing and presenting an interesting array of artifacts and information about the world of writing and literature. While it’s a worthwhile showcase of the best of American writers, there is plenty of room to grow.

 

Eight Books Worth Reading in 2017

CAM00666

As the first week of the new year comes to a close, I’m still closing the door on 2016. I did a lot of reading last year, getting caught up on books that were lying on my book shelf for months, and in some cases, years.

If you’re looking for a good read in 2017, I might suggest the following titles which I read last year. Some are well known, while others are rather obscure. All are entertaining, thought-provoking reads, guaranteed to stay with you long after the story ends.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman 
Historical fiction set in 70 C.E. in ancient Israel during the Roman invasion of Masada, where 900 Jews held out against the Roman army. According to ancient historians, only two women and five children survived. Five years in the making, this is their story, told by four incredibly bold, resourceful women. The writing is authentic and poignant. At times, I felt I was watching an epic movie unfold. Considered to be Hoffman’s best work, so be prepared to be swept away by her colorful and dramatic storytelling.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book sat on my shelf for several months until I learned of Lee’s death last spring. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. The writing is authentically southern, so at times it was difficult to follow. But beneath the language lay a story of racial tensions in a small town in the South and one man’s attempt to teach his children to treat all people, no matter how different in color or religion, with dignity and respect. Written from the viewpoint of a six-year old girl, the story is both timely and timeless, and just as important today as it was then.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Long before the Netflix series, Kerman shares her observations and experiences during her 15-month prison term at a federal correctional facility for women in Danbury, Connecticut. She also shares the stories of many of the women who she met along the way. The first-hand account reveals how Kerman and her fellow inmates managed to survive the day-to-day boredom of prison life, as well as their compassion for each other. Fascinating, if not sobering, read.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCullers was only 23 when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a book filled with humanity and compassion far beyond her years. Like Lee’s Mockingbird, this book also tackles racial tensions with grace and dignity. Even more poignant is how McCullers paints her characters, showcasing their strengths and vulnerabilities, and just how isolated each one is amidst their personal and moral crises. I was most fascinated by Singer, the deaf mute who everyone seemed drawn to, yet who understood very little of what they were telling him. It is through his thoughts and his eyes that we ultimately see how the heart is a lonely hunter, constantly searching for connection with like-minded souls.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Most of us in the free world would have difficulty imagining living in a society that banned certain books and prohibited women from furthering their education. Nafisi was a professor of English Literature in Iran. When Islamic morality squads began, Nafisi had the courage to set up secret gatherings for seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Reading this memoir and their discussions of famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, made me appreciate the freedoms we have in our country as well as the classic writing I have yet to experience.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Genova’s book reads like a memoir, and I suppose it could be. Still Alice is a poignant look at Alzheimer’s disease. The story opens with Alice Howland living a full and active life as a psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert on linguistics. As the story progresses, we see her become increasingly disoriented and forgetful. This is her journey and her fight to prolong the onset of the disease for as long as possible. This heart-breaking story will make you think, “Gee, this could be me someday.”

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Another novel that reads like a memoir, An Unnecessary Woman is the story of a book-loving, obsessive and isolated 72-year-old woman, whose belief that she is “unnecessary” in the world is shaped by her upbringing in the Middle East. She used her love of books and her translation work to hide from the world. Despite her efforts, circumstances force her to come out of her shell and interact with the world. The ending gives us all hope that we don’t have to be alone, that we are all necessary to one another, no matter where we live.

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Written with wit and journalistic integrity, 10% Happier is the memoir of Dan Harris, the weekend anchor of Good Morning America. This is his journey into the world of mindfulness and meditation, which at first, Harris fights. What I found intriguing about this book is the journalistic approach that Harris takes in which he interviews numerous high-profile experts about the experience of meditation, from Deepak Chopra to the Dalai Lama. We learn from Harris’s lessons, his experiences. Meditation is not as easy as it looks, and the lessons we learn about ourselves aren’t so simple either.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

What Does Bob Dylan’s Nobel Peace Prize Mean for Other Songwriters?

brown and black cut away acoustic guitar
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

Since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature last week, there’s been a debate among literary artists whether songwriters should be considered for such a high honor. After all, critics say, the prize is for the best works of literature, not songwriting.

Jodi Picoult, author of several novels including My Sister’s Keeper, tweeted “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, but #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinaGrammy?” Critics argue that giving the award to a songwriter weakens the meaningfulness of the award, according to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, other best-selling authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King praised the move.

That begs the question: can song lyrics be considered poetry or literature in the same vein as, say, T.S. Eliot? Yes, when those lyrics can stand alone without music, say supporters.

Clearly, Dylan’s body of work falls into that category, like this section from Mr. Tambourine Man. (“Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time/Far past the frozen leaves/The haunted frightened trees/Out to the windy bench/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow). Certainly, Dylan’s lyrics in protest songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” have struck a chord with the American public.

By naming Bob Dylan the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, does that open the door for other songwriters to be considered for this honor? If Dylan can receive the Nobel Peace Prize, why not Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie or Joan Baez?

Perhaps it is time for the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize every year, to begin awarding a prize for the arts, to honor the best works in theater, dance, art and music. What a radical idea, almost as radical as Bob Dylan himself.