What Makes a Story Memorable?

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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.

Rediscovering the Local Library for Lifelong Learning

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Have you visited your local library lately? When was the last time you did?

It had been a long time since I visited a library, but a few weeks ago I decided to go to the one in my neighborhood to escape the heat. Once inside the glass doors, I was quickly reminded how much I loved the hushed atmosphere. People spoke is low voices amidst the rustling of newspapers and the hum of laptops as people worked. I love that low-level noise, just enough to know that other people are around, but not loud enough to interfere with a person’s studying or reading activity.

As I wander the aisles, I imagine myself getting smarter just being there in the presence of so many books. I feel like my body absorbs their creative energy, the ideas, the discussions, and the desire for learning. No wonder there is a hushed reverence as soon as I walk through its doors. Knowledge is at work among those who visit.

In an era where Google rules the Internet, local public libraries have been a mainstay in many communities. New research by Pew Research Center finds that libraries still play a vital role in our local communities. Where would we be without these places of learning? Like print books, they’re not going away any time soon. And that’s great news for self-described lifelong learners like me.

But like many people, I tend to forget that the library is there, ready to welcome readers and students of all ages and education levels to browse its shelves and delve into subjects to expand their understanding of the world. Most Americans believe that libraries do a good job of providing a safe place to hang out, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Consider these additional statistics:

* 77 percent say public libraries provide them with the resources they need.

* 58 percent of respondents believe libraries help open up educational opportunities for people of all ages.

* 49 percent think libraries contribute “a lot” to their communities in terms of helping spark creativity among young people.

* 47 percent said libraries provide a trusted place for people to learn about new technologies.

We may occasionally forget that the library exists, but thank goodness they still play a vital role in our communities. While most people may prefer to use the Internet initially for learning new things, it’s nice to know that libraries are still a viable place for reading, research and studying.

 

Nine Easy Ways to Expand Your Vocabulary

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Whether you are a budding writer or a working professional in a non-communications role, your ability to communicate depends on an expansive vocabulary. As children and young adults, we learn new words at a fairly high rate. By the time kids reach age six, they know close to 13,000 words, according to Scholastic.com. Most native English-speaking adults have mastered 20,000 to 35,000 words, according to TestYourVocab.com. Sadly, vocabulary growth tends to slow down for most adults by the time they reach mid life.

When it comes to reading and writing, learning new words and broadening our scope of language and understanding can only serve to make our story telling skills even better. With each new word we learn, it’s only natural that we want to implement it right way into our everyday conversation, to display our newfound knowledge.

Whether you want to become a better writer or just want to impress your friends with your growing lexicon of language, here are a few easy tricks to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read, read, read. This is obvious. The more you read, the more you will absorb the writer’s meaning through language. And the more diverse your reading materials – from historical fiction novels and celebrity memoirs to newspapers and medical journals – the more expansive your vocabulary will become.

2. Play games and puzzles. Crosswords and other word puzzles are not only fun, but they help build your understanding of words. A site like TestYourVocab.com offers several self-tests and exercises to help you determine how expansive your vocabulary is.

3. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus at your side when you read. This is a no-brainer. These valuable tomes are your best friends whenever you read or write.

4. Read the dictionary. Yes, you read that right. Read the dictionary front to back as if you were reading a novel. A grade-school classmate of mine did that in seventh grade. While other kids in the class were throwing spit balls, my classmate sat quietly at his desk studying the dictionary. It did not surprise me to learn several years later that he earned a perfect high score on his ACT test.

Take a page or two a day and study each word on the page. Note how many of them are unfamiliar to you. Little by little, your vocabulary will grow.

5. Take a class on a topic unfamiliar to you. If you don’t have the time or patience to read a text book, taking a class might be the next best thing to help you build your vocabulary. For example, when I took a personal training certification class a few years ago, I was exposed to terms and phrases related to exercise physiology, nutrition and physical fitness, not part of my everyday language, but it did give me some additional exposure to words I never would have learned otherwise. If medical science isn’t your forte, try other topics, such as gardening, carpentry or cooking.

6. Keep a vocabulary log. Each time you come across a word that is unfamiliar to you, write it down in a journal. In the space next to it, look up the word in a dictionary and write down the definition. The practice of writing it down will help commit the information to your memory.

I just started doing this with the book I’m currently reading, where I have easily written down up to three or four new words per page. Now I wish I had started doing this practice a long time ago. I can only imagine how much more comprehensive my vocabulary would be now.

7. Talk to people. Have conversations. Every now and then, take your nose out of a book, laptop or iPhone and look around you. The next time you visit a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with people in line or sitting at a table by themselves. Listen to the way they speak. What words do they use?

8. Visit sites like Vocabulary.com, a free online learning platform that helps students, teachers and communicators build their vocabulary. The site offers online games and exercises as well as tools to help you build vocabulary lists. There are other online platforms and apps available for the same purpose. No matter which you decide to choose, they are designed to help you build your vocabulary in fun, interesting ways.

9. Start writing, and keep writing. The more you write, the better you become at writing and the more words you will learn to use along the way.

When you engage in any one, two or three of these techniques on a regular basis, you’ll see your vocabulary grow exponentially in a short matter of time.