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.

Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Creativity?

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Photo courtesy of Hubspot Marketing

How many hours of sleep do you typically get in one night? How much do you think you need to be at your best creatively?

Medical experts say most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to function properly. Getting only five or six hours of quality sleep can affect us adversely.  You may be short-tempered and impatient which can put a strain on relationships, for example, and mentally you may not be as sharp, which can lead to potential mistakes. Physically, lack of sleep can affect your mood, cause weight gain, high blood pressure and other ailments.

We all lead busy lives, and as we take on more responsibilities, unfortunately, sleep becomes less of a priority.  How can you possibly think clearly, make critical decisions, remain calm under pressure and perform at your best without adequate sleep? The truth is, you don’t realize how valuable sleep is until you begin to lose it.

If your performance on the job can improve with better quality sleep, it makes sense that it can also sharpen your creativity.  If a lack of sleep is preventing you from producing your best creative work, here are a few tips to help you when sleep eludes you:

1. Keep a notebook by your bed. If your brain is racing with ideas or overthinking a problem, grab a notebook and pen and start writing them all down. Getting these ideas down on paper before sleep helps declutter your brain so you can sleep better.

2. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed time. The lighting from your smart phone, TV and laptop can interfere with the chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep. Avoid watching TV or listening to music before bed time. (I find that this actually works.) It’s important to quiet the mind before sleep.

3. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. If after 20 minutes you can’t fall asleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then try again.

4. Read before hitting the sack. This may seem counterintuitive if you’re reading an engrossing page-turner, but reading for a few minutes each night before bedtime can also help you relax. Try reading something dull and boring, like a science textbook.

5. Take a warm shower or bath. The warm water eases muscle tension and makes you sleepy.

6. Drink a glass of warm milk before heading off to bed. If you drink cow’s milk, try warming a mug of almond or cashew milk. You can also try chamomile tea, but it might make you go to the bathroom more often during the night, which only disrupts your sleep more. Wine and other alcoholic beverages might help you get to sleep, but you may have difficulty staying asleep.

7. Avoid sleeping pills. Some can be addictive, while others are ineffective. Other products on the market, like melatonin and Nyquil Zzzzs have had mixed results.

Whether you are an artist, writer or business owner, if you want to maximize your creativity and be more productive in your work, sleep is the most valuable commodity you’ll ever need.

Tips for Finding Credible Sources via the Internet

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A woman I met in a writing class was working on a book project. She had never done anything like it before, so she didn’t know how to go about researching her topic. “How do I find good, credible sources of information on the Internet?” she wondered.

Good question. The Internet, for all its accessibility to the information highway, has been known to play host to some faulty, inaccurate data, enough so that it has been the brunt of jokes. The fact is you can’t assume that what you read on the Internet is true, accurate, trustworthy, or worthy of being shared.

But fortunately for many of us writers, there are plenty of credible sources. You just have to know where to look for them and how to vet them. Here’s a list of sites I regularly seek out to find a credible source to interview or do background research.

* Trade associations, which cover industry news. For example, the National Association of Realtors covers the housing market, while the American Hospital Association obviously covers news about hospitals. If you don’t already have a contact there, reach out to the media relations department who can put you in touch with the best expert for your project.

* Government agencies collect data and conduct research about everything from energy consumption to employment statistics. If you need data to back up your research, agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Trade Commission will be strong bets.

* Universities often produce studies or have think tanks on-site. Professors with special expertise in certain topics or who are involved in research studies are good candidates for sources.

* Book authors often have specialized expertise. Check Amazon or Barnes and Noble for recent releases. Note the name of the author(s) and check out their website, if they have one. If they’ve written a book or published an article, they’re experts and they’re worth interviewing.

* Magazine, newsletter and website editors cover the topics of the day. They understand the issues facing their industry and are usually open to offering their perspective.

* Quoted experts in news articles. As you read articles on your topic, note the experts who are quoted in the story. What company or industry do they represent? What expertise do they have? Follow up with them via their website or connect with them through social media. If they’ve done one interview, they are likely willing to talk to you.

* Think Tank organizations and other research firms, such as Pew Research Center provide massive amounts of studies and data, and their researchers are often quoted in news stories.

* Not-for-profit organizations and foundations, such as American Heart Association, can provide a unique perspective. For example, the director of a silent film group can provide a historical perspective on the passing of a well-loved actress.

For most writing projects, I usually begin by contacting the media relations department. Describe your writing project and be specific as you can about what information you need. They will usually direct you to the right expert. If they don’t have someone available, ask if they can refer someone else. But be patient. It may take a few hours or days for them to get back to you. If time is a factor, make sure you tell them that you are working on a deadline.

Once you’ve collected your sources, don’t set up interviews right away, unless you’ve talked with them previously and know them well enough to contact them. You need to be sure they are legitimate sources for your story.  A source that hasn’t been properly vetted can weaken an otherwise well-researched story.

If the information you find is too good to be true, or promises more than they can deliver, think twice before sharing it. Be sure to confirm the accuracy of one source by using a second, and possibly a third source.

Check the Better Business Bureau to determine if there are any complaints against the company or source. If there are, they may not be the best choice of expert to be interviewed.

Do a Google search of topics and individuals. You might be surprised what pops up. For example, enter HCG Diet in the search space, and the list will reveal both positive and negative reports, which suggest that the diet may not live up to the hype. On the other hand, by seeing both positive and negative responses, you may find sources who are willing to discuss opposing perspectives, which can make your story more well-rounded and credible.

In the long run, your story is only as good as the sources you use.