Avoiding Cotton Candy.

A common whine for me is that it is so much easier to come up with depressing story ideas than happy ones. I mean, I can cook up gloom, doom, death, and destruction at the drop of a hat, but every time I try to think of something uplifting, I end up with cotton candy. Boring. Not good. So, in the interests of figuring out how to craft a story that is both happy and compelling, I enlisted the aid of my fantastic brother, Seth, to analyze one of our favorite happy stories, the movie Letters To Juliet starring Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, Vanessa Redgrave as Claire, and Christopher Egan as Charlie.

(Total spoiler alert on this trailer, by the way. But it’s a nice overview in case you haven’t seen the movie. You should watch it anyway, because it’s adorable.)

I know, I know, it looks like complete fluff. I mean, its based around falling in love on an Italian road trip, for heaven’s sake! Yet somehow it manages to hold your interest, and I wanted to know how, so I can hopefully harness some of that for my own work. So here’s what we discovered as we discussed it:

While the story is primarily a romantic comedy, each of the main characters have deeper emotional vulnerabilities. Sophie has insecurities about herself based on being abandoned by her mother at an early age, which leads her to subjugate her own desires to what other people expect from her, and to stay in a relationship that is clearly not working. Claire walked away from true love because of expectations and responsibilities, and has been regretting it for fifty years. Charlie lost his parents in a car accident as a child, and that caused him to become overly cautious, and to safeguard his emotions behind a wall of “realism.”

Any or all of these motifs could have been handled in a dark way, but in this story we are only shown glimpses of them, and they are always embedded in something positive, like humor, relationship building, or simply the beauty of the surroundings. Most of the story is focused on the characters moving beyond their vulnerabilities; Claire comes to find her true love, Sophie elects to follow her true passion and write about the journey, and Charlie throws caution to the winds and has fun for a change.

Still, the emotional risks of the journey are obvious enough that by the time you reach the crisis, when they are afraid that Claire’s Lorenzo is dead, and all of Sophie’s insecurities are brought to a head by Charlie accusing her of using Claire and telling her that she “doesn’t know a thing about real loss,” we aren’t left with a feeling of “Whoa, that came out of nowhere.” You begin to feel like this could really be the end of all of their hopes, so that when Claire gets her happy ending, there is a real sense of relief, and you are even more anxious to see Sophie and Charlie get theirs.

Now, I’m not saying with all of this that I want to write chick flicks, or their literary equivalent. But I think the key for me was realizing that vulnerabilities don’t have to be the primary focus of the story in order to have an impact. They can, and often should, be embedded in lighter things.

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