The writer’s main goal is to elicit emotion in the reader. Why else would we turn the page and read until the end if not for being emotionally invested? Character traits can elicit emotion, so can certain acts like saving a child from a monstrous creature. Landscapes can be emotional. Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings can attest to that. In Hugh Howey’s Wool, the description of the silos brings forth a sense of terror and claustrophobia all by itself.
A while back, during my days of studying screenwriting, I watched a DVD called The Hero’s Two Journeys. Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler taught a workshop, incorporating Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey into Hollywood screenwriting and storytelling.
For the purpose of this article, I’d like to focus on the two items of the hero’s journey that elicit the most emotion in the reader. Without those two components, the story falls short. Mastering them, however, ensures success (if you define success in transferring an emotion from the writer through the written word to the reader).
The two items are:
A) The main character has to have a burning desire. I’d like to say she has to have a capital B BURNING DESIRE. The bigger the desire, the more emotionally invested we are as readers.
In Six String, the main character, Jennifer Dalton, lives in poverty in an abusive home, and when her little brother dies, the emotional toll on her becomes so overpowering that she runs away, taking with her only her broken six string guitar. For as long as she can remember Jennifer has dreamed of becoming a singer but nothing in her life, other than a raw and untrained voice, has pointed her toward fulfillment of this dream. Now living on the streets, she has no money, no prospects, not even enough strings on her guitar to play.
Jennifer’s burning desire is two-fold. Her most fervent desire is to get rid of the pain over the loss of her brother. The only way to do that is through singing and playing her guitar. That’s her coping mechanism and has been for most of her life. Becoming a singer and getting rid of the pain are interchangeable to her.
B) The second component, besides the hero’s burning desire is an insurmountable obstacle. The burning desire has to run against the obstacle for most of the story up until the climax. Initially, the obstacle has to be bigger and far more powerful than the desire. The bigger the gap between the desire and the obstacle, the better. Only in the final battle (whatever that may be) can the desire become so strong that it literally crushes the obstacle. The hero’s arc has been completed. The grail has been found, and the journey has been completed.
In Six String, the insurmountable obstacle is Jennifer’s homelessness, lack of means, lack of food, and symbolic of that, the lack of guitar strings. She runs away form her home in Twin Falls, Idaho with $18 to her name and a few clothes in her school bag. The obstacles to her ridding herself of the pain she experiences are tremendous as the journey only seems to add to her pain not lessen it. Her desire has to become so big and all encompassing that it eventually overcomes the obstacle.
In looking at successful stories, there is a definite pattern to the “Desire/Obstacle” approach. Basically, any story that grabs us and wont’ let go, has those two elements in it. If one is missing, it won’t work but bringing both to the forefront of the story makes for a wonderful read.
Stefan Bolz is an author, living in New York.