My husband is a proud, self-proclaimed non-reader.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s read all the classics, and has probably read more of those than I did. (In high school, I could take tests on books I’ve not read and ace them because the tests revolved more around themes and big picture things versus knit-picky, scene specific details like his tests were. Don’t worry, he still graduated valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 GPA in an uber-competitive private school.) But, he definitely does NOT have my love for reading books. He doesn’t wax poetical about the feel of the paper, the smell of a crisp new book, nor does he get starry-eyed delighted by a fantastical new read. He rolls his eyes when I get excited that a book became available for me at my local library (Finally! Y’all need to quicker!). He looks askance at my piles of books that signal that I’m planning on another reading marathon (where I read through my day off from work into the night, oftentimes devouring whole stacks of books by the time dawn rolls around).
However, despite all the eye rolling and sighs and proclamations that “books are stoopid,” he does have a favorite: The Count of Monte Cristo.
We brought it along to listen to on our 20+-hour road trip to Florida last September. He listens to it repeatedly as he works on the house.
In short, he’s a fan.
And, in true fandom form, when asked why he loves this book so much, he just chuffs, and says, “Because it’s awesome.”
But then a wonderful thing happened. The other night, we decided to watch the (ridiculously horrible, why does it even pretend to be Count of Monte Cristo because it’s nothing like the book) movie starring Jim Caviezel, and I was able to glean a lot from the husband’s utter disgust toward the film. Between horrified outbursts of “They weren’t even friends!” and “That’s not what happened at all!” I developed a picture of why he liked the story and what about it I can emulate in my own story telling.
First, Why He Liked The Story.
The Story Delivers.
The main reason why the husband loves this story is because it delivers on its promise for revenge. The story starts out with a poor, naïve Edmond Dantes, and ends with him transformed as the larger-than-life, stone cold Count of Monte Cristo. He spent years plotting his revenge against four men who betrayed his trust, and, in the end, he delivered his revenge. There was no flip-flopping to create unnecessary tension or drama. These men ruined Dantes’s life. They were the bad guys. They deserved what they got. The End.
[To see how a revenge story can fail to deliver its promise, I would direct you to the movie Law Abiding Citizen.]
A lot of Change, A lot of Range
The story, setting, characters…all undergo huge changes. First of all, there’s the timeline. Dantes is in prison for fourteen years, and uses another ten years to plot his revenge. The settings cover from Turkey to France. The character types range from pirates to princes. The characters themselves swing from poor to rich or rich to poor; ill repute to honor to public shame. And, even though the plot could have been non-stop action from start to finish, Dumas allowed the tension and conflict to build and fall throughout the story. Sure, there may have been some parts that could have been edited out, making the story a little bit tighter, but overall, he knew how to pace the story to keep the reader interested and hungry for more. Plus, like I said above: the story ends in a way that fulfills the reader’s expectations. Dantes gets his revenge, and gets the girl.
The Count of Monte Cristo Was a BAMF
It’s not enough to know that The Count slowly and patiently laid the groundwork to utterly destroy any shred of happiness or prosperity that the four backstabbers acquired while Dantes was imprisoned, which alone makes him worthy of his BAMF title. Dumas goes a step further, and also shows other people’s reactions to The Count.
For example, The Count wasn’t just rich and powerful because he found a lost treasure. We know it, because The Count traveled with a speed unheard of in that day and age (he kept fresh horses around willy-nilly, which is the equivalent of rolling around in a Lamborghini). We see it by the way members of polite society were in awe of him, and tripped over themselves to be acquainted with him. We see it in the way his servants didn’t want to displease him, because they didn’t want him to send them away. Finally, after he totally ruins four families’ lives, he sails off into the sunset with a nubile young thing as his new love. If that doesn’t scream BAMF, I don’t know what does.
[Side note: The husband protests to the term BAMF because it sounds like an explosion caused by a water balloon and not worthy to describe this awesome colossus of a man.]
What I Got Out of It:
So, I know all of this fan gushing can really be distilled to the same time-honored principles in writing, namely show don’t tell and write memorable characters. But, I think my writerly aha moment came to me when the husband shared, “The Count does the things I would do, or wish I could do.” The Count is more than just another memorable character, a BAMF, an awesome colossus of a man. He allows the reader to be engaged in the story itself.
I’ve recently become so caught up in the story line or plotting of my latest WIPs, that I forgot the most basic rule of engaging the reader. Heck, that’s one of the reasons why I write. I want to write a story that creates the hungry, obsessive need to read into the middle of the night. Sure, there are many ways to do this, but I think the most basic way is to create characters that would resonate with the reader. Not even that they need to be believable characters, but that they are so larger than life, that the character(s) make me believe in them. The rest of the story will come from the character’s decisions and the conflicts that the MC faces as the result of those decisions.
Story, then, doesn’t come from carefully plotting out the MC’s decisions; it comes from the following through on what the MC decides as he overcomes the obstacles we crazy writers throw in his way. This creates more complex and believable characters, a more engaging read, and creates readers out of non readers.
At least, that’s what I got out of movie night this week.
What about you? Any fun, writerly aha moments float your way?