Monday, May 24, 2010

Emotion, Layers & the Power of Storytelling

I'm still a bit teary this morning after last night's finale of LOST. They had me until the very end, where things got weird and... just weird, and I felt a small sinking in my heart, and lost connection. But up until those last few minutes I'd been on a roller coaster of emotional connection with so many of the characters' journeys that I'm feeling quite drained today. James & Juliet, the ride was worth it for you!

That is the power of storytelling. We're hard-wired to be affected by it, to be changed, to be deepened. Jesus knew that, and often taught in parables.

For good conversation about emotion in fiction, how to evoke it and how not to overdo it, check out Character Emotions and You, the post and discussion at Novel Matters today.

On the ACFW Loop this morning the question was asked: What gives some stories staying power? What makes us want to reread some books (or rewatch series, as I plan to do with LOST never mind those last few minutes), even though we know the plot, the characters' journeys, and how it ends?

There are many good answers to that question, and most of them are the answers to what makes a story satisfying in general. Well developed, sympathetic characters with goals that matter. Conflict with high stakes. A plot that isn't predictable. A setting that can be seen and heard and smelled and felt. An ending that makes sense and is hopeful or redemptive (not necessarily happily-ever-after-all-threads-tied-in-a-pretty-bow-perfect).

But those elements don't always make me want to reread a book, even if I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's one main element a book has to boast for me to want to read it multiple times, and listen to the audio version too if there's one to be had. Layers.

Layers of theme. Layers of symbolism. Layers of character connection. Layers that might resonate subconsciously on a first read, adding a sense of richness and depth and verisimilitude, but that then leap out at you when you reread the book because you aren't rushing through with your focus on the page-turning plot that exists on the surface of the story. Layers like a range of mountains, fading into the distance from vibrancy to more and more subtle hues until they vanish beyond the range of sight.

Crafting such layers, it seems to me, takes time, and time, and more time. The books that have layers for me, that I never fail to find something more, something deeper, something richer, with every read, took the author quite some time to complete.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series top my list of books with layers (each of those takes about 2.5 years to write). Then there's Catherine Marshall's books, Christy (nine years) and Julie (seven years). And The Lord of the Rings (a decade in the making). I'll return to these books for the rest of my life.

What are some titles/authors whose writing holds layers for you? Books that have grown with you, books that have something more to offer every time you read them?

I'd really love to know, so I can read them too!

photo by palojono (Flickr)


  1. For me, it would be James Thom and L.M. Montgomery. In the CBA it would include Catherine Marshall's Christy, for sure. I liked Julie, too, but the first is my favorite. Francine Rivers did an admirable job with Redeeming Love. My English major background is coming round to haunt me. There are so many I could name but would write a novella. Good post:)

  2. Laura, James Alexander Thom's The Red Heart! Yes. I only read that this year, but have just started a reread and even though I know how the story ends, chapter by chapter it's almost as if I've never read it. It's so detailed and rich, I'm sure I'm going to dive deeper and notice things I never did, the first time through.

  3. Outlander and Christy are both two of my all-time favorite books. I love Christy because it captured my heart at 13, and still manages to do the same as an adult. My copy of it is very tattered!

    I loved the first few Gabaldon books but admit...I havent read the last two because they are just TOO thoroughly bogged down with detail and incidentals. I couldnt keep events and people straight after a while. Its nice to stop and smell the roses in a story, but sometimes you just gotta get up and go ;)

    Other all-time favorites include The Lace Reader (NO one sees its twists coming!), The Time Travelers Wife (I have rarely felt a pair of characters were so real....when it came to the end I had to just seclude myself and cry it out, lol) and my favorite, simple story teller of all-- Laura Ingalls Wilder~

  4. Heather, I prefer Diana's latter books, because they inspired my interest in early American history, and even inspired me to write again after cancer (and she was so cool to share some research material with me and get me pointed in the right direction). There's a lot more plot in the last one, Echo In The Bone, than there has been in the few preceding, I'll grant you.

    I've never heard of The Lace Reader. That one sounds exciting. The Time Travelers Wife was very engrossing (the movie was good too and I actually liked the ending better; I was a bit traumatized by the book, but that's because I'd connected so deeply with the characters that what happened to Henry was SO hard to take).