Thursday, October 9, 2008

Follow the Love

By Beth Terrell

Once, in a book about acting, I read that, when performing a scene, you have to find the love.

Let's say Bob and Melanie are fighting. If they're fighting just because they hate each other, it isn't especially interesting. There's not much depth or complexity in that. But if they're fighting because he loves her but he's afraid she's in love with another man, and she does love the other man but she also loves Bob, there are all kinds of levels to work with. If John murders Sarah because he hates her, it's flat. And by extension, he seems flat. But if John murders Sarah because he loves Stephanie, and Sarah caused the accident that left Stephanie in a vegetative state...See? Layers. John becomes more complex, more interesting, more believable.

Follow the love.

This advice is useful for writers as well. Thomas Harris's earlier works, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs make good use of this premise. In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde is a monster, but he is driven by a yearning for love. Silence of the Lambs is made more chilling (and gripping) by the sense that Hannibal Lecter, in his horrible way, loves Clarice Starling. When he tells her, "The world is a more interesting place with you in it," it sends a shiver through the reader. What could be more terrifying than Lecter's love?

Would Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series be as popular without the Stephanie/Morelli/Ranger love triangle? I doubt it. I suspect Stephanie's zany antics as a singularly unconventional bounty hunter would wear thin if not for her loving relationships with Morelli, Ranger, her parents, Grandma Mazur, Lula, and even Rex the Hamster. Readers want to know which man Stephanie will choose, what outlandish outfit Lula will wear, what manner of mischief Grandma Mazur will get herself into. We care because Stephanie cares.

Jonathan Kellerman writes a mystery/suspense series about psychologist and police consultant Alex Delaware. Throughout the series, Alex has a deep friendship with a gay detective named Milo and an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named Robin. These relationships are what bring me back to this series again and again. When Milo, pale and out of shape, puffs up a hill behind Alex in pursuit of a villain, I worry for him. I think, Oh no! Is Milo going to have a heart attack? Whym, oh why did he eat that double cheeseburger?! I know what it would mean to Alex to lose his good friend, and because I know this, every time I read one of Kellerman's books, the stakes are high. It's not the plots that keep me turning the pages book after book (though the plots are intriguing). It's the love.

Writers and critics often complain about Nicholas Sparks. He isn't even a good writer, some say. His writing is simplistic, his plots are dull, and his characters lack depth. Yet, his books strike a chord with readers, who flock to the bookstores to buy his latest works. Hollywood makes poignant movies based on his novels. People openly weep at his endings. They know they are being blatantly manipulated by the author, but they cry anyway. And they can hardly wait for the next book. Why? Could it be because Sparks has a gift for finding and following the love?

It is only when we love that we have anything to lose, and only when a character has something to lose that readers begin to care.

Nicholas Sparks knows that. Readers know it too.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article and very true, Beth. I only recently began reading Janet Evanovich's series, but I enjoy her eccentric characters more than the love triangle. Must be generational. :)

Anonymous said...

You are so right, Beth. I read "Nights in Rodanthe" and thought the writing was terrible. The book was 99 percent backstory and flashback, with no real action or drama,the characters were cardboard.

Then I saw the movie and loved it. The screenwriter put it in real time and simply followed the love story between two people, with only minor changes.

Fortunately, the main roles were played by Richard Gere and Diana Lane, who were so perfect that the other characters seemed almost irrelevant.

Meanwhile, I'd like to have Nicholas Sparks' bank account. (-:

Pat Browning