Happy Families are Dull

Sunday, January 06, 2008
Several years ago, I did a needlepoint that had a cute little dark-haired woman wearing a red polka-dotted scarf around her head. She had a bucket of sudsy water by her feet, a mop and broom in her hand and a dust cloth hanging from her jean's pocket. The embroidered words read; Dull women Keep Immaculate Houses.

I loved that little piece of stitchery because I knew I was far from being a dull woman.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, "All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Therefore, we can conceive, happy families are dull and unhappy families are interesting.

It's the writer's job to show the unhappy family or the unusual family. The families, who overflow with drama and conflict are the memorable ones. That's the main reason Soaps are so popular. I know as writers we don't have much time to watch Soaps, but if we're flipping through the channels and you hear an argument or a whisper you pause to listen. What's going on? Was her baby really kidnapped? Is she really possessed by the devil? Will he live through the car wreck?

Our stories should fill the reader with excitement, drama and suspense. The little clips of time that all of us as readers use to escape our own lives, to go to places we wouldn't otherwise be able to go and to meet people we wouldn't otherwise meet. We want to experience a life different from our own through the written word.

Think of the most interesting book you ever read. What stands out in your memory? The first book that came to my mind is Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. I traveled with Mary Ingles on her courageous 1,000 mile journey through WV (then VA) and home again after she had escaped from the captivity of the Shawnee Indians. Something about that true story always sticks in my mind. Mary Ingles had an exaggerated sidekick, an old Dutch woman. When James Alexander Thom put the following words in her mouth chills ran down my spine. "I'm going to eat you." I could see these two women--together--tromping over the brush and sliding down the riverbanks until after that statement. They parted company going to opposite sides of the river, but they kept each other in sight.

Perhaps Mary and the Dutch woman were actually colorful characters, but Thom bought them to life by exaggerating their actions, and enlarging their voices. Beginning with the first page, we felt Mary shivering for no reason, heard the wolves wailing and saw the children rustling in their corn-shucked beds.

As writers, we must fill our stories with strong emotions, bigger than life episodes and exaggerated feelings. In addition to strong emotions, we must add detail. The corn-shucked beds told us a lot about the setting and the time period. Thom filled the first page with vivid detail. You could smell the smoke from the fireplace and hear the tick of the clock. We have to choose our details carefully, enough to add interest and ambience, but not so much that it's overwhelming. Here's the link to an excerpt from the first page of Follow the River:

Our writing has to be immediate and to the point. As I'm writing this blog, I'm also transferring VHS tapes onto DVDs. I'm making a single tape for each 5 years; therefore, I have to cut out all the boring parts in order to get all five years onto one DVD disc. I centered in on the emotional episodes; the marriages, the births, the dedications, the parties, the vacations, the Christmas and New Year Celebrations are included, but every kiss, every diaper change and every present that is unwrapped are not included.

In real life, I savor our dull happy family but in writing, I want to write about the unhappy families that are interesting. I want to fill my stories with strong emotions, bigger than life episodes and exaggerated feelings. I want to edit out the boring parts.


Marcia Peterson said...

Good points, Cher'ley, and I loved all the examples.

Angela Mackintosh said...


As Marcia said, you did a great job with these examples! The descriptions you gave were full of life, and full of great points.

Readers have busy lives now, more than ever, and getting to the conflict right away is one way to keep them reading. It kills me, when I write paragraphs of delicious rolling-prose about my surroundings, the landscape, and setting--only to have to cut them down to size later. But, it's a necessity. One great book for this is, Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. As a book collector, I'm sure you've read it ;-)

I love your idea of cutting out all the "boring" parts of your life (or was it soap episodes?)--anyway, it's a great reference. Here's something I used to do:

Take a movie you've never watched. Select a DVD chapter at a time, and press play without the volume. As you watch, see if you can write about what you see. Take each small scene (pause, or slow-mo it if you have to) and write what you think is going on. This is a fascinating exercise! You'll be surprised at how much YOUR story differs from the original plotline. Package it, and you got yourself a rough draft. Then add more of your own plot twists, and edit. Voila! Novel to go... ;-)

I loved this post because it got me thinking. Thanks Cher'ley!

<3, Ang

Anonymous said...

Right, because who wants to read the books about diaper changes, daily meals, etc.? For real life, I think all those events make a family, but they don't necessarily make for gripping fiction. :-) Good points.

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