This weekend, for the first time in . . . a really long time, I went to the movies. With two small children, this is a rare treat. My husband picked the movie—Gravity—and I was happy to go in with almost no knowledge of what the film was. Apart from it starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney almost exclusively, and the suggestion that it made commentary on some big-picture questions on life, true happiness, etc., I had no idea what I was getting into.
For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. The idea of space kind of freaks me out, and I thought my husband knew this (oops, he forgot!). But once I let myself fall into the film, I found my mind spinning as to what was going on and how readily I could relate. The experience was arresting and one I’d highly recommend—especially for storytellers.
What struck me most was how little I knew about Bullock’s character, and yet how engaged I was with her. I kept waiting for a flashback, for a scene to visually depict the snippets I was getting and fill in some of the blanks. As time went on, I realized I didn’t need a lot of those spaces filled in. The suggestions were strong enough, and my imagination did the rest. The screenwriters did an excellent job of including only what was most important and most relevant, and leaving the rest out.
It won’t surprise you that I have never been to space, and yet, I had such an intimate reaction to this story. This, I think, is one of the most effective secrets to good storytelling: for a story to be universal and timeless, it must be thoroughly entrenched in its own time and space. The more specific it is—without becoming irrelevantly technical—the more real the created world feels.
The classics we read in high school, the movies we watch over and over again, even the picture books we read to our children are not great because they’re trying to be something to everyone. Rather, they tell their own specific stories with particulars, and the strongest themes find their way to light through that.
In every good story, there’s a lesson for the storyteller. What stories have you learned from lately, readers?