Touching an Audience

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

It's what every writer aspires to do at least once in their life: touch their audience's lives in a way that makes their work unforgettable, to make the audience reconsider their outlook on life or make them want to call up that old family member or friend just to say 'sorry.'  And, you know, it's always a plus if your reader ends up crying, too, be it from happiness or sorrow.  While the example we'll be using isn't a book, it was still written artfully and is captivating its audience every week.  (And they're probably the reason why tissues are always sold out in stores...)
Image result for This is Us
(Credit: NBC) 
Ah, yes...This is Us.  If you're a fan of the show, you probably know exactly how heartwrenching it is, and why there's just this inexplicable fascination with it.  What makes This is Us such a good story?

First of all, the story feels real.  While it is indeed fictitious, it shows an average family struggling with problems that are anything but average, but also not uncommon in reality.  The Pearson family faces addiction, miscarriage, adoption, health problems and psychological issues connected with them, the fear of failure, anxiety--while this sounds like an absolutely disturbing list, these are things that a lot of people struggle with in real life.  The siblings, even though one is adopted, struggle with familial relations.  They deal with losses that are masterfully written to strike its audience to the core, along with the aftermath that follows. 

As many fans know, Jack Pearson (the father in the story) dies when his children are 17 years old.  Understandably, these characters still have psychological scars twenty years later.  One refuses to accept his father's death, presumably because he wasn't there when the accident occurred.  Another blames herself for it because she goaded the actions that caused her father's death.  The last one is laden with responsibility and feels as though he can't slow down to heal or "wallow in the pain of loss," as his character puts it.  He chooses to celebrate his father's life, but is simply putting up barriers so he can't do anything but.  These are reactions that are very logical and important to note for writers.  While everyone deals with grief differently, it's fairly universal that you can't heal totally from devastation.  You may get better, but it will never go away or be forgotten.  It will always be in the back of your mind, and some may even be affected for the rest of their lives because of it.  When writing character arcs, keep this in mind.  Characters are oftentimes defined by their past, and the future realistically cannot erase that in totality.  It goes without saying that audiences love characters who are flawed because they are real.  Perfection does not exist in humanity, even if it is nice to think about.  Characters who are "perfect" or "flawless" are often viewed as almost robotic or too "good" and the audience can't see them or connect to them.  

This is Us also has a very unique method of storytelling.  Each episode, the plot rotates between an event that happened x amount of years in the past that is relevant to the present, then the current day.  In the upcoming episodes, it appears as if they will be paralleling the future to the present and past as well.  This is an interesting approach because it proves that the little things in life are what truly add up in the end.  Little things like spats or family days out to the beach seem to trump events such as graduation.  The audience is continually reminded that what they do on a daily basis counts, and it perhaps also reminds the audience of their own mortality and the importance of going out and doing what they aspire to do before time runs out.  This is a crucial storytelling key as well, because it connects deeply to the audience.  It's almost like a punch to the chest: what I am doing now will matter someday.  How I'm treating someone might hang on to them for the rest of their lives.  Who will I be remembered as?  This element is also present in wildly popular books:  stories were told of Bilbo Baggins' journey as well as the Fellowship, for example, and it is a somewhat common theme in the Star Wars franchise too.  Again, it brings sheer humanness and reality into play.  While it's difficult to use this exact model of storytelling in a novel, similar affects can be achieved through tasteful flashbacks (which are what these essentially are in the TV show).   

Finally, the characters react to stress in realistic ways.  When your character is faced with a war, will they bravely storm out onto the battlefield without a second thought?  When your character is faced with life and death or the decision to pull the plug on their loved one, will they have their mind made up?  How do they react to the news?  A good way to put it:  how would you react?  When put under extreme stress, oftentimes our reactions are pretty illogical because we're riding a tide of emotions.  The characters on This is Us do things such as laugh, freeze up, say things they don't mean, question or reject reality, stress eat, cry, start screaming at some poor sap who just happened to be walking by, talk to mentors or hole themselves up somewhere and refuse to talk at all.  These reactions are something probably all of us have done at some point in our lives as well, and that's what gets the waterworks going:  we (the audience) know how they feel in that exact moment, and it's terrible. 

Finally, audiences connect with This is Us because, while they have their crazy lives and ambitions, when it comes down to it, family is at the core of everything.  We identify with this because, regardless of our upbringing or who was in our lives, we all have people who at one point were "family" to us and shaped us.  Don't let your storytelling get wrapped up in the grandeur of an insurmountable, 'save the world' scheme.  Balance it out with just the right amount of family, too.  Why is your character willing to sacrifice their life?  Is there someone they're trying to protect, and who are they to the character?  Who shaped your character?  Remember, while your story focuses on a certain point in time in which your character is a specific age, they were born to someone and had a childhood of some sort like anyone else.  (Unless your plot is really sci-fi, which is okay too--explain it!) How were your characters shaped by family?  Remember that family doesn't necessarily mean 'blood relative' either.  People love a story that winds down to family.  Look at TV shows such as this one, NCIS, even Last Man Standing and Chuck: they were all very popular in their time and they all have family at the absolute core of their stories. 

There are several facets to explore with this hit drama and how its storytelling techniques are important and relevant to writers.  When you're writing, take into consideration some of these methods and how it might help you improve your story--you never know, you might have the plot for the next New York Times Bestseller in your mind! 

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