In my last post, I argued that in the ultimate show-down between writing and story, the story wins the prize as the more vital component of story-telling. It is the story, after all, that interests people, not writing. You can be the most technically proficient writer on the planet, or the most eloquent, and still not know or understand how to tell a story. And without the story, there’s nothing to write.
The goal, of course, is to combine the two: beautiful writing with a compelling story. So what exactly makes a compelling story? For us, there are several key elements that make a good story, including: plots that keep you thinking or guessing, themes that evoke emotion, whether it’s joy or sorrow, and characters whose growth and journey help us learn.
A few weeks ago, I talked about stories that make you think or examine a position – e.g., The Twilight Zone’s examination of immortality in “>” (CBS Television, 1962?). This week I’d like to talk about stories that make you laugh and cry so that when you flip the final page, you’re torn whether to take a nap or search for the next book by that author.
One method of “going for the gut,” as I call it, is to put a character in a position that is universally relatable, whether the reader is rich or poor, young or old. Regardless of our individual situations in life, there are some things we all share, things like first loves, friendships, and the loss of something, or someone, we hold near and dear.
Likewise, there are few things in life that grab the gut more than messing with the mother, the woman who gave us each life, whether she’s been there for us from that final push from the womb, or whether she abandoned us and left us in another’s care. It’s no wonder then that the elemental connection we each feel to our mothers (whether good or bad) has birthed so many great stories. (Try Googling “stories about moms” and you’ll see for yourself!)
So, in honor of Mother’s Day this week, I’d like to share a few “mom” stories that engage us, in our guts.
Not surprisingly, many mom stories are about loss, of the mother or child. Like Steel Magnolias, a story about a group of Southern women who rally around the mother of a young diabetic woman who gives birth against medical advice and later succumbs to kidney failure. There you have two levels of motherhood – the younger character, and her mother, both dealing with life-altering decisions. From the younger woman’s perspective, she wants a few months of truly living, even if it means her life will be shortened. The older woman then faces a mother’s greatest fear—loss of her child—knowing it can be prevented. I cried until I thought I’d make myself sick.
In another tear-jerker, Stepmom, a mother dying of cancer guides her ex-husband’s new wife in taking her place as her children’s mother. Can you imagine? Can you put yourself in her place and try to feel what she was feeling—the jealousy, the bitterness, the fears, not just for herself, but for what her children will face? Not only has she lost her husband to this other woman, but now she has to give her the children?
In both stories, the mother makes a selfless choice, in the first to give life, and in the second to do what she can for her children after her death, to spend what little time she has left helping her children get to know the other woman. And again we ask ourselves what we would do in those situations. These are universal questions, universal fears, that grab us and (sometimes) won’t let go.
The mother figure stars not just in these types of chick lit/chick flick stories, but in comedies, mysteries and even action thrillers, like Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Who can forget Sarah Connor who runs for her life in Terminator? After that movie ends, Sarah gives birth to the future of mankind, gets herself imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital (because no one believes her), then spends the next several years preparing for escape, to save her son … and the world. The second movie picks up where motherhood has transformed Sarah from a young, naïve girl to a warrior woman who’ll do anything to save her child.
Here’s a clip:
One of my favorite parts of the movie is where Sarah scolds her son John for putting himself in danger. His feelings are hurt, but she’s unmoved. It reminds me of a cat we had when I was a kid who gave birth to a litter. We gave the kittens away, but after several weeks, one found its way back to us. Instead of welcoming her kitten home, my cat hissed and growled at her offspring. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now. The mother’s job is to prepare her child for life on his/her own. It’s often tough love, and that’s a good story.
What are your favorite mom stories?
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.