The whole reason we read fiction is to find a connection to something else. It may be that we want to imagine a new world, that we want to live someone else’s adventures, that we want to escape our life for a short time, that we want to find out how someone might handle a certain kind of conflict, but in order to do any of those things, the story has to connect to us in some way. The characters have to be human and going through things that we can at least imagine ourselves going through, or else the story doesn’t grab us.
(Yes, there’s a lot about world-building and description and realistic characters. Those are all for other postings. Bear with me, here.)
We were watching “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” with Mark’s parents. It’s a great Thanksgiving movie. It also engages us because anyone who’s traveled has probably encountered one of the litany of problems that befall Neal Page (Steve Martin): late for his flight, flight delayed, trapped next to irritating passenger, flight re-routed, hotels booked solid, robbed, train broken down, annoying bus passengers, and so on. We know how he feels: he just wants to get home. What makes the story good is that although we can sympathize, Neal’s plight is taken to the next level, exaggerated for dramatic effect. But the base connection is there.
What makes the story great is the underlying message of looking past someone’s flaws to find the real person inside, which is a lesson Neal not only learns about Del (John Candy), but also about himself. He’s not aware of his flaws in the beginning of the movie–he thinks he’s a pretty good person. By the end, he’s not only seen that Del is a good guy and a friend, he’s also seen his own flaws, but understands that he’s a good person underneath as well. There’s connection there, too, but it’s on a subtler level. We’ve all known someone who made a bad first impression, and maybe second and third. We’ve all done things from time to time that weren’t in tune with our better nature. This movie tells us that that’s okay, as long as we learn from it and gain a little patience and understanding.
This goes back to what I’ve said a couple times about writing from life. Take little snippets from your own life. Chances are, at least something about that experience is universal. Expand on it, exaggerate it, but don’t lose that universality. That’s where people will engage with your writing. That’s where you’ll make your connection.