MAKING THE EPIC RELATABLE
I think all great pieces of art have two things in common:
They make you think, feel something, learn something, or all of the above.
They inspire you in your own creative endeavors.
Some people might not think (for example) an animated movie is on the same level of greatness as, say, a Rembrandt painting. But I'd argue that if they both meet the two criteria, they both count.
Yesterday, I wrote about the Ten Plagues sequence from The Prince of Egypt and what it can teach us about writing about historical events. But something else in that part of the film really struck me. I think I heard it either in the audio commentary (yes, I'm the kind of nerd who watches movies with that on) or in one of the special features on the DVD. The filmmakers said that they'd originally planned to just have instrumental music underscoring that sequence. But then they decided that they needed to bring the focus back onto the relationship between Moses and Rameses. Hence the song that accompanies that sequence in the final film.
I realized that when we're writing about characters caught up in major events—wars, natural disasters, seismic shifts in politics, and so on—it's easy to get swept away by the subject matter. After all, there's a lot going on in these situations: backroom political games, troop movements, rescue efforts, and so on. But as humans, we don't experience watershed moments from this kind of ten-thousand-foot view where we can see the whole picture and all its moving parts. Instead, we experience such events through the effects they have on us personally and on the people and places we care about.
That's how we ground our stories even when things are blowing up, falling into sinkholes, or descending into total anarchy. We do write about those things, but more importantly, we always come back to the characters and how those events affect them, their feelings, and their goals. That's what readers can relate to, so that's how we keep their interest. It's also how we maintain the emotional power of a story. Would the plagues sequence in The Prince of Egypt be nearly as compelling without Moses expressing his sorrow and frustration or Rameses giving voice to his anger and determination? I suspect not.
(Side note: I think this is why it's so tricky to write about history in a way that's not dry as dust. History is ultimately about people, but historians are typically trying to write about huge numbers of them, which of necessity leads to a lot of generalizing and losing that personal element.)
It can be really tricky to strike the balance between character and plot, epic and personal. If you're struggling with it, I'd love to help. Use the "Services Offered" menu at the top of this page to find out more about the service packages I offer.
(Thanks to Kalen Emsley for sharing their work on Unsplash.)