When my youngest daughter went off to college last fall, I wrote about a small moment that made me cry – a moment on which a story can turn. I am always drawn to these moments – the small ones, the potent ones, the ones you don’t expect but that stop you cold -- and another one happened to me yesterday.
I was working with a client whom I shall call Louisa. She has a powerful story to tell about leaving the Christian faith, exploring a wide range of other faiths and spiritual practices on a very deep level, and much to her surprise, returning again to the Church. Louisa was feeling a great deal of anxiety because she didn’t want to let anything in her story GO. She wanted to tell her story, and also provide solace and comfort and teachings to her readers. She has made her life as a spiritual teacher and guide, so the impulse to teach – AND to tell her personal story – were both powerful impulses. The problem was that her story was getting bogged down with so many ideas and so many intentions.
We were trying to sort it out. I was asking her to tell me about just one small idea in her book – her first encounter with a nun when she was a child – so we could unpack it and figure out how to shape it on the page. I listened, and she talked about several nuns who had played a role in her spiritual growth, and about nuns in general -- the theory of nuns, so to speak -- and somehow then the conversation turned to music, to one of her favorite songs, to Madonna, and then to Italy’s singing nun.
I had never heard of Italy’s singing nun so Louisa told me that when we got off the phone, I should find the video of the nun singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
We finished our call (deciding to try out a hybrid design of a personal narrative with ONE small lesson, modeled after the book Looking for Mary whose first chapter you can read here to see how that structure works) and I went to look for the video -- but I clicked on the wrong one.
It was the right nun -- Sister Christina Succia -- but the wrong song. It was her singing Alicia Key’s “No One” on a blind audition at Italy’s version of The Voice – and forty five seconds later, tears were steaming down my face. Forty-five seconds. That video told a story that grabbed me by the throat in less than a minute.
- It gives me someone to root for. The Voice is about discovering talent, and the whole conceit is based on the fact that, at first, the judges can’t SEE the singers. All they can do is listen. In the first .08 seconds of the video, we the viewers, are let in on the surprise: the contestant is a nun in a black habit, with a large cross around her neck, and what can only be described as nun shoes – plain, black, flat. We are instantly on her side. She’s doing something unexpected, against type. We imagine that she must have crossed hurdles to get where she is standing, because you don’t often see nuns on stages or in singing contests. They’re not exactly the kind of person who we believe has a lot of daily personal freedom, or the kind of people who would chose to use that freedom to enter a singing contest. We have, in other words, a sense of the risk this woman has taken to be there. (And in fact, later one of the judges asks if the Pope gave Sister Christina permission to be on the show…he didn't, but he did later tweet about her.) We want her to succeed and we wonder if she will. The producers know all this and deliver it to us on a silver platter. We see three nuns huddled backstage nervously watching Sister Christina at .08. At .10, we see the tattooed rocker coach/mentors settle in to listen (without being able to SEE her) and they all have a jaded, “show me what you got” attitude on their faces. At .13, we get a close up of the plan shoes toe-tapping to the beat. (The shoes just kill me...)
- I feel what the singer feels. After singing just 5 words, the crowd is on its feet. The nun can sing!!! In writing, we want to feel what the protagonist or the narrator feels. In singing, we want to feel what the singer feels. It’s all about sharing the feeling, the emotion, the deep level that we don’t get from anything else. And Sister Cristina is ROCKING it. There is not one ounce of tentativeness in her presentation: she is all-in. And you get the feeling that this audition is both dead serious for her, AND a total joy. It’s a potent combination. Writers don't have the advantage of music or of performance. We have to share emotion through words -- description, reaction. And YES, despite what you heave heard about "show don't tell," very often that means TELLING the reader what the protagonist or narrator is feeling and what the moment means to them, why it matters.
- I anticipate the closing of the gap and then get to watch it unfold. In this case, the gap is between the present reality (she’s just a wanna-be singer like anyone else) and the protagonist’s hoped-for outcome (which we somehow feel is not just to win but to be HEARD.) In other words, WE KNOW WHAT SHE WANTS – and we REALLY HOPE the judges give it to her (by hitting their button and turning around, thereby choosing to mentor or coach her to victory) because that will close the gap between what we think/feel and what the protagonist thinks/feels.
At .25, the expression on the judge J’ax face shows the power of the nun’s voice, the sense of WHOA that overcomes him as he listens, still unable to see who is singing. At .31, the nun’s friends – standing nervously in a huddle watching the performance – feel it, too. They wonder, WILL the gap close? WILL the judges turn? Will this risk have been worth it? When writing, the desire of the protagonist needs to be this clear, and this visceral.
At .42 J’ax slams his YES button and turns around. THIS is the moment my eyes began to fill – the moment when the expectation is first met and the nun gets what she wants.
- I get to SEE the payoff. At .45 the shock and delight on J’ax’s face is just priceless. He can’t believe what he hears and he can’t believe that he is hearing is FROM A NUN. The other three judges all go through a similar transformation – from being impressed and intrigued to being utterly blown away by the contrast of the voice and the person to whom the voice belongs. The smile on Sister Christina's face as she finishes the song is magical. She has gotten something MORE than what she wanted -- which was, we imagine, not just to be heard, but to be LIFTED UP to a place where she could reflect the glory of her God. (If you stick around and get the subtitles on the Italian translation, she validates this.) And at this, I am just bawling. Just a few minutes, and I have been taken on an emotional journey.
This video has 72 MILLION views for good reason.
These patterns of what happens when we feel emotion are universal. You can use them in your storytelling, too. Writers are in the business of making people feel deep things – inspiration, empowerment, levity, peace, hope. So today, think about how you can go out and make someone feel something.
Oh -- and if you want to see the "Like a Virgin" video, it's pretty great, too. It makes you feel something entirely different, but it makes you feel nonetheless.