I am always fascinated with the way creative people in other fields do their work and draw us in, because it helps me to understand how to become a better writer. Painters use color and perspective and other tools to elicit emotion in the viewer, for example, which is a great reminder that writers use words and dialogue and structure in the exact same way. Words are just the means, and emotion is the end.
Singers have a more direct way to get to emotion because they use the sound of the human voice – a tool that doesn’t have the same rules or demands as language or visual art. Videographers have the benefit of being able to capture the nuances of facial expression and body language – tools we all know how to use since birth.
The other day I stumbled upon a video on Facebook of a performance from America’s Got Talent. (You have to love Facebook – it rewards procrastination and distraction in such beautiful ways!) I noticed that it had more than 8 million hits so I thought – Okay. Let me check this out.
My intention was to give it about 10 seconds to get good-- otherwise, I would have moved on. But by 10 seconds, I was hooked, and when I got to the magnificent payoff in the end, well… I have watched this video 4 or 5 times now, and cried every single time.
The question that is useful for us to ask is – why? What do they do here that elicits that response? And how can we do it in our own work?
Watch the video first because everything that follows is a spoiler.
Here’s the LINK
Okay, so first dry your eyes and catch a breath. Now look through this list and think about what made you feel whatever you felt. Where did you feel it, what did you feel, and why?
Try to be precise, because it’s in the specificity that a good story is told.
Here’s the breakdown:
· Young girl walks out – very attractive, obviously nervous (bouncing on her toes, crossing her legs as she stands there) yet also oddly confident.
· The camera captures her nervous mother in the wings – an endearing thing to see the nervous and expectant mother because it reminds you that this is a young girl.
· The camera captures Simon Cowell – the tough-as-nails judge – clearly taken by something right from the start. If you know anything about Simon, you know this is not normal so you are on high alert. What does he see?
· Banter ensues and it is revealed – via a conversation about her cute short hair -- that this 16 year old is a stage 3 ovarian cancer survivor. Your brain spins – what? Seriously? How horrible! And she’s here singing? Our expectations have been shattered – a key part of an arresting narrative. We are yanked into this cognitive dissonance about a young girl who is a cancer survivor. Call it surprise, a plot twist, but it's the thing that often gets our attention. For me, this is also the moment when this girl’s story became personal. I am a cancer survivor, and I thought I was young to be diagnosed at 35, and this girl is not even half that age. I want her to do well. Something is now at stake for me.
· They pan back to the mom – who you now have giant empathy for. Her teenage daughter is a cancer survivor. Can you even imagine the hell she has gone through? Now you want for the mom not to be crushed. Now you double down on your caring. Now even more is at stake.
· The judges’ faces are expectant – and worried. They want this girl not to be crushed. They don’t want to have to say, “Sorry honey” on live TV. Can you imagine the difficulty of having to do that?
· She starts to sing – Rachel Platten’s Fight Song -- and her voice is full of richness and depth and power – as she belt out the words: “This is my fight song/Take back my life song/Prove I'm alright song.” And you think sixteen and then you think cancer survivor.
· As she builds to the big emotion in the music and the words, you can feel yourself building towards – something. What is it? Where do you feel it? This is part where the writer needs to pay close attention. Does it start in your gut? Your throat? Your brain?
· At 2:00 when she hits the chorus, I really began to cry. But why? Why? Again, this is the writer’s job – to take that feeling, that moment, and pin it down with words. For me, it was the fact of human suffering, the ability to rise above it, the hope that a young girl gives us, the beauty of song to express our frailty and our power. It’s that I, too, am alive, that I, too have the chance to make beauty, that I too can strive for the things I want, and make meaning, and make joy. This story makes room for me.
· The moment that really kills me is at 2:24 – her eyes. When she closes her eyes and seems to be singing for herself. She goes inside herself, shuts out the world – and you know that this is the source of her strength. And you hope against hope that should you ever need it, you have that same strength too.
· Then you watch Simon’s response – you feel the depth of meaning he has felt, the certainty that she is not just good for a cancer survivor but really good in every measure, the joy he gets to deliver her by hitting that button. He uses the word “spirit” to describe what she has brought to the audience – “something about your spirit” and you feel that this is exactly correct. There is something happening here we can’t see, but we can feel it. That’s the power of art.
· Her name is Calysta Bevier. Look at her face when the golden confetti falls –how her body collapses, how she can't even bear the weight of a dream come true.
· Watch her instant decision to go to Simon, not her mom – how she somehow knows that’s the right thing to do, the right way to turn. It’s as if in the course of singing one song, she grew up.
If you want to become the kind of writer who can capture emotion like that and pin it to the page, try writing how this performance makes you feel. Try capturing its meaning and its power in something besides clichés. It won’t be easy, but it’s the perfect opportunity to use one art form to inspire and inform another.