Writing Tips from Les Misérables
Some stories withstand the test of time. They’re unforgettable. They change individuals and move a people. They influence us, deeply, and leave an emotional imprint on our souls. And they work on multiple levels. Les Misérables is one of those stories. And I’m dissecting it to get a good look at its innards.
Evokes Strong EmotionsStrong stories affect our emotions, significantly. David Farland, in his book Million Dollar Outlines, says that strong stories score high on the “Emotional Richter Scale.” For example, if you’re writing a comedy, it shouldn’t just make people chuckle; it should give them a split in their sides from laughing their heads off.
The best stories draw us in, make us emotionally invested, in the characters and conflicts so that we feel as if we are living the narrative ourselves. Les Misérables takes us through people’s hopes and dreams as well as their hardships, deaths, and disappointments. Few viewers and readers get through the story with a dry eye. The film hit me right in the chest.
Les Misérables not just sad, it’s tragic. Sure, it’s sad that Fantine loses her job, but it’s tragic she has to live in the gutters, compromise her self-worth, and give up her dreams on behalf of her daughter, who lives in shocking conditions herself. Likewise, viewers aren’t just happy that Valjean finds salvation, they are overwhelmed and euphoric, to the point that they’re crying.
This is what we want to recreate in our own stories. Look for opportunities in your narrative to ramp up emotion. Is there a way to make a scene more devastating? More peaceful? More romantic? While still staying true to the story?
Evoking strong emotion is important in storytelling because it’s in that moment the story has the most power to leave an indelible mark on the audience.
Contains Powerful Themes
Great stories do more than stir emotion. They change us. Les Misérables is rich with striking themes. Every time I experience it, I leave promising myself to be a better person.
The story has themes of love with Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine; sacrifice with Fantine and the revolutionaries; redemption with Valjean; innocence (or the loss of it) with Cosette and Gavroche; and adversity with most the cast; but the strongest theme I see involves mercy.
Les Misérables teaches that mercy is more powerful than justice.