Monday Motivation: The bigger the story, the larger your lens
It’s become a trope of popular philosophy: take care of the little things (pennies, broken windows, chores) and the big things will take care of themselves (pounds, violent crimes, your life’s work). Check out the internet for insight, and you get stuff like this:
Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things, and I’ll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things. And:
Enjoy the little things in life… for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.
Our experience on the canals of the UK endorses this “little is good” approach to life. We travel at two miles an hour – that’s about three kilometres an hour to those more metrically minded – and it’s true that at that speed it’s possible to note the tiniest details on the banks flanking us, or in the depths of the water beneath us.
And this is true, as I’ve said frequently before, of the details with which we furnish our stories. Details – specific, accurate, honest details – help create a credible world, believable characters and an engaging storyline.
But small is also a useful yardstick – or should that be, a micrometer? – when you’re devising story.
This was driven home to me last night when we saw – on one of its last few outings on the local movie circuit – Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
These are the “objective” facts of the historical Dunkirk:
The German army outflanked and outmanoeuvred the combined French army and the British Expeditionary Force, isolating them on the beaches at Dunkirk. Instead of obliterating them, the German high command decided – fatefully – to regroup and consolidate their position to avoid the enemy breaking out.
This gave the British just three days to evacuate a force numbering three hundred thousand, more or less. In fact, by holding the Germans at bay for a few days more, they managed to evacuate over two hundred thousand British troops, and over a hundred thousand French – and although they sustained heavy losses in both men and materiel, they avoided the very real possibility of abject surrender to Germany. In short, they lived to fight another day.
How would you tell this story? Those are big numbers, there are colossal risks involved. The cost of failure is almost too big to contemplate. The task of organizing and evacuating an entire army seems simply undoable.
The opportunities to indulge in hyperbole would exhaust even Donald Trump.
So how did Christopher Nolan tell this enormous story?
By picking out half a dozen small stories, and telling them with as much emotional punch and suspense as possible. He took one soldier so desperate to survive that he’d think of a dozen dodges to get ahead in the endless queues of men waiting to be picked up. He took an airman in a Hurricane sent to Dunkirk to defend the troops against German Stukas. He took a sixty-year-old owner of a small sea-going fishing boat who decided to do his duty and pick up as many soldiers as he could. He took a senior British officer and showed his despair and then exhilaration as the operation to save an entire army succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.
Each of these stories, told almost on a minute-by-minute scale, is fraught with danger. Each contains a thread of sometimes extraordinary courage. The survival of each of these men depends on the smallest decisions taken in an instant – and on the vagaries of chance.
You can only tell one of the greatest stories of the last world war by going in close, at two miles an hour or less, and examining in detail the men and the choices they make, their agony and their triumph.
It’s an important lesson for writers and writing. Perhaps it’s also equally important as a lesson for life.
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Writing Secrets: How to deal with back story … from a master