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The Big Event – Using Social Occasions to Elevate Your Story

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Perhaps love is in the air. Or maybe it’s a rush to reclaim control as a new normal gradually emerges from the global pandemic. Whatever the reason, my partner and I have, after a lengthy gap, been invited to not one, but three weddings. And these are not modest gatherings either, but true destination weddings in exotic locales, the kind you see in movies. They will not be rushed potluck affairs held in the backyard of a distant cousin (not that those can’t be lovely too).

With a bit of budgetary juggling, we plan to attend them all. It is, after all, a blessing to celebrate with loved ones. It’s also an opportunity to meet new people and explore distant lands. As the first approaches, I’ve found myself pondering the whole endeavor. I think of the planning that goes into such events and the stresses that accompany even joyful occasions. Lately I’ve also been dissecting the ways “big events” fit into some of my favorite stories, and my own writings. I now notice when they appear in shows, noting how such scenes alter the narrative, even when tangential to primary or even secondary plotlines. Events like weddings, holidays, reunions, retirements, and funerals are a part of life and so it is only natural they should appear in our tales. Some may appear in your work in progress right now.

If there isn’t one, I am not advocating you plop a random celebration into your story. In a publishing world that demands killing your darlings, I would never suggest adding filler. Then again, entire libraries could be devoted only to stories centered around life’s festivities. Jane Austen novels might well be reduced to a stream of letters and diary entries if not for village balls and the occasional nuptials. These days, Hallmark devotes an entire season to stories of offspring returning home or flung to the wilds for some sugary holiday confection and ultimate enlightenment. People gobble them up like cookies, as do I.

But that is not what I’m talking about today. Instead, my premise is simple – it may prove wise to give extra scrutiny to milestone events already present in your narrative, for such occasions provide fertile ground to strengthen your story.

Let’s explore a few avenues for kicking your writing up a notch when it comes to the “big event” in your tale.

Revealing Character

Nothing highlights character more than an unrelenting spotlight. An event in your story can serve that purpose. Perhaps your shy protagonist is corralled into giving a speech at a milestone birthday of an aging parent, the one with which he’s never seen eye to eye. Perhaps your hero is marrying, and all eyes will be on her regardless of how much she prefers the shadows. Scenes like these provide an opportunity to delve into your characters, exploring their motivations and deepest fears. Chance encounters at events can also provide a natural entry point for crucial backstory, evoking past heartbreaks, unrequited loves, or long-simmering rivalries. Use the unique situation to help readers understand idiosyncrasies in your character’s personality, uncovering the roots of their sagging confidence or the source of their unvanquished optimism.

Think of the event as a fresh stage set, filled with new and possibly one-off actors. Step back and think of ways to mix things up. For just a few pages you can look at your characters, and have your readers see the characters, in a fresh light. Take advantage of that opportunity. Show them something new, exposing a deeper vein.

Developing Relationships

In my youth, Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People was one of my favorite reads. When the movie came out, I was impressed at how closely the screen play echoed the book, incorporating at times entire pages of dialog, word for word. But a key scene added to the movie has stuck with me for years. The scene takes place during a Christmas family visit. Beth Jarrett, the emotionally distant mother of the protagonist, has broken a plate following a cringeworthy argument that erupts during the taking of a family photo. Her mother enters the room, and the two speak. The delicate dance of a conversation, clipped and understated, reveals so much. In just a few lines one gains an invaluable glimpse into how Beth became brittle, so determined to maintain appearances that smoothing the edges – “fixing the break” as she describes it – became more important than offering genuine affection, even as trauma threatens to destroy her family. The resulting scene is a brilliant addition to the already exceptional drama of the source material.

Events in stories open a path for insights like this. Even lone heroes have families; and a funeral can bring them into the story, if only briefly. Longtime friendships can be shown from a different angle. If your story is a romance, a family reunion provides innumerable opportunities for the new couple to bond or introduce rough seas for them to navigate. Let your imagination guide your hand. Pantsers are old pros at this type of improvisation, but even strict plotters may find something of value in the scribbled margins.

Surprising the Reader

The element of surprise, in fact, may be the real benefit from this writerly exercise. In addition to character reveals mentioned previously, what better time to expose a juicy tidbit of information or a jarring plot twist than during a chance encounter at a social event? A lot can happen when you bring characters into the same room, or ballroom, at the same time. Be sure to make use of the opportunity.

You can engage readers on other levels of surprise as well. Perhaps the occasion provides a moment of levity, or at least respite, during an otherwise taut thriller. Or maybe you can add a dash of poignancy to an otherwise raucous comedy.

Remember, the events are already there in our stories. It is up to us, as writers, to tease them out to their full potential, creating more compelling tales for our readers.

Those are my musings, which barely scratch the surface. What are your thoughts? How do you make the most of the milestone events and special occasions in your stories? Do you have examples of reveals or surprises from your own works or a favorite novel? In what other ways can “big events” be employed to elevate a story? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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