by Jessica De Bruyn (guest blogger)
I have been a writer, editor, writing coach, and storyteller for many years now. So, many people are surprised when I tell them that every November and December, I descend into a deep holiday-movie watching marathon. And while my movie list includes well-written timeless classics, like Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, and (my personal favourite) White Christmas, the majority of these months are spent trying to watch as many Hallmark holiday movies as possible.
One of the reasons I do it is because I genuinely love this time of year and its warm fuzzy feelings. I relish in the spirit of the season and am a sucker for a good love story, whether that be romantic or about real or found family.
But the writer and editor in me gets something out of this experience as well. I believe that being a good writer is all about the fundamentals, and there are lots of great lessons to be learned from these movies that are both highly predictable and highly enjoyable.
NO NEED TO OVERCOMPLICATE
One of the main struggles that I see with new writers is their efforts to find their voice and what will make their stories “unique”. They worry about standing out to agents and publishers and spend hours, months, and even years trying to reinvent “story” from its very core. And this rarely proves to be the road to the best possible work.
People often make fun of just how predictable Hallmark movies are. If a woman goes back to her small town to help at the local Christmas tree farm, it is guaranteed that she is going to fall in love with the real estate developer who wants to buy the land and turn it into a luxury resort. And she is going to convince him to leave his corporate dreams behind to live with her on that farm.
For many watchers, it is the predictable elements of the story that attracts them. We want a cute love story and are satisfied when that is delivered. Knowing what your readers want and how you can give them that in a satisfying way is as important (and maybe more so) than the surprises along the way. And while there are many genres that do not have the same level of tropes and predictability as romance, there is no genre that doesn’t come with some reader expectations.
GET TO THE EMOTIONAL CORE
Hallmark movies are nothing if not sweeping (and often very corny) emotional moments. Not only do you usually get the big declaration of love at the end, possibly between two people who have known each other for only a week, but you often also see characters working through grief and loss, ones realizing their dreams, moments of rekindling or repairing relationships with family, and the classic staple of soldiers doing everything possible to come home and be with the people they love during the holidays.
Whether you’re writing a formulaic love story or a gritty thriller, it is actually the emotional beats that are going to hold the whole story together. We want to see big risks, big rewards, and heartbreak and difficult times along the way. We want to see characters that care. And we want to see the complexities of people throughout.
Hallmark knows how to pull a heartstring. They know when to suspend a love story until that perfect moment when the two characters come together. They know how to make a character grapple between conflicting dreams. Concentrate on your own work’s emotional moments and you are on your way to a more relatable and compelling story.
LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
As a Hallmark movie lover, I have to sit through countless conversations of people making fun of this artform that I truly love. I have to hold my tongue at people who roll their eyes at me when I say I love these movies as I try not to point out that they are no more predictable than most horror movies or an episode of The Simpsons.
And I am sure the people who are making these movies have to hear these criticisms a thousand more times than I do. But I am also sure that comments from those people who likely have never actually seen one of these movies don’t phase them at all.
That is because they know exactly what their audience base wants and are able to deliver it. Instead of worrying that their storylines are predictable, or the scenarios are outlandish, they concentrate on things those who are actually consuming their work want to see. They are giving us charismatic actors, stunning quaint locations, and those emotional beats we are craving when we tune in.
Alongside this, they are also listening to the criticisms that do come in from their audience base on how they should change and grow to better serve their market. For example, Hallmark has been rightly criticized in the past for the lack of diversity in their stories. Over the last few years, as I have watched upwards of 50 of their new movies a year, I have noticed that they have made it a priority to tell stories of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have had more performers of varying body types, are including more queer love stories, and are branching out from simply telling stories focused on Christmas during the holiday season.
With any piece of creative work, you are never going to be loved by everybody. It’s important to know who your market is and what they are going to want from your story.
If you’re a new writer, I encourage you to start with a simple story. It will allow you to learn the basics of storytelling and will open your eyes to all of the different ways that you can attract and engage readers. If you are a seasoned writer and going through writer’s block or working through your latest piece, consider going back to basics.
And when you need a break, pop on a holiday movie. You might just find a little inspiration.
Happy Holidays from the 5OE Team! We look forward to connecting with you in the New Year and are here for any consultations you may need.