I recently started watching the show Parenthood on Netflix…and am now on Season 4.
It’s funny, heartwarming, tear-inducing, and just an easy watch (I’m still coming off some late-night Sherlock scares).
Something Parenthood was lauded for when it came out 7 years ago (what can I say, I’m late to the game), and that I still agree with today, is the true-to-life dialogue.
Of course, the show has its moments of melodrama (this is American prime time TV, after all), but the characters at their core are people we’ve all met. It’s no accident that the show makes you feel like you know every character (and there are several) intimately.
The Bravermans (the family at the center of it all) are so dysfunctionally real. They fight, tease, and embarrass each other in ways that only family can get away with.
And the show’s a real tear-jerker—episode 1 had me bawling in my bed. But it’s not just because of fights or health scares (though those do happen, and they are heart-breaking). Parenthood runs the emotional gamut and manages to elicit tears during both the most heart-wrenching and most uplifting scenes.
So how did they do it?
How did the show’s writers create episode after poignant, powerful episode?
The answer lies in a recent Revisionist History episode with Malcolm Gladwell titled “The King of Tears”. In it, Gladwell explores why some songs make us cry—particularly country songs—and he determines it’s because of their specificity.
Country songs tend to walk listeners through the story of a specific man, woman, or family, sparing no detail of whatever tragedy befalls them—death, divorce, heartbreak, you name it.
Other songs (he uses the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” as an example) may convey sadness, but without the gory details.
The more listeners, or in our case readers, get to know a character and his or her story, the more emotionally invested they become. For instance, you’re a demon monster if you don’t cry while listening to Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel”, a song about a young girl who’s abused and neglected until she eventually dies (yes, really).
Of course, songs like “Wild Horses” that take a more symbolic approach to emotion can elicit a response from listeners if it strikes a chord (music puns!), but these songs are less likely to carry the same emotional weight.
So what does this mean for your writing?
If you’re looking to write a scene with some heavy impact, be specific. Don’t just gloss over what happens or leave everything up to the reader’s imagination. Paint an elaborate picture so that the reader has no choice but to be in your character’s shoes.
If the first episode of Parenthood opened with one of the characters dying and then the show immediately skipped ahead a few years, viewers wouldn’t likely feel too much pain over that death. But because the show invests the time to develop every character, the second they feel heartache, shame, excitement, [insert strong emotion here], you feel it with them. Their pain becomes your pain, and their joy becomes your joy…even though they’re not real!
Help your readers get to know your characters and stand in their shoes through thoughtful, specific details. The scenes you write will carry a lot more weight—conflicts hitting harder and victories tasting sweeter.
What’s a show, movie, or book that has made you feel more than you’d maybe like to admit? I can add the last Harry Potter book, Gilmore Girls, and Rabbit Hole to my list. Let me know yours in the comments section below, and go replicate that emotional response in your own writing using specificity over ambiguity!