Historical fiction is a popular genre, and can be lots of fun for writers. But when you’re writing a story with a historical setting, you’re battling spoilers from the very first page. How do you keep readers invested in the story?
James Cameron faced this problem when he decided to make a movie about one of history’s most famous disasters. And he succeeded—we all know the Titanic sinks and that only 700 of the 2200 passengers survived, yet Titanic is almost unbearably suspenseful! In fact, the movie’s dramatic appeal lasts for multiple viewings, making it the highest-grossing film of all time. And now it’s scooping in cash all over again thanks to its 3D re-release.
If only that narrative power could be bought for the price of a movie ticket and a small popcorn…wait a second, maybe it can! Here are a few of the tricks James Cameron and his writers used that you could apply to your writing.
Something’s Missing Titanic opens and closes with a present-day mystery: where is the Heart of the Ocean? From the first scene of the submarine robots crawling through the eerie sunken ship, the story is built around a search. Why wasn’t the necklace in the safe? Where is it, who has it, how did it get there? Although not the movie’s central dramatic tension, new questions are introduced and unanswered throughout the movie, keeping the audience hooked until the final scenes.
Young Love Poor Rose – so beautiful and privileged, and her fiancé is such a jerk! Then, she sails on the ship of the ages and meets a feisty young lad who won’t let his disadvantaged life get him down. Romance is a storyteller’s not-so-secret weapon. We love Jack before Rose does, and are deeply interested as their love blooms. Will Jack be embarrassed at dinner? Will Rose obey her mother’s command to stay away from him? Will they ever, ever kiss?? Even before the iceberg, Cameron has us clutching our throats.
Conflicting Hopes Clearly Jack and Rose are meant for each other, and obviously her fiancé is a nightmare. But because the strict social mores of the era are so vivid in the story, we’re also really worried that the stiff angry valet will catch the unlikely lovers in compromising circumstances. What will happen to Rose’s reputation? How will she and her mother avoid bankruptcy if Cal breaks the engagement? Drama!
Make the Spoiler Your Slave A good storyteller can make the how as gripping as a story with an unknown ending. The frame tale establishes Rose as a survivor, with the well-known historical facts feeding into the suspense. And she almost doesn’t make it about a thousand times during the movie. She’s trapped in steerage with Jack! She’s looking for an ax! She’s trapped in steerage again! There are no more lifeboats! Through each close call, the audience, fully engaged, is anxious to see how this one gets solved, and with each escape, the emotional investment grows.
Supporting Characters This one also works with the spoiler instead of fighting it. We all know the captain goes down with the ship, the band plays into the waves, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown, well, doesn’t sink. Cameron introduces us to other characters and makes us care about them—or at least care about what happens to them. You’re probably hoping Rose’s hateful fiancé Cal bites the ice, but do Jack’s friends Fabrizio and Tommy make it to safety? Odds are against them. And you feel a sad pang when you see the ship’s distinguished, kind, and heroic builder stand sadly in the elegant dining room of the ship he built during the final moments. Though we see Rose’s mother on a lifeboat early, most of these characters are fighting for survival until the very end.
If you’ve faced the spoiler challenge in your writing, tell us about it! How have you battled—or exploited—your story’s historical setting? Have you borrowed anything from Cameron’s tool box (and we don’t mean 3D glasses)? Leave a comment and tell us about it!
And now that you’ve got what it takes to one-up Cameron, try your hand at our All Aboard! Writing contest (less than a week left!).
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