Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 
You Gotta Have Heart

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

June 2008

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Mind of Your Story
Mind of Your Storyby Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The cabin I’m staying in for my Pagosa Springs retreat has a stockpile of DVDs for Stellaluna (there are a number of photos of this little yellow shepherd on my amazon.com blog), and me to watch after dark. I started – and quickly abandoned – The Forty Year Old Virgin, instead switched to the middle of the fourth season of Sex and the City. But even though the DVD is here, I won’t watch the rest of the season, because my lunch buddies Beth Hadas and Judy Villella both (unlike me) have cable and have told me how it comes out. I know I can’t bear to watch Carrie dump Aidan again: I’d cry for weeks.

So last night, I put on ET. I figured Stellaluna, who has watched Milo and Otis more times than a six-year-old, would enjoy the little alien, as well as Rusty, Elliot’s dog.

"I was struck, not for the first time, by the quality of the children's acting… "

E.T. Phones Home, Again

Stellaluna soon fell asleep (in addition to getting a lot of writing done, I’ve been taking her on long walks that include numerous jumps in lakes), but by then I was hooked – again. I was struck, not for the first time, by the quality of the children’s acting (they’re all adults now!), by the way they conveyed emotions like fear, longing, and sadness, and joy. This is a tribute to Steven Spielberg, of course, but it says something about the fact that kids don’t have those emotional shut-off switches we assign ourselves when we get older.


Three quarters of the way through the film, E.T. finally phones home, dies, and is resurrected. The kids steal the truck he’s in and then transfer to bicycles to get him to the rendezvous point in time. Stellaluna wakes up briefly, when Rusty barks, sees E.T.’s heart glow red and hears him say a few words before she falls asleep again.

"I've been hooked from the moment E.T. was left behind, and I know what's coming next… "

But me, I’m hooked. I’ve been hooked from the moment E.T. was left behind, and I know what’s coming next – the big emotional climax where E.T. will ask Elliot to come and Elliot will ask E.T. to stay. “I’ll be right here,” E.T. will tell Elliot, his long index finger reaching slowly out to touch Elliot’s heart. And then he’ll pick up his potted flowers and totter up the ramp into the spaceship, the door will close, and off the spaceship will go. The end.


Familiarity Does Not Breed Distance

I know all this, right? I know John Williams’ score will cue the violins. I know Spielberg will frame Elliot and E.T. just so for their big moment, but will also zoom out to include Elliot’s mother and her maybe-new-boyfriend Keys (Peter Coyote), as well as cut to Gertie (the young and already irresistible Drew Barrymore) and Mike, Elliot’s sister and brother. I know we’ll see E.T.’s mother waiting for him as the spaceship ramp lowers, her red heart glowing, as all mothers’ would in such moments.

"I know all this, and yet, I'm crying. Now why am I crying, yet again?"

I know all this, and yet, I’m crying. Now why am I crying, yet again? This is so hokey, so contrived, so – well – predictable; in fact, more than predictable – it’s a scene I know by heart. But that’s the thing: It reaches out – just like E.T.’s long finger – and touches me, “right here” – in my heart.

"How do we reach out to readers and touch them 'right here'? "

And that, dear readers, is what I want my fiction to do, too. I hope you aspire to the same. The question is, how do we do it? How do we reach out to readers and touch them “right here”?


Only Connect

Let’s look at the scene I’ve just described again, see what Spielberg, Williams (and screenwriter Melissa Mathison) have done to make me cry. First of all, we’re in kairos here, time which feels elongated and so increases its emotional impact. Second, there’s the point of view: The cameras may be showing different angles, but the heart of every viewer is with Elliot, whose own heart is breaking. Spielberg has kept us in Elliot’s point of view even when we’re in scenes from E.T.’s point of view, because Elliot and E.T. have an empathetic connection.


But most important is the restraint that Spielberg uses to show us this scene. “Restraint?” you ask. What about those violins, those cutaway shots, that glowing red heart, for goodness sake? Yes, all that’s there, but the violins never overpower the soundtrack (as you’ve likely heard them do in lesser films), the cutaways are brief, and that red heart, when we see it, is there for a brief instant – just long enough to tap our own.

"Watch this scene again, yourself. Watch and listen to the exchange between Elliot and E.T…. The emotion occurs in what's not said, in the places between words and beyond them. "
– Lenard-Cook

Watch this scene again, yourself. Watch and listen to the exchange between Elliot and E.T. The spaceship lands. Gertie hugs E.T. goodbye. “Be good,” E.T. tells her. Mike touches E.T.’s head – for the first and last time. Then E.T. turns to Elliot, and they speak those few words I’ve recorded above. The emotion occurs in what’s not said, in the places between words and beyond them. That’s why I cried last night, and that’s why I’ll cry when I next watch this film. Restraint: Connection occurs in the spaces we leave for our readers to fill in.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) is now available for advance purchase at amazon.com.