Lessons in Story Chemistry

Yesterday I finished reading Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. 

I held off at the end because I hated the thought of completing it. It’s that good. Probably my favorite novel since Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s wonderfully written– engrossing, vivid, funny, intelligent, romantic and philosophical. It made me laugh, made me angry, and more than once made me cry. In other words, like all great stories, it made me feel.

I also listened to an interview with Bonnie Garmus and learned this was her first published novel, which is now a huge bestseller, and is going to be a series for Apple TV starring Brie Larson (ROOM; CAPTAIN MARVEL) and written by Susannah Grant (ERIN BROCKOVICH). 

If you’re a novelist, I know reading about her success can be both inspiring (“Maybe I can do this too!”) and disheartening (“How the hell did she do this on her first try?!”). But then I learned that Bonnie is an editor who’s been writing and working with writers for a long time. Which explains her “overnight” success, and makes her something of a kindred spirit (meaning I like and admire her even more).

So I woke up this morning realizing I wanted to recommend her terrific book to everyone I could. And since my mission is to help people tell better stories, I should probably talk about how she created such a great novel.

But my next thought was, “I can’t.”

You see, when storytellers achieve greatness, it involves taking all the rules and principles and elements of storytelling and then adding a lifetime of reading, practice, personal experience, hard work, setbacks, determination and soul-baring, plus a magical spark of creativity (chemistry, if you will) that’s impossible to fully describe or replicate.

But what I can do is tell you some of what makes Lessons in Chemistry a really good novel, so that when you add those other elements above, you’ll have a much better shot at greatness, and at realizing your own fulfillment as a storyteller.

[NO SPOILER ALERT!] I HATE spoilers, so I’m not going to give away anything about the plot of the novel. You’ll have to read the book yourself to see the many examples of the principles below. So it’s safe for you to keep reading…

1. The story is simple. While the characters are rich and complex, and the plot contains elements of chemistry (NOT a spoiler – just look at the title) that can sound complicated, the basic storyline can easily be described in a short paragraph – primarily because the hero has a single, driving desire that she declares and pursues through the entire story. Her pursuit of that goal takes many twists and turns, but throughout we know that we’re rooting for her to get what she longs for.

2. The story’s characters are unique, varied and empathetic. We connect deeply with all the primary characters in the novel (even the ones we might come to despise), and we can see ourselves in their hopes, desires, fears, shortcomings, and pain. But they aren’t carbon copies of characters we’ve seen repeatedly in other stories. Their backstories, beliefs, circumstances and eccentricities make them captivating. In other words, their individuality makes them more real.

3. The story is filled with conflict. The obstacles our hero – and all the main characters – must confront are frequent, neverending and often overwhelming. They come from the past, the present, forces of nature, enemies and loved ones. And most of all from the beliefs, fears and prejudices that lie buried within each of us.

4. The story is logical. Bonnie Garmus pushes the boundaries of what actually might happen in real life. But within the world she has created, the characters behave logically – the way real people might legitimately behave given their beliefs, circumstances and abilities. So as we read, her story becomes believable.

5.  The story takes a stand. The author doesn’t play it safe, trying to avoid subjects or express opinions that might upset or anger any potential readers. She portrays and confronts prejudices, beliefs and behaviors that clearly anger and frighten her. And through her hero’s (and other characters’) words and actions, the author rails against them.

In other words, in Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus presents a powerful theme – a clear statement about how we should live our lives in order to be more reasonable, more courageous and more humane.

Whether you’re telling stories for the page, the stage or the screen; whether you’re a novelist, screenwriter, speaker or marketer; when you craft a story that includes these elements, your impact on your readers and audiences will surpass what you thought it could. 

And that will move you forward on your own path to greatness.

– Michael Hauge

P.S. If you happen to know Bonnie Garmus, please give her my thanks for the joy I felt reading her wonderful novel.