3 tips to improve your writing by studying Elena Ferrante’s storytelling.
Elena Ferrante doesn’t need personal branding or book promotion.
“Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante‘s work prepares you for the ferocity of it.“ – Amy Rowland, The New York Times.
“Her prose is crystal, and her storytelling both visceral and compelling.” – The Economist
“Everyone should read anything with Ferrante‘s name on it.“ – The Boston Globe
“A satisfying and devastating culmination to a series that has grabbed readers‘ hearts.“ – Buzzfeed
Elena Ferrante was everywhere. On my friends‘ Facebook timelines, the press, the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. I thought it was just a buzz about another embittered old feminist.
And then I came across a section from her book The Days of Abandonment. I had to buy it. I couldn‘t let go of it until the end and then… I daydreamed of meeting her.
Now I am seriously thinking about taking my whole family to Italy this spring.
Elena Ferrante is the queen of storytelling
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
Olga’s husband Mario tells her that after 15 years of marriage he is confused, exhausted, and unsatisfied. He even feels like a coward. He wants to leave.
But why? They talk about everything, they kiss, the sex is great, he makes her laugh. He never acted strange. Why?
Olga is 38 and she has everything she needs: a peaceful life, a successful husband, two children, and a dog. Although well-educated, she followed her husband around the world, supporting his career efforts and raising children, and now…
When she realizes he went out without any stuff and didn’t say goodbye to the kids, she tells herself this is just an impulsive decision of a man dissatisfied with his life.
But this isn’t the first time Mario behaves like this. 6 months into dating, after they kissed, he told her they should stop seeing each other. 5 days later he called her embarrassed, telling her he had “shattered nerves”. She remembered that expression for good.
Then he said the same five years ago, when they were seeing his old college friend Gina.
The woman who has tied her life to her husband’s career finds herself in mess: she has no job, no income, the kids are ungrateful and demanding, the dog is messy, she can‘t go on like this… Love has been “subtracted from her“. She feels abandoned and diminished.
She can’t believe Mario doesn’t love her. Then she thinks he is hiding something. And then she understands it all… As the book unfolds, Olga sinks deeper into her own darkness, hopeless and obsessing about her husband.
The bottom is so deep that one time she tells her daughter to poke her with a knife in the thigh so she doesn’t get distracted by her own thoughts.
The book is about a wife left by a husband. it‘s not the first one, so what‘s e big deal?
Ferrante is the queen of storytelling. She is able to depict even the tenderest emotions in such way that you feel them. You get charged with hope, desperation, disgust, and fury… You are really worried about Olga.
Ferrante‘s bluntness is extraordinary. She is not afraid to expose her dark side. The one that any of us has: our failed expectations of love, partnership, real-life parenting, false ideas of womanhood, unfulfilled dreams, egotism, ambition, the toll of social expectations, dissatisfaction, betrayal, hurt, prejudice… And inner strength.
We could talk about how to write like Ferrante for days. But let’s focus on 3 tips to help you become a better writer:
Ferrante skillfully uses sensory details to bring you into the world you forget is imaginary. With the sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste her story comes to life:
– “…the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.”
– “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere.”
– “as I listened, my veins contracted, my skin froze. I was cold, he was gone, I stood at the stone parapet below Sant’Elmo looking at the faded city, the sea.”
These descriptions of Olga’s experiences remind us of our own life experience. With sensory details, Olga‘s personal story somehow becomes the story we all take part in. Thus it gets universal quality. With these details, Ferrante creates a deep connection with the readers.
The tip regarding sensory details:
Use sensory details in your writing: the words of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste will make your prose more vivid.
The first person narration gives you authority.
Or evokes empathy, like in the case of Ferrante‘s book. As readers, we are in direct contact with Olga‘s experience, so we ask ourselves: Is this actually Ferrante‘s life or is she just a queen of words?
Olga’s dark story starts in medias res, pulling us immediately into her sorrow. Mario tells Olga he is leaving her and she is flabbergasted.
Ferrante‘s narration is so intense it‘s gripping. Due to Olga’s first point of view, the story is deeply, sometimes embarrassingly personal. However, she talks in the past tense. This gives us the impression she has some distance from the events, thus making her point of view more credible.
Ferrante recounts incidents by mixing action with dialogue, reported speech, and her own internal monologue – who said what and what she thought of it, all in one sentence:
“I forced him to have dinner with me, I held up before him the pot with the sauce I had prepared, the meatballs, the potatoes, and I covered the steaming macaroni with a generous layer of dark-red sauce. I wanted him to see in that plate of pasta everything that, by leaving, he would no longer be able to look at, or touch, or caress, listen to, smell: never again. But I couldn’t wait any longer. He hadn’t even begun to eat when I asked him:
“Are you in love with another woman?”
He smiled and then denied it without embarrassment, displaying a casual wonder at that inappropriate question. He didn’t persuade me. I knew him well, he did this only when he was lying, he was usually uneasy in the face of any sort of direct question. I repeated:
“It’s true, isn’t it? There’s another woman. Who is it, do I know her?” “
The style is simple with great attention to detail.
Olga discloses every impression and emotion she feels. We get to see her train of thought, strange ideas, the cynicism, her absence of sense, and the agony of a desperate lost woman as she gets out of touch with reality.
Her deep grief becomes your experience. Olga’s narration is so emotionally affecting that you can’t be indifferent. You either want to shake her and scream: “Get over yourself!” or give her a hug and rock her gently into calmness.
The tip about the narration:
– Create an emotional appeal – think about an emotion you want to evoke from your readers. This will give power to your story.
– Use the first-person narration to tell your personal experience, but talk in the past tense so it looks more objective and persuasive.
– Start from in medias res and then build from there.
– Explain how you felt not by saying “I was…“ but by showing your emotion in a situation or with your actions and thoughts.
– When retelling an incident, include dialogue and your own train of thought to make the read more compelling.
The psychological transformation of the character / the Character arc
Olga’s identity is closely connected to her marriage, and she feels lost after losing her husband. She hopes Mario will get back until the truth slaps her in the face.
She unwillingly sets on an adventure outside of her comfort zone. She feels confused, then hurt and betrayed. Enraged because she assumes Mario left her for another woman.
You get to look at the sheer ugliness of her temporary insanity. When she sees who the other woman is, Olga has a breakdown. She does mean things out of her immense grief. Those who can‘t empathize with her may even hate her for her villainy.
But our heroine is only human. Her negative traits make her real and lovable.
Olga is in the abyss of desperation until an incident shows her how down and wayward she was. In the middle of the heatwave, among the walls of her own apartment, she is forced to face her demons.
She lost a big part of herself. Life will never be as it used to. The nightmare in the middle of the day finally shakes her out of her desperation. Time to start moving forward.
Then sets on a way to become an independent and self-aware woman.
The tip regarding the psychological transformation:
– Don‘t make your characters one-dimensional. The hero has flaws, just like the villain has virtues.
– Create a story where the character will gradually transform due to some force.
– The change can be in various forms: another character‘s action, force majeure, new experience, personal realization, the consequence of one‘s own bad deed, or a sporadic event.
– In the beginning, the character does not have the knowledge or tools to deal with the force.
– As he/she learns new skills, the character will start changing until he/she gets more capable/self-aware.
Elena Ferrante is a literary giant – her raw frankness pulls us like flies to honey.
The world is fascinated by her books because of her directness, empathy, attention to detail, and uncomplicated depiction.
She tells her story without shame but makes us feel it. Her narration is thrilling because it thrills her that we want more.
We don‘t know who Elena Ferrante is. Maybe she‘s a translator. Or a Neapolitan screenwriter. Maybe it‘s a married couple. Or a group of authors.
But we fell as we know her personally. We admire her. Having read The Days of Abandonment I had an irrational wish. To meet her because she feels me so well. And she makes me see how far I am from being a real writer. She is a beautiful intuitive entity. Someone to learn from.