3 tips to improve your writing by studying Elena Ferrante’s storytelling.
Elena Ferrante doesn’t do any personal branding or book promotion. We don’t even know who she is. Still, the Italian novelist is officially one of the most influential people in the world:
“ Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it.” — The New York Times
“ Her prose is crystal, and her storytelling both visceral and compelling.” — The Economist
A few years ago she was everywhere, from my friends’ Facebook feeds to the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. I thought it was just a buzz about another feminist. And then I came across The Days of Abandonmentand couldn’t let go of it until the end.
Elena Ferrante is the queen of storytelling
The Days of Abandonment starts in medias res:
“ One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
Mario is leaving Olga after 15 years of marriage because he is “confused”.
But why? They often hug and kiss, the sex is great, he makes her laugh, they can talk about everything.
38-year-old Olga has everything she needs: a peaceful life, a successful husband, and two children. At first, she thinks Mario is dissatisfied with life in general. Then she remembers he already had “shattered nerves” before.
Mario goes out and isn’t coming back.
The woman who has tied her life to her husband’s career finds herself in mess: she has no job, no money, the kids are ungrateful, the dog is messy, and love has been “subtracted from her”.
As the book unfolds, Olga sinks deeper into her own darkness, hopeless and obsessing about her husband. And you go down the hole with her.
You get charged with hope, desperation, disgust, and fury… You are really worried about Olga.
The narration is blunt like you’ve never seen. Ferrante exposes your own dark side with ease: illusions about love, betrayal, hurt, egotism, ambition, real-life parenting, the toll of social expectations… And inner strength.
She is able to suck you into the story with these 3 elements:
Ferrante makes you a part of her imaginary world. She uses words of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, so Olga’s personal narrative becomes your experience:
- “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.”
- “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.”
With sensory words, Ferrante is able to activate parts of our brains which we use to look, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We can feel what Olga is feeling. Thus Ferrante’s story gets a universal quality and creates readers’ deep connection with Olga.
The tip regarding sensory details:
- Use sensory details in your writing to connect the readers with your protagonist. The words of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste will make your writing more colorful.
You either want to shake Olga and scream: “Get over yourself!” or give her a hug and rock her gently into calmness.
Ferrante uses first-person narration to evoke empathy. Olga tells you her embarrassingly personal story, and you feel the agony of a desperate woman — her grief, selfish desires, sexual encounters, hatred, and temporary insanity.
However, Olga talks in the past tense, so she has an emotional distance from all that happened to her. And we believe her because of this.
Ferrante is able to mix action with dialogue, reported speech, and her own internal monologue all in a few sentences:
“ 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.“
The style is simple with great attention to detail.
Still, you cannot but flip through pages always wanting more because Elena Ferrante also often uses cliffhangers. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a cliffhanger is
“ A dramatic and exciting ending to an episode of a serial, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode.”
There are different types of cliffhangers, and Ferrante uses plenty of them:
- an unanswered question — Olga is wondering why Mario left her,
- a loss — Olga loses Mario; and with him, she loses her way of life and the sense of self,
- hope — when Mario comes to have dinner together, Olga hopes he will miss her again,
- a physical threat — Olga’s children get sick,
- an accident — Olga’s dog gets poisoned,
- unexpected news — Olga sees Mario with his mistress; Olga sees the neighbor she despises in a completely new light,
- an unmade decision — it takes a lot of time for Olga to say to herself enough is enough.
The tip about the narration:
- Create an emotional appeal. Make your readers feel what your character is feeling. This will give power to your story and the message you want to convey.
- Use the first-person narration to tell your experience. Talk in the past tense to look objective and persuasive.
- Start from in medias res and build from there.
- Explain how you felt not by saying “I was/I felt…“. Instead,depict your emotion with your behavior and thoughts.
- When describing an incident, put dialogue and your train of thought to make the read more compelling.
- Use cliffhangers to make your readers eager to read more.
The psychological transformation of the character / the Character arc
Olga’s identity is closely connected to her marriage, so she feels lost when Mario leaves her. She hopes he 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.
When she sees who the other woman is, Olga has a breakdown. She does mean things out of her immense grief, and you may even hate her for that.
But our heroine is only human. Her negative traits make her real and lovable.
Olga is in the abyss of desperation until an incident shakes her out of it. She has to face her demons in the middle of a heatwave in her own apartment, with her kids around. Time to start moving forward.
Then she 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. Your 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.
- At the beginning of your story, the main 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.
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 storytelling, directness, attention to detail, and uncomplicated depiction.
She tells her story without shame but makes us feel it.
We don’t know who she is. Maybe she’s a translator. Or a Neapolitan screenwriter. Maybe it’s a married couple. Or a group of authors.
But we feel as if we knew 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.