Crafting a Story: Lessons Learned From “The First Phone Call From Heaven” by Mitch Albom

I have to admit, the first main reason I was interested in this was because Mitch Albom wrote a letter for his Philippine readers; ergo, I was curious.

When I read it, though, I sorta… kinda… actually cried.

This was one of those times I wished I had an ebook equivalent where I could highlight the pages. The story has so many memorable quotes and life lessons that I just had to write them down.

A few years ago, my country was devastated by a terrifying typhoon, Yolanda, aka Haiyan. It was so strong it nearly wiped out a few provinces in one night. Until now, the affected areas are still struggling to get back on their feet. It was a catastrophe. A lot of people died; government rescue operations were questioned; donations and volunteer help came directly from international organizations because they didn’t trust the government. It was terrible.

And Mitch Albom had come to the Philippines for a book signing (unfortunately I wasn’t there because I couldn’t afford the flight). And he met readers who loved his books, and one particular woman who had salvaged his novels during the storm.

Stories matter. They are born from us, yet they outlive us. They inform us, infuse us, inspire us. And they connect us.

And that miracle of being connected to thousands of people from another corner of the world is the center of his story, The First Phone Call From Heaven.

Characters

the-first-phone-call-from-heavenThe characters are lovely, interesting, and oh so human.

I remember that how-to’s about writing characters often involved thinking about descriptions, flaws, goals, personalities, quirks, POV, and voice, among other things.

Sometimes, when we write – or when we create our characters – we are too immersed in describing how they look: from their red-dyed hair to their ancient samurai swords, thinking up what makes them so unique, how badass and powerful and smart they are, and generally trying to make them stick in the reader’s mind.

Tess, daycare center teacher, was a lonely woman who heard her phone ring. It was her mother – who died years ago.

Jack, the police chief, lost his son Robbie, who was on an Afghanistan tour. Jack’s son called him at work.

Katherine, a real estate agent, received a call from her departed sister.

And Sully, fresh from prison for crashing a plane while in the military, thinks everything is a hoax. Because if Heaven was real, and dead loved ones could call, why hadn’t his wife contacted him and their young son?

These people are just ordinary people. Their descriptions aren’t listed on page one or when we meet them. In time, even how they look means so little to how they feel, what they do, how they think.

Pacing

No body likes to read a boring story. I mean, that’s why we read, right? To be entertained, to be taken away to another time and place? To be somewhere interesting, with something interesting going on?

But considering the genre, pacing will differ. The key is to make it interesting and not boring even if your story isn’t about a kidnapping or a ticking bomb.

The story never feels tedious or slow because something important is always happening in every scene. A scene doesn’t have to include someone fighting or running, but every scene in the story was needed to further the plot along. In fact, the most beautiful scenes in this story was when one or some of the characters recalled something, reminiscing in their slightly scorched kitchen or in their office.

Also, the novel contains tidbits of information about Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. This old story and some anecdotes weave seamlessly into the story, patching decades and distances into one powerful narrative.

Setting

Whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy or a distant dystopian future, setting the place and time and social condition is very important. We can even go so far as to say that the story’s setting is a major character in the story.

Setting has to come alive. It has to feel real enough to smell, taste, see, and drive around in. Coldwater, Michigan used to be a small and quiet town, where everyone knew each other. Until the miracle happened.

Not every little building or street was described. In fact, it was less on how the building looked, and more on how the people interacted with each other that made Coldwater come alive.

SHE

I first saw this one in high school when my English teacher listed this one as one of the elements of a story: SHE or Significant Human Experience.

Every story in the world – weather it features shape shifters, magical animals, aliens, supernatural creatures, or sentient toys – talks about a significant human experience.

The First Phone Call From Heaven talks about grief, loss, deceit, even greed, and faith. And it’s why the story connects to so many readers. You don’t have to be a Christian to know what the characters are feeling and why they’re reacting the way they do – losing someone you love and just wanting them back, wanting to hear from them again is something many of us have felt before. “No soul remembered is ever truly gone.”

And the ending? Beautiful. Every story I have ever loved had left me with one major feeling: hope.

And that’s the same thing you’ll feel after reading this story, because as one character put it:

“What is false about hope?”

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