The Profile Dossier: Nicholas Sparks, the Master of Tragic Love Stories
“By definition, all love stories have to end in tragedy."
“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that's what you've given me. That’s what I'd hoped to give to you forever.” — The Notebook
Nicholas Sparks describes his genre of novels as “tragic love stories.” And as the author of The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Dear John, and A Message in a Bottle, he has done just that. It’s nearly impossible to get through one of his books without shedding a tear.
“I try to create modern-day versions of the Greek Tragedies,” he says. “Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays with the intention that the audience experiences the full range of human emotion, including both love and tragedy. More than that, they wanted to genuinely evoke these emotions without being manipulative. To read those plays is to ‘experience all the emotions of life.’”
Sparks was 28 years old when he wrote The Notebook in six weeks, a novel about a young couple who falls in love in the 1940s and spend the rest of their lives making their way back to each other. When Sparks published the book in 1996, it hit The New York Times bestseller list in its first week and stayed there for more than a year, selling more than 105 million copies worldwide. In 2004, it was adapted into a hit film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
“I thought The Notebook had a chance to be very successful, even before writing the first sentence,” Sparks says. “The story struck me as truly memorable, and I knew the structure would work. And yet, I wasn't sure I would be able to pull off the actual writing of the novel. It's one thing to have a great story, but it's an entirely different thing to commit the proper words to paper.”
Up until The Notebook, Sparks had worked a number of odd jobs, none of which panned out. He tried out real estate appraisal, home restoration, food service, and pharmaceutical sales. But deep in his heart, he was a writer.
“I knew that I didn’t want to be a pharmaceutical rep for the rest of my life,” he said. “So, I had an epiphany. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to give writing another shot,’ and you know, I came up with the story for The Notebook.”
You’ll notice many patterns in a signature Nicholas Sparks novel, one of which is that many of his stories feature a medical element. Sparks says art often reflects reality. In the course of his life, he has spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals.
When he was 23, his mom was in a fatal horseback riding accident. His sister had a brain tumor and died in the hospital. His father died in a car crash. His wife had a miscarriage early in their marriage. His second son Ryan was diagnosed as severely autistic.
“I think for most people, this is part and parcel of life,” he says. “At the same time, it’s often moments like those that make you question things. And so to me it just reflects the truth.”
After Sparks decides on a story, his process is relatively straightforward. He writes 2,000 words a day, three to four days per week, usually between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. “Sometimes, writing may take three hours, sometimes seven or eight hours. At this pace, I finish a novel in four to five months,” he says.
Here’s what we can learn from Sparks about evoking genuine emotion, generating original story ideas, and becoming a professional writer.
On evoking emotion: In this interview, Sparks answers the question around why he thinks people are so drawn to his stories. His goal, he says, is to evoke so much emotion from the reader that by the time they finish one of his novels, they feel as if they’ve “lived a mini-life.” He says, “They went through all of these emotions, they were happy and sad and angry and frustrated and confused, and falling in love and then being in love and challenged in love, all of these great emotions.” Here’s why evoking emotion is key to any great story.
On using the edges of time: In this interview, Sparks says that he wrote ‘The Notebook’ in the evenings while he had a full-time job and a newborn baby at home. How? He learned how to fully take advantage of the tiny slivers of time we all have in our day. (I did the same thing, and I call this ‘the edges of time.’) Find a way to create something meaningful with your ‘edges of time.’
On the relationship between love and tragedy: In this interview, we hear in more detail how he thinks about the relationship between love and tragedy. In a way, he says, love is inherently tragic. “Love and tragedy are linked,” he says. “You can’t have one without the other.” Millions of people around the world die every day, Sparks explains, but the second that it’s someone that you love, your entire world collapses. And the greater the love, the greater the tragedy. “By definition, all love stories have to end in tragedy,” says Sparks.
On story-generation: How does Sparks come up with so many different plot lines and characters? In this wide-ranging interview, he talks about his process for idea-generation. While he has certain rules (a story with elements of romance likely set in North Carolina), he always asks himself: “What haven’t I done? What haven’t I explored?” It’s those questions that drive him to develop an idea, a theme, and characters. “From there, you just keep asking yourself ‘What if’ questions, and you kind of keeping walking all the way through until the story fully forms in your mind.”
On the reality of being a writer: If you want to be a writer, Sparks says, then you need to accept all the challenges that come with being a writer — ”the uncertainty, the writer’s block, the sleepless nights, the loneliness, the ability to work in silence, the ability to give up time in the real world for time in the fantasy world.”
Structure can breed creativity: If you read a Sparks novel, you’ll notice one common thread through each story: It is usually set in a small North Carolina town. Why? Because he wants the reader to know what to expect when they pick up one of his novels. There are three general truths, he says, to each of his books: “There will be a love-story element to the story, the novel will be set in eastern North Carolina, and the characters will be likeable,” he says. These parameters are kind of like building the border of a jigsaw puzzle. From there, he can make each story unique through differences in voice, perspective, age, plot, and personality of the characters. As Aaron Sorkin says, art is beautiful because of its basic adherence to some set of rules, while finger painting is the result of complete unstructured freedom.
Evoke emotion to write a powerful love story: What does it take to write a modern tragic love story? Sparks has the following three requirements:
The story must evoke genuine emotional impact across the full range of human emotion without being manipulative.
The story must be dramatic without being melodramatic.
The characters, plot, and story elements must be universal (feel "real" to the reader), interesting, and original.
If you’re writing a love story, remember to write until you yourself feel the emotions you want the reader to feel. The most genuine pieces of writing require a level of vulnerability and emotional release.
Draw inspiration from your daily life: Many writers often wait for their “muse” to feel inspired to write. But Sparks believes that if you become a careful observer of your daily life, there’s no way a story won’t just smack you in the face. For instance, A Walk to Remember was a novel inspired by the life of his sister. The Notebook was based on Sparks’ wife’s grandparents. Her grandfather told them their love story because it was the only thing that seemed to help his wife with her Alzheimer’s. And that’s how that germ of an idea turned into The Notebook. Pay attention to your daily life, and keep a little notebook with you at all times. The most unlikely moments can turn into some of the greatest works of art.
Study the greats: In my book, Hidden Genius, I talk about the fact that some of the world’s most successful people discovered their own genius by first studying the genius of those who came before them. Sparks does the same. His favorite author is thriller writer Stephen King. “I like the fact that when he’s writing, he never loses sight of the fact that he’s telling a story that’s meant to engage the readers,” he says. “I think that’s a lesson that has resonated throughout my career, though of course we write entirely different things.” No matter the discipline, you can draw lessons and inspiration from the greats in any field and apply it to your own craft.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it can. And just when you think it can’t get any better, it can.”
"The scariest thing about distance is that you don’t know whether they’ll miss you or forget you.”
“Life, I've learned, is never fair. If they teach anything in schools, that should be it.”
“Falling in love is a little bit like creating the perfect song.”
"Inspiration can come from events in your own life, events that you know about, it can come from people that you know, it can come from readers, it can come from anywhere.”