“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables

Les MiserablesMy family and I went to see Les Misérables the day after Christmas. My dad said, “It was probably the best film I’ve ever seen,” and while I may not go that far, it certainly had me (and three-quarters of the theater) dripping with tears more than once.

I want to write a story like Les Misérables. Not a musical, but a story so powerful, so captivating, that it could move people in the same way.

If you’d like to write a story as powerful as Les Misérables, I’ve put together this list of five observations about what made the story so powerful, and how writers can emulate it.

1. Test Transformation

In the first third of the story, Jean Val Jean has a dramatic transformation. He changes from the good but angry and vengeful criminal to a servant of others and of God.

The rest of the film is a test of that transformation. Will he live for his selfish desires or will he live for the good of others and his own soul? Will he stay transformed or will he go back to his old self?

The challenge for writers: How can you create a dramatic transformation in your main character?  And how you test your character’s transformation again and again throughout the story?

2. Be Historic

The film is set in the midst of grand events that happened about thirty years before the novel’s publication, notably the June Rebellion in 1832 France. The novel is even more ambitious, giving a detailed (and rather long winded, if memory serves) account of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

The challenge for writers: How can you set your story in the middle of great historic events?

3. Have a Big Cast

While most films have one, maybe two, point of view characters, there  are about six point of view characters in Les Misérables. Needless to say, that’s a big cast, and while it’s incredibly challenging to characterize this large of  many characters, it gives the story a degree of depth and flourish. Les Misérables feels less like the story of a single man and more the story of an age.

The challenge for writers: How can you involve more characters into your story?

4. Show What Characters Want

Donald Miller says the definition of a story is a character who wants something (of value) and is willing to undergo conflict to get it.” And the reason why the film is able to have so many point of view characters is because of the incredibly efficient way it shows what each character wants (by the way, this is easier to do in a musical, I think).

  • Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous.
  • Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean.
  • Cosette wants to be loved by a family.
  • Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution (these two desires come into conflict beautifully).
  • Éponine wants Marius.
  • The Thénardiers want money (and to get it by the sleaziest ways possible).

The challenge for writers: How can you show each character’s desire clearly?

5. Sacrifice Everything

Victor Frankle says:

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

It seems like the task Victor Hugo originally set out to was to bring meaning to the lives of the suffering, the miserables. He says, through his story, that even the wretches have something important to offer, even the miserables can live lives full of meaning.

Jean Valjean awes me. He is willing to give up everything for the sake of others. His life, and this story, is a powerful testimony to the potential of humans for love.

The challenge for writers: How can your main character sacrifice herself for the good of others?

What did you love about Les Misérables? How can writers emulate the story?

PRACTICE

For fifteen minutes, write a story in a historical setting where your main character makes a sacrifice for another. Feel free to steal from Les Misérables as much as you need to.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice here in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

Vive la France!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Great exercise Joe. I should have read this prompt before I started with my novel. I’ll save this in a favourite, for the next 400 pager I’m crazy enough to try! Right now it’s back to short stories.

    • Ha! Glad you liked it, Audrey. Although, you have a talent for writing about history, Audrey, and I don’t think you need me encouraging you to do it. 🙂

  • LetiDelMar

    What a great post! My husband cried like crazy at the end of the movie and he hasn’t cried since the birth of our daughter. He said (and I agree) he didn’t relate to Val Jean’s quest for righteousness and redemption but he certainly related to a father’s undying love for his child. I think this story has lots of unconditional love that drives the story and motivates the characters.

    • Well said, Leti. I think that’s definitely true.

  • Hi Joe, This story has intrigued me for decades – through two movies, the play, the CD, the book, and now the musical film. I’d never do it justice in fifteen minutes or a lifetime. You’ve highlighted the main elements that make it great nicely. Yes, Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean, but I think that he’s also seeking to maintain his own brand of righteousness. I shed my share of tears at the theater. How could I not?

    • Hi Ray. Good point, Javert is an embodiment of law, and it’s his superhuman focus on law that makes him chase Jean Valjean. Saying he just wants to capture Valjean is an oversimplification.

  • Awesome. Character development plays a key role in every story.

    • It’s true, Shaquanda. How do you think the film approaches character development?

      • the film targeted what each character wanted and showed each character trying to reach their goal. Knowing your characters well enough to show progressive change throughout the story, to me, shows great character development.

  • ee

    Retreading it for the third time (yes, the unabridged version). It never ceases o captivate. Characters are developed within their environments in great detail. You know them and feel their pain, each with their own sense of justice and all-consuming love. Have seen the musical but have not been to the movie yet. I will need to.be in the right frame of mind

  • Joe… great post! I haven’t read Les Miserables”, nor seen the movie. But it sounds profound. Long live the great stories, and I suppose that’s why they survive — they’re great. You say, “Even the wretches have something important to offer, even the miserables can live lives full of meaning.” Would Viktor Frankl not say that les miserables are the ones most likely to find meaning in life. When our lives are brimming with success, we are less likely to see what an illusion it all is — until we lose it all. As you well know, Frankl found meaning in Auschwitz, and helped others to find meaning, in a milieu of absolute deprivation.

    • Thanks PJ!

      I’m not sure about that. I think the idea that the poor automatically are able to find more meaning is a common idea that has popped up throughout history (e.g. the whole pastoral genre and a movement in Russia that I’m forgetting the name of). I read Elie Weisel’s Night recently and there were a lot of “miserables” who weren’t able to find the meaning in it. That being said, it does seem to me that the miserables have less obstacles from meaning.

      • I should have been more clear. Finding meaning is not common at all, so I reckon it’s not “automatic” for anyone. Far far from it. But I would argue that only those who struggle, or have a discipline in which they consciously disassociate from their attachments, have a chance of opening to “meaning”. Huge subject. Almost impossible to do it justice. But we’ll meet again on this issue, I’m sure… because I know it’s one of your favourites. Mine, too.

  • Madison

    This is such a perfect post for me! I’m working on a story now that takes place during the Belle Epoque era in France. I’m still learning about the era and I haven’t really found a style of writing that I like for this plot, but this is something from my story (and maybe, one day, a book!):

    I remember hearing Amara’s voice, but I didn’t see her. Everyone was running like chickens with their heads cut off. There were some lined up at the edge of the cliff watching the fire burn. My house was burning. “Au feu! Au feu!” They were watching my house burn. “Willie!” My mother hadn’t stopped coughing. Why did we even come here? “Nox! Nox! Nox!” How many people are up here?

    “Willie!” That was my father, I think.

    “Oui?”

    “Amara!”

    “Je ne comprends pas.” Shut up a second.

    My father took my mother’s hand from me and shoved my face in Amara’s direction. She was running down the hill and looked like shit. “Nox!” Nox is her brother. Nox is dead. “Nox!”

    “Nox!” How many people are here?

    Amara didn’t look at me, but she grabbed my hand. Her nails cutting me and we were looking for her dead brother, Nox. There were fallen branches everywhere and our legs were cut up, but Amara wouldn’t let go of me. Then she did.

    We stopped in the middle of the woods at the bottom of the hill.

    “Sh. Shhhhh….”

    I didn’t look to see what Amara had her eyes locked on. I wasn’t concerned. She took out her knife and threw into something I couldn’t see. So fast. The knife had left her hand went I cried, “Arrêtez !” After that there was a chilling scream. Then Amara’s lips curled.

    • I’m so glad! That sounds like a fascinating setting for a novel. I’m sure you’ve seen Midnight in Paris. I wasn’t able to understand the full of what’s happening in this short segment, but it looks like it’s going to be a nailbiter. 🙂

      • Madison

        I haven’t seen Midnight in Paris, lol. 🙁 Thank you so much though! I’m really excited about this story!

    • Paul Owen

      And then what happened?! You had pictures of the scene forming in my head right away, Madison. Your style keeps the action going, with just enough detail.

      • Madison

        I’d be glad to keep going another 5 minutes if you’d like. Thank you so much! I’m glad that style is working.

  • Karen Jones

    The problem is still within the questions you asked. How does a writer accomplish these things? I try and try, but the words simply never seem to come out the way want them too. I find myself in a constant battle inside with this. I must write, it is a need, and at the same moment, it tortures my every being.

    • I hear you, Karen. Just because you know how you should write, doesn’t mean you can do it. I think you’re over thinking this, though. Let go of the outcome of the work and just work. Check out this post. It might help:

      http://thewritepractice.com/writers-block-how-you-got-it-and-how-to-get-unblocked/

    • Mirelba

      Funny, I find writing a terrific release. I think you’re trying too hard. Just let it out, and don’t worry about it. Shelve it, and then go back to it later when it is less fresh in your mind. It’s easier to polish it that way, and you may be surprised by what you find.

      I also think that if you try to write a Shakespeare or a Victor Hugo, you’ll be doomed to failure. Try to write a Karen Jones, and I’ll bet you’ll grow your own set of wings.

  • Paul Owen

    My mind is as numb as my body. It is so cold in this lifeboat. Such a short time between a comfortable, warm end to the evening and the chaos of escaping a sinking ship. She was supposed to be unsinkable, but here the few of us are floating away as she sinks. I don’t know why my husband left my daughter and me on deck. Did he get into one of the other lifeboats?

    We were getting ready for bed when we started hearing commotion outside. Gradually we felt the ship listing, and James went out to see what was happening. He rushed back in and said we had to get to a lifeboat. I bundled up Maria as quickly as I could and the three of us went out on deck.

    James grabbed my arm as we got to a lifeboat, saying he’d be right back. My anxiety kept rising as time went by and the crowd got larger. Some women and children were already in the lifeboat, but it wasn’t nearly full yet. I was keeping Maria close and looking in the direction James had gone, when I felt someone pushing me toward the boat. I turned to look, and it was a man I’d never seen before.

    “You two must get in the boat now!”

    “But what about my husband? He’s not back.”

    “No time to wait any longer. You have to get in.”

    And with that he pushed Maria and me forward to the edge of the lifeboat, then yelled for us to get in. Soon after we climbed down, two members of the crew lowered our boat into the water. It still wasn’t full, and there were so many people still on deck.

    Now we’re floating away, and the ship’s stern is starting to lift out of the ocean. I can see other lifeboats in the distance. Is James in one of them? I pull Maria closer, trying to keep us warmer.

    • Mirelba

      You got me involved. Hope James is ok.

      I think, though, that part of the problem with the Titanic (if that’s what you’re referring to) is that there weren’t enough lifeboats and they all ended up in the water overloaded…

      • Paul Owen

        Thanks for the note, Mirelba. I was referring to the Titanic, and you’re right, it didn’t have enough lifeboats for everyone on board. Most of the lifeboats were launched before they were full (per Wikipedia), which only made the situation worse.

        • Mirelba

          And here I was always under the impression that they’d been overloaded.. Hmm. Learn something new every day.

  • Mirelba

    OK, this was more than 15 minutes, but the I think it meets with the rest of the criteria. This is a chapter from my WW2 novel, where 3 Jewish women are hiding out on a Polish farm. In the previous chapter, the adults had been warned that the Russian liberators were dangerous and to hide the women and girls (a sad but true fact). The girls had been warned to stay by the house. Anyway, here goes:

    Two days later, a beautiful sunny day appeared, cold but with a promise of spring. Ola and Ewka were out in the front playing with a ball. They tossed the ball back and forth, laughing merrily, moving with their tosses, till Ruchie could see them from where she was working. Ruchie was out back cleaning out the smelly rabbit hutch that she hated. “Uch,” she thought. She still could not get used to the smell. It seemed to her that as many rabbits as the Novaks ate, every time she came to clean out the hutch there were still more of them. Bent over her task, she seemed to notice a movement out of the side of her eyes. She lifted up her head, and noticed the girls chasing after the ball down the incline towards the road. Ruchie left the rabbit hutch and raced after the girls. “Ewka, Ola! Come back! Babcia told you to stay by the house!”

    Ruchie reached the girls panting and all out of breath.”Naughty girls! Babcia told you not to stray.”
    “But the ball, Ruchie, it rolled away” Ewka whined.

    As she panted, still trying to catch her breath after her race down the slope, Ruchie heard the sounds of hardened snow crunching underfoot. She looked around. There was nothing to see, but she felt a prickling sensation warning her. She quickly quieted her voice and urged the girls on. “Run girls, run. Someone’s coming. Run home, I’ll be right behind you.”

    As the girls ran off, Ruchie could see some men approaching. The men were joking loudly between them in Russian, laughing as they walked along. Ruchie saw their uniforms and her eyes widened in fear. She caught her breath, turned and ran. She heard one of the men call after her, and then she could hear them running, she could feel them drawing closer behind her. “Ruchie!” she heard Ola calling for her fearfully.

    With her last breath, Ruchie shrieked, “Run, Ola, run! Don’t look back!” and was knocked to the ground.

    Marta was out front mucking out the barn when she saw Ola and Ewka approaching, their hair escaping from their usually neat braids and straggling behind them. As they drew closer she could hear them shrieking and crying. She stood still a moment longer until the girls drew close enough for her to hear their ragged voices. “Ruchie! Ruchie!” the normally quiet Ola was shrieking. They were now close enough for Marta to see their tears.

    Marta took one look at the petrified children and didn’t wait to question them. Shovel still in hand, she began racing down the hill and heard Burek behind her. Babcia Danuta and Jacek came out of the house at the sound of the shrieking girls.

    “The ball, the ball,” Ewka wailed, scared and confused.

    “Ruchie.” Ola sobbed. Her shoulders heaving, she managed to say between pants,”Bad men. They have Ruchie.” Then she raised her voice and wailed. “ She told me to run. She told me not to look back, but I did. The bad men, they have her!”

    Jacek did not wait to hear it all. He turned in to the house to get his rifle as his mother hugged the girls close. “Go inside, girls. Go inside to Pani Libu.” Babcia Danuta herded them in to the alarmed Libu, and wnet for her old rifle.She followed Jacek down the hill as fast as she could go, anxious to try and help Jacek help the little one.

    When Marta arrived towards the bottom of the slope, she was enraged to see three men grouped around Ruchie, egging a fourth one on. Too infuriated to stop and think, Marta lashed out at the men with the shovel which she had initially not even realized was still clasped tightly in her hand. “Let go of her!” she yelled. “Leave the poor child alone!” The shovel hit the man on Ruchie with enough force to knock him off the girl, though his heavy winter jacket kept it from doing any real harm. Burek joined in the fray, snapping and barking at the men, as one of them jeered, “Another one come to greet her liberators!”

    “Liberators?” Marta raged, still swinging the shovel. “And what did you liberate that poor girl from ? Her youth? Her innocence? Animals! Leave her alone!”

    The men laughed at Marta and hit at the dog, but when the then the shovel made contact with someone’s head and broke skin. As the man tottered and touched his aching head in surprise, he saw the blood and roared. Marta kept her eyes on him as he face her down trying to approach her and grab the shovel. As they locked eyes and circled each other warily, the dog barking and snapping around them, Marta didn’t notice one of the wounded soldier’s comrades slip in back of her, till he wrapped his arms around her from behind. The man with the bloody head and the raging eyes slapped Mara. “Whore!” he yelled. All eyes were now centered on them. From the corner of her eyes, Marta saw Ruchie beginning to move, to slowly attempt to crawl away. She gave an inner sigh of relief and turned to the Russians before her, trying to divert their attention. “Pigs!” she spat at them. “You’re as bad as the Nazis.”

    A shot rang out, and one of the soldier’s hat flew off into the air and tumbled on the snowy ground. Startled, they looked up to see Jacek standing on the rise above them, rifle in hand, his mother fast approaching with yet another rifle in her arms. Burek stood facing them, growling fiercely.

    “Comrade Ivan, you will unhand the woman and leave.” Jacek stared at the soldiers, who shifted uneasily before his glaring eyes. One of the soldiers made to reach for his rifle slung across his back when the babcia cocked her rifle and aimed it at him.

    “I wouldn’t do that, young man. My eyes may be old, but they’re still sharp. I’ve managed to shoot plenty of vermin on this this farm over the years. And you’re a lot bigger than most of them.”

    Jacek kept his rifle trained on the men. “Throw down your identification badges towards me.” As the men slowly removed their identification papers and threw them down Jacek nodded at Marta. “Pick them up and check their names.”

    Marta looked grimly at the soldiers and picked up their papers. She peered at the papers and read aloud, “Boris Polzin, Yevgeny Ivanov, Alexander Petrov and Ilya Utkin.” The soldiers started, startled that she could read Cyrillic. “Brave soldiers of Mother Russia.” Marta taunted them sarcastically. “Is this what you offer the peasant, the worker, the downtrodden?”

    “Hush, Marta! Toss their papers back down.” Jacek turned back to the soldiers. “What unit do you belong to? Who is your commanding officer?”

    The soldiers mumbled an unwilling response.

    “Good. I will be sending a complaint to him and to the Provisional Government Offices in Warsaw.”

    “We were only having some fun,” one of the soldiers said.

    Jacek cocked his rifle. “Right now, it seems that shooting you would be a lot of fun. So watch yourself and don’t tempt me.” He looked at each of the men in turn. “If I ever see any one of you anywhere near one of my women or anywhere near my farm, I will personally geld you.” Jacek pointed with his rifle just to make sure his meaning was clear. “Now pick up your identification papers and leave.” The soldiers seemed to hesitate. “Now!” Jacek barked. The soldiers swiftly picked up their papers and headed off.

    Marta ran to Ruchie. Only when they could no longer see the soldiers’ retreating backs, only then did Jacek and the babcia lower their rifles. “I hope they won’t be back with more trouble,” muttered the babcia.

    Ruchie lay whimpering quietly as Marta straightened her clothing as best she could. As Jacek’s tall form cast a shadow in front of him, Ruchie tensed. “Rest easy, Ruchie, the soldiers are gone. It is only Jacek,” murmured Marta soothingly.

    “Ola, Ewka.” Ruchie’s voice was very faint. “Are they alright?”

    Jacek gently picked the girl up in his arms. “They are fine, little one. They made it home to safety. Now you rest.” Ruchie clutched his coat in her hand and closed her eyes. Within seconds he could hear her soft breaths and realized that she was no longer conscious.

    Behind Jacek, Marta felt her eyes fill with tears. As all the adrenaline rushed out of her body, she felt herself sag. She would have fallen if not for Babcia Danuta, who held her up carefully and patted her arm.

    “Come, Pani Marta. Now is not time yet. We must still be strong. We must go tend the little one. Come.”

    Marta clenched her eyes. “I won’t cry, I won’t cry” she repeated silently to herself again and again till she felt it was safe to open them once more. She swallowed and managed to respond. “Come, let’s go.”

    Libu and the girls were waiting at the house, staring out the window. As soon as they saw Jacek approaching with Ruchie, they all ran out. “Tato, Tato. Is she dead?” cried Ola.

    “Heaven forbid!” answered her grandmother sharply. “We will bring her in and take care of her. If you know how to listen, maybe I’ll let you help.”

    As Jacek neared the house, he nearly stumbled.

    “You’ve been carrying her the whole time? And you with your wound not fully healed! Give her to me, give her over now. Marta, Babcia Danuta, help Jacek.” Libu carefully lifted Ruchie out of Jacek’s arms and gently carried her into the house. Marta and Babcia Danuta hurried up to Jacek and tried to help him, but he shook off their well intentioned arms. “Go in, see to the girl. I’ll be fine. Just take care of her.”

    He sat on the stoop, and as Ola and Ewka tried to follow Libu and their grandmother into the house, he stopped them.

    “Before we go in, I want to know what happened. Why were you down by the road when your grandmother told you to stay by the house?”

    Ewka squirmed, and Ola began to cry again softly.

    “It was ball fault Tato.” Ewka said uncomfortably. “Ball run away.”

    “And Ewka ran away after it?” Jacek asked her.

    “Yes, Tato.”

    “I told her not to, Tato. I did. But she didn’t listen to me. So I ran to stop her.”

    Jacek considered his daughters. “The ball will not be punished. The ball was not told not to stray. But these two little girls that I see here, they were told by their Tato and their Babcia to stay close to home and not to stray. And they did not listen. So these two little girls must be punished. Do you understand?”

    “Yes Tato,” the two girls answered softly.

    “Ewka, no more balls for you. Not till you remember that obeying is more important than toys. And Ola, you will help the women care for Ruchie till she is better. And you will both remember after this how bad things can happen when we do not listen to our elders.”

    • This was great, Mirel. I read nearly the whole thing. Was the soldier raping Rutchie? It wasn’t clear, but it seemed to be what you were implying. Also, you might have some POV issues. You start with Rutchie then switch rather abruptly to Marta’s POV. For this scene, I would pick one POV and stick with it.

      • Mirelba

        In the previous chapter it’s mentioned that the women should be careful because the Russians are raping young girls and women, and yes, Ruchie was raped. I have an earlier rape scene in the book, where I was more explicit, but I couldn’t do it here. I had originally intended the book to be about Ruchie, but once I started writing, it shifted to Marta. But since Ruchie is much younger, I sometimes use her POV for a different outlook and feel. I thought the switch was obvious, but if you think it doesn’t work, I’ll take another look and stew over it some more.

        • I see. It might make more sense in that case.

          For POV, I think you should always be careful when you switch POVs in the middle of a scene. In general, I think switching in the midst of a scene, especially in the middle of an important action is disorienting and distracts from the action.

          • Mirelba

            Maybe it could be broken into 2 chapters, with Marta mucking out the barn beginning the next chapter. It could work that way, no?

          • That could certainly work. You’ll want to make sure the chapter break makes sense there, that it ends on something of a cliffhanger but also not too abruptly.

          • Mirelba

            Thanks. This has been very helpful.

  • jennastamps

    Joe, great post! Thanks for breaking down the greatness of that author’s masterpiece. You showed me things I hadn’t considered before, and I hope to incorporate these elements in my writing. Wonderful!

  • Charles Day

    Long time reader, first time writer. Joe, I’m sorry but this is terrible. I’ve been working on my writing and trying to get advice from various blogs around the web, and yours needs a -lot- of work. Please don’t try and break down a literary masterpiece before you have mastered basic editing… Have you ever tried reading your ramblings out loud before posting? That would help some of the most egregious errors. “It seems like the task Victor Hugo set out to was to bring meaning to the lives of the suffering, the miserables”. Worthy of a C in a high school English class at best.

    Your intentions are good and your readership seems loyal for whatever reason, but you’ve got to give a little more effort before you can be taken seriously.

    I know you posted with great fanfare about not being restrained by “the rules.” (A particularly distressing piece about the Oxford comma comes to mind), but before you can be a literary Bruce Lee and create your own style, you’ll have to do what he did and master the classics first.

    I just can’t handle reading this adolescent nonsense without responding any longer. Get it together, I hope you’re better than this.

    • Ha! Thanks for the help, Charles. I’m glad I have loyal fans like you to set my adolescent, ramblings straight. 😉

    • By the way, Charles, if you ever give feedback to other writers on The Write Practice, please try to be a bit more encouraging. We try to have a supportive, uplifting community. Personally, I can take the occasional snide comment, but I will protect the other members of this community.

  • You make some wonderful points here, Joe–I especially like what you said about testing transformation and showing what the characters want. As someone else commented earlier (and 4/5 of your points would indicate), character development is key to a fantastic story.