We're studying "the Force." And plotting, so you just might want to pay attention to Luke's "journey."
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Syd Field ... Screenplay
Victoria Lynn Schmidt ... Book in a Month
February 2016 Workshop
Frost had a valid point. Emotion originates within the writer. The most efficient—although not the easiest—method to achieve authentic emotions in writing is familiarity with your own emotions. The writer must be open to exposing his emotions in order to elicit them in the reader. Write what you know very specifically applies to emotions. If a writer can’t or won’t expose a raw nerve, the narrative could read as disconnected. If the writer isn’t feeling the adrenaline rush of an action scene, or the heartbreak of a tragedy, it is unlikely the reader will feel those emotions.
It’s important to remember that when we’re scared, we’re rarely thinking: “I’m freaking out here.” We are experiencing emotions in real time, within our own skin. What are your symptoms for fear, anger, sadness, or depression? Use those “symptoms” to show the reader the emotions of the character. You might never have experienced being chased through the streets of Amsterdam by a crazed killer, but you have been scared. You know the symptoms. You can imagine the fear and the rush and the panic (or lack thereof). Live the scene and the reader will as well.
In the Bourne books, for example, the reader feels the time crunch, the action, the adrenaline of the main character. Robert Ludlum doesn’t spend pages of narrative telling the reader. The reader experiences the story through Bourne. It’s fast-paced, and while not overly emotional or melodramatic, the reader has a visceral experience through Bourne.
We recognize anger and revenge and self-preservation without the author telling us that the character feels those things.
To a certain extent, the amount of emotion you include in your writing is governed by your genre and your character.
Character: There is a balance between not enough and too much emotion in a novel. I recently read a book by a NYT bestselling author. In a later chapter, a male character spends six to eight pages “telling” another character his emotions. As a female, if my best friend goes on for the equivalent of six to eight pages, I’ll make appropriate noises of compassion, but by the sixth page, I’m ready to suggest therapy. If a male friend went on for six pages, I’d have to swallow my tongue to keep from telling him to man up.
Conversely, characters who feel too little on the page come across as emotionally stunted.
My characters rarely have their personal shiz together. I like them a little off balance, but I run a fine line between creating characters that are emotionally reserved and presenting a character that the reader can not relate to. I have a novel that I cannot sell for the life of me, because the editor/agent doesn’t like the main character. I absolutely adore her. She’s broken and numb and emotionally jacked, but if I don’t show enough emotion at the outset, in order for the reader to connect, that book will stay on my hard drive.
Your characters need to behave in a way that is authentic to their gender and their persona.
Genre: I cannot express this enough. You need to know your genre. Read extensively across the line to see the level of emotion present in the genre you want to publish. Thrillers spend a lot less time on emotional details than a romance. Where’s the line? Read, read, read. There is no substitute. Stephen King has said, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Now to specifics. The best novels present emotional details in much the same way we do setting.
1) Reveal emotion through body language. Body language is something a writer should study. People-watching is a valid writing activity. Let the movement of the character through the scene suggest an emotion that you don’t specifically name. The reader may interpret the body language differently than the writer intends, but that’s okay. The same happens in real life when one person recognizes depression while another assumes apathy. The reader brings their observations and experiences to the story.
The Emotion Thesaurus is a good place to start for specific movements related to different emotions.
As the character moves through the scene, have him notice little details. The witness’s hand is icy cold, despite her calm demeanor. The suspect’s flirtatious laughter is high and false. The guy at the table keeps looking at the door. Is he waiting for someone or searching for a quick exit? Let the character experience and witness details organically in the story.
Like setting, emotions shouldn’t be dropped into the scene in a large info dump. Drop nuggets into the active scene as the character encounters it. That way, the reader doesn’t skip around or get bored.
2) Reveal emotion through a character's level of experience. A hardened detective will notice signs of avoidance or outright lying by a suspect, but he’s probably not what we’d call emotionally sensitive. Not cruel, but he’s probably not going to be moved by a witnesses tears. If he spends six pages of narration talking about how lonely he is, we are going to do the equivalent of telling him to man up. We’re tossing that book aside.
A victim, on the other hand, probably won’t notice the lying, except in hindsight, perhaps. Instead, the victim experiences the shock of betrayal. How does that look or feel? If you’ve been betrayed or lied to or cheated on, you know how that feels. Describe the symptoms not the emotion.
3) Reveal emotion through the mood of the story. As the article on setting Four Ways to Bring Setting to Life expressed: “Filtering a scene through a character's feelings can profoundly influence what the reader sees.”
Word choice is key to setting the mood and emotion of the story.
4) Reveal emotions through the senses. Smell pulls memory from a character. They’re walking down the street and smell pizza from the nearby pizzeria and are reminded of their first breakup. They pass an alley and smell urine and rotting garbage. They pass a florist and remember their grandfather’s funeral. You don’t have to tell us the mood (emotion) of these characters, because the details the character notices do that for us.
Remember from our lesson last month:
To focus on emotion in a scene, ask yourself these questions:
Look at the following pictures. What emotions do you see reflected in the image? Does it matter what genre you’re writing? Your character? NOW, ask the ten questions above, and write a short segment (approx 100 words) to evoke that emotion based on the photo of your choice. Feel free to post your writing prompt in the comments below!
This is exactly what we were talking about last Thursday! I found it here. I find it fascinating what other writers think on the same topic...nearly simultaneously. Very cool. Anyway, best line for me on The Importance of Writing from the Heart by Scott D Southward: "Heart is the one thing that truly can’t be taught in an English or writing classroom, but it is also the most important thing a writer will need. And if used right by a writer, it can change opinions, stir a reader to act, and even make people cry or laugh. It is what takes a jumble of words and turns them into a message." We have to be willing to take risks and expose our mangled heart when we write! Enjoy the article. :)
January 2016 workshop
As a reader, I skip mass amounts of description in long narrative form. Others read each juicy detail and want more. Where's the balance between too much setting description and not enough?
When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Part of this is understanding your readers. What is your demographic? In my experience, science fiction and fantasy novels include way more setting detail than thrillers. Neither is right or wrong, but rather common conventions for your preferred storytelling type. The best way to determine this is to read frequently in the genre in which you write.
In our January workshop at the 21st Century Writers group, we had a lively discussion regarding setting. We started with Four Ways to Bring Setting to Life by Moira Allen. The first recommendation was to "reveal setting through motion." If a writer has a reader like me, who sees a huge chunk of description and jumps right past it, they're tricking me by breaking the description up. The writer is showing movement. If a waitress is delivering drinks to the galaxy ala Star Wars Cantina scene, the writer could show the waitress maneuvering past a creature with 8 hands or tripping over tentacles. Action allows the setting to filter into the story organically.
Another recommendation was to "reveal setting through a character's level of experience." In other words, the world as seen through the eyes of the character is different if the point of view character is a hardened galaxy waitress who no longer notices funky tentacles or a newby Jedi who has never left his rural planet. What does the character notice? What does the character NOT notice? And perhaps most importantly, why does it matter? I think this is where many writers fall into trouble.
As writers, we love our worlds, but if the three and a half paragraphs of detailed setting have no bearing on the plot or the character, why include it? As an example from our discussion, a hardened police detective probably wouldn't notice many "extra" details while eating lunch at a cafe. It's whatever to him. A place to eat and nothing else, but put that same detective at a crime scene, and they notice EVERYTHING. And the reader wants to read these paragraphs because somewhere embedded in the setting details are clues to the overarching mystery.
A third suggestion from the article was to "reveal setting through the mood of your character." A castle ruin takes on different details if the heroine is on a day hike versus lost in a creepy old ruin. Word choice is affected. A movie example of this idea is Hoodwinked. In the movie, the same story is repeated for four different characters: little red riding hood, the bunny, the huntsman, and the wolf (oh, and maybe Grandma, too, it's been awhile). Each character is part of the story, but they have very different perceptions of the setting. It's why sometimes when you're writing a scene and it isn't working, you should consider writing from another character's point of view. It can significantly alter the mood and pacing of the story.
A final idea from this article was to "reveal setting through the senses." I highly encourage you to read the source document for this section, but a part that really resonated with our discussion was the idea that the senses we include have different effects on the reader's emotions. For instance, "When we describe a scene in terms of visual inputs, we are appealing to the reader's intellect. Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear." As readers, we view the world through our senses. If we're walking and suddenly smell grandma's barbecue sauce, it evokes an emotional response, say disgust since grandma couldn't cook if her life depended on it. The same is true of our reader. By showing the setting through the senses of the point of view character, we allow the reader to see the soul of the character, creating someone who is complex and interesting.
That's great, but how do we incorporate that into our writing? For this, I took a look at 21 Writing Prompts for Setting a Scene in Your Novel by Suzannah Windsor Freeman. For our purposes in the workshop, we read through the list of 21 items and answered as many as we felt called to answer, and then wrote or rewrote a scene in our current WIP, adding setting details we learned from the Moira Allen article. The results were pretty amazing. For me, I was stuck on a new project I started at the first of the year. Reviewing these 21 questions helped me to define my character in her current location and turned a blah scene into an active scene. It's amazing what happens when you slow down.
If you'd like to use those 21 questions to write/rewrite a short scene, include it in the comments. Have fun!
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.