Swallowing the Wallowing

On April 6, 2017, Writeforfun wrote, I love to explore people’s emotions when I write – love to – to the point that, as I look over my stories, I realize that the majority of my writing is spent detailing what is going on in characters’ heads. I enjoy writing because I get to put them in dangerous situations or scar them emotionally, and then explore all of the conflicting and interesting emotions they experience (my favorite characters to write are those who are sensitive about something). That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s so much fun (for me!) but I realize that it often overshadows the action and other important details. Has anyone else had that problem? How do you rein yourself in from including too much emotional exploration? I try to cut back on the detail I’ve included… but it’s too interesting to me to give it up! How to find a balance between what is going on in your story and what is going on in your characters’ heads?

And Christie V Powell wrote, I like using the action and plot to show the emotion–possibly in the present, possibly with a mini-flashback. Usually when someone is feeling emotional, there is a specific image or phrase in their heads (if I’m in the car and afraid, I probably have an image of a car wreck in my head). I like “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as an example–I think I “inherited” some of his style and only recently noticed the connection. He uses short sentences, even one word sentences, and line-breaks for emphasis. His main character Brian’s survival story is both inside his head and in action, as he develops the attitude to survive as well as the ability.

Here’s a section from my WIP that includes a more emotional moment, but it also pulls in a little plot, a secondary character, and some backstory:

“Had anything to eat yet?”

Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out of Keita’s mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.…

At last he asked, “This your first meal in a season?”

“Thereabouts,” Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.

The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.

Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.

Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract’s eyes widened. Waste of food was sin.

Song4myKing weighed in with, I don’t generally get too detailed with emotions – I stem from a fairly stoic family :). I generally rely on memory flashbacks and things like songs, and on external details like body language. I lean toward the observable, not by a decision as much as by what I’m comfortable with.

But I do have a problem showing too much of the thought processes when a character is trying to decide what to do. I guess I feel I have to make the decisions understood, but I think I go overboard. It’s like I can’t leave any stone un-turned. I try to show every angle the character might take.

I was taking a writing class when I wrote Ella Enchanted. Every week, our beloved teacher, Bunny Gabel (now retired), would select a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book from two or three students and read them to the class for discussion. She never said who’d written the piece, and the person whose work was read wasn’t allowed to say anything, not even to ask a question. The idea was that if the words on the page didn’t communicate what the writer had in mind, no amount of explaining could help.

*SPOILER ALERT!* If you haven’t read Ella, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs:

Bunny read the chapter after Ella’s mother dies, and everyone said I hadn’t gone nearly enough into Ella’s sadness. I remember thinking resentfully, Her mother just died! Duh! Of course she’s sad!

But I revised, and when I did, I recognized the improvement.

It isn’t true that Ella would have to be sad. She could be angry. She could blame someone. She could be numb. She could even be happy, depending on the kind of mother Lady Eleanor had been and the kind of girl Ella was.

I was converted by that experience. When something important happens, I always go into my MC’s feelings about it. When something minor happens, I sometimes do, too.

I was converted as a reader, too. If I’m reading a novel and the main character seems not to be reacting emotionally, I notice. If this character happens to be stoic and I know that about her, then I want at least an indication that emotions are concealed but churning. Stoic or not, if her reaction is delayed by even a few paragraphs, I notice that too and wish the author had managed to move the feeling up.

Same goes for thoughts. Decisions seem abrupt if I’m not told the reasons behind them, and characters seem wooden, robotic.

Merely telling the emotion doesn’t do it for me, either. Emotions, if they’re significant, call for showing, another lesson I absorbed, this time from an editor, which. I wrote about years ago in a post called “Fear of Flat.” Christie V Powell’s dropped bowl is a good example of such showing. Often, we can nail the feeling by including something physical: tight throat, squeezing stomach, etc. For a character–other than our POV MC–who is gripped by powerful emotion, we can have another character describe his reaction: his expression, voice quality, stance. We can search online for images of facial expressions, like “sad face,” “angry face,” something I’ve done many times. When I look at a photo of a sad person, I see details I wouldn’t think of purely out of my imagination.

By now you’ve realized that I, too, love to delve into feelings!

But of course it’s possible to overdo. I agree that we don’t want to overwhelm our story and bring it to a halt. However, if we enjoy writing about feelings, I think we should let ourselves go in the first draft. That’s the “have fun” part at the end of every post.

One way to contain our emotions-writing, in any draft, is to use time or setting or other characters to get the action going again. We can deny our character the opportunity to wallow in feeling. Suppose our MC Melanie has just discovered that her best friend, Janice, who has passed herself off as an orphan, has two perfectly good parents and three siblings. Melanie has believed herself to be the only one who cares about Janice and has lavished energy and sympathy on her. She feels betrayed, foolish, furious, and possibly several other emotions. She wants to rant and pound her pillow and go into her closet to scream. And we want her to! But we’re aware of our propensity to dive in head first, so we put her in a car with her family when she finds out the truth. She can’t let herself go there. Maybe her younger brother wants to talk about something or play a game. Her stomach can churn; she can take it out on the brother, which will have consequences that move the action forward. For the rest of the day or week or until the two confront each other, her feelings can simmer, but circumstances keep the story moving.

The example above involved setting–a car–and other characters–Melanie’s family, especially her brother. Time can do the job, too. Melanie makes the discovery about Janice five minutes before she goes on stage in her local community theater. She has to finish getting into her costume, take a last look at her lines, and get to the wings in time for her entrance.

So if we engineer the arrival of our emotional triggers, we can contain them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the confrontation between Melanie and Janice from Melanie’s POV. Make it emotional for both of them and show the feelings of each, one from the inside, one from the outside.

∙ Interrupt the confrontation with something urgent. Continue writing. The feelings remain, but they’re background.

∙ Your MC is learning to be a mountain climber. The stakes are high. She will be part of a team climbing to the realm of the sentient snow leopards who have wisdom to impart that can save her family. But her balance is bad, and she isn’t progressing as quickly as she needs to. She’s frustrated, frightened, angry at herself, but giving into these feelings is a luxury she can’t afford. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lachrymose lugubriousness

On August 30, 2016, Jordan W wrote, I was wondering if anyone had any tips for writing emotional scenes. Ways you can really make the reader FEEL what is going on, and make them emotionally invested in the story. Whenever I feel like a particular scene needs to be more dramatic and powerful, I overwrite it and make is cheesy.

Several of you responded.

Lady Laisa: Think of a time when you felt the same emotion. Write about your own feelings. I never used to be able to write about death until one night I had an EXTREMELY vivid dream in which my father died. It was horrible and it was so real that when I woke up I wasn’t sure if what I had experienced was a dream or not. Now when I write death scenes, I remember what it was like believing my father was dead.

While dreams are useful, real life is useful too. I have one story that I write especially when I’m angry, because the MC is an angry, bitter person, and writing her when I’m angry really makes her come alive. Sometimes I simply don’t have time to wait until I’m angry, though, so instead I remember past injustices, and try to be as riled up as I can.

I find I get caustically sarcastic and extremely cynical after writing in Pen’s mind-set, and I spend the rest of the day in a red fog of annoyance and disgust. Whoops.

Something I do to help me get into a particular mood is listen to atmospheric music. Creating playlists to boost an emotion has been really helpful.

Emma: I do the exact same things- remember the times when I felt that way, and channel those emotions into the story, as well as listen to music. Also, considering the fact that all characters are different, all characters will end up acting differently in different emotional situations. By taking a close look at a character’s personality, you can figure out how he or she will act in an emotional situation. One of my characters in my WIP, let’s call her A, tends to not express her emotions very much, unless she’s talking to someone she absolutely, 100% trusts. This is because she hates drama and thinks emotions are unnecessary and messy. She normally always bases her decisions on logic, and likes to push her emotions to the back seat of the car in important situations. Thus, after she witnessed her mentor and great friend die, she kept her emotions inside. She cries in a scene when no one is around, and only talks about it to two people. Take a look at your character’s personality in order to write a very real, not forced, emotional scene. If you’re not sure how your character would react, try taking the personality test at www.16personalities.com (which was brought up in comments on a recent post) as your character in question. This test will assign a personality to your character and will give you several lists describing different aspects of your character’s personality, which can help you find out how your character would act and react.

Also, if you feel like an emotional scene is too cliche or cheesy, try changing something like the setting, or the way the characters describe their emotions. Let’s pretend your MC’s mom just died. The funeral has just gotten over, everyone is clad in black and are slowly leaving the graveyard through the drizzle. Your MC is standing alone in front of her mom’s grave when her best, childhood friend walks up and lays a hand on her shoulder. What could you do to make this scene less cliche? What if, instead of an ordinary day, it’s Christmas day, in southern Texas? Begone drizzle, hello dry air. What if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn’t make sense to anyone, but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it’s different. It’s still emotional. Her mom is still dead, she still has a tear on her cheek, and she’s trying to take her mind off of the sad event. But now, it’s less cliche which means it’s less cheesy. And it’s also more interesting.

Christie V Powell: I find that the more powerful you want your scene to be, the less you need to say. Understatement and zeroing in on details are what I find the most powerful.

Here’s a scene from my second book (ebook is out now; hard copy should be here in a couple weeks!!):

Brian gestured to the unmarred sand ahead. “This is the dangerous Boar Island?”
“Anything’ s better than this boat,” Sienna groaned.
The fisherwoman was quiet—or was she tired from all that rowing? The hull of the boat scraped against the sand, and Brian leapt out to pull it further. Sienna half-climbed, half-rolled out of it and collapsed on the sand. Keita and Avie hurried to help her. In that instant, the boat gave a great jerk. Brian leapt back as it shot back into the water. They all stared as the fisherwoman pulled the oars as hard as she could. “Wait!” Brian called. “How do we contact you to get back?”
“You don’ t.”
“But we’ ll pay you!” Avie reached for her pocket and then gasped. Her hand emerged, empty.
No one said a thing. They stood on that beautiful white sand, watching the rowboat disappear into the great empty sea.

I agree with Lady Laisa that drawing on one’s own experience can be useful. When I wrote in Ella Enchanted about the death of Ella’s mother I remembered my own mother’s death a few years before. The gravesite moment comes straight from my response at the cemetery. And when Ella thinks about people saying she’d lost her mother, that her mother is gone, not lost–well, that was my thought.

Music lyrics, if we’re writing something contemporary, can help. After each of my parents died, I couldn’t help crying whenever I listened to a jazz song I adore, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” because the lyrics seemed suddenly cruel and deceptive. Of course, we have to be aware of copyright law if we use lyrics that aren’t in the public domain. However, whether we’re writing contemporary or fantasy, we can always use a song’s sentiment to write our own lyrics. Music and song cut straight to feeling.

But what if we and our character don’t have similar experiences? Or if our character is so different from us that she’s unlikely to respond the way we do? I’m with Emma on this. In this situation, I write lists. We can list how our MC might respond to a death, for example. Could be directly with anger or sadness, or by walling off all feeling, or something else. Once we have a response that seems right, we can list how she might enact it, what she might do to release it or keep it bottled in. My mother, who keeps cropping up in this post, was a worrier and, consequently, a frequent insomniac. If we have a character who worries and is up in the middle of the night, we can list what she might do during those dark hours. The action is likely to convey the feeling to the reader.

I agree with Christie V Powell about the power of detail to carry emotional weight. Let’s imagine that our MC has lost a memento of a friend. For whatever reason–death, distance, a quarrel–the friendship is over but the memory lingers. Let’s say the memento is a medal. Instead of telling the reader that our MC is suffering because of the loss, we can show her looking frantically for it. We can describe the box that held it: what it’s made of, the sound it makes when it opens, the material the medal nested in, the smell of the box. Maybe there’s a letter that goes with it, and we can reveal what it says.

Regret is powerful, because it’s painful and we’ve all experienced it, so we can have our MC think about her responsibility for the loss–whether she’s really responsible of not. She can consider what she might have done to keep the medal safe.

However, regret may not be her feeling. She could be angry, and we can write her angry thoughts. She may be angry at herself for losing the medal, or she may be angry at someone else for the loss, or even angry at the old friend for the dissolution of the friendship.

That’s three strategies–action, detail, and thoughts to bring us and the reader into our character’s emotional life. Notice that neither one have to mention the feeling itself. The feeling is intrinsic to the actions, details, and thoughts. We can also bring in body responses, like a churning stomach or a headache. So that’s one more.

Emotional connection with a character will grow as the reader gets to know her. We don’t always have to work hard. Suppose, for example, our character is given to feeling stupid and the reader understands this about her, then we can cause her to say something that comes out wrong. As soon as she does and realizes her mistake, the reader will suffer for her. Whatever she thinks or does next will be infused in the reader’s mind with her pain.

Here are three prompts:

∙ As sort of a mirror image of Lady Laisa’s dream, a few months after my father died, I dreamed him alive again. He and my mother wintered in Florida after they had both retired and would call me on Sundays. My father’s usual mood was buoyant, even joyous, and I dreamed a phone call from him that was so realistic I was convinced for the first moments after I woke up that he was still alive. I had to experience his death all over again, which, of course, was devastating. Dreams are often–not always–hyper-emotional. Keep a pad next to your bed for, say, the next four nights, and write down your dreams. In the interest of going back to sleep, don’t turn on the light and use your free hand to guide your writing hand so you don’t write over your lines. After you have a few dreams, use one or a combo to write an emotional scene that isn’t a dream.

∙ I love Emma’s idea of changing a setting. Imagine your MC and another character are at odds. Their conflict can be major, as in, hero versus villain, or micro, as in, two friends arguing over hurt feelings. As they’re carrying out their fight, which might involve swordplay or yelling or whatever you decide, they’re magically transported to a circus arena, where thirty clowns are exiting a clown car, acrobats are performing overhead, and the animal trainer is entering with a caged lion. Continue the scene in this circumstance.

∙ Apropos of nothing, I heard a poetry prompt on the radio that I’ve been wanting to share. It’s to start a poem with the words I come from… The radio show was a call-in, and people called in their poem beginnings, which tended to go something like, I come from a long line of strong women whose strength was tested… etc. I thought, Meh. In your poem, avoid the general for the specific. For example, when I tried it, I included my husband’s origins as well as my own. He told me about Mr. Dibble, his boyhood barber, and, in the barber shop, the plastic behind the chairs of the people waiting for a haircut that protected the knotty-pine wallpaper from pomade–and I put those wonderful details into my poem. What a peek into mid-twentieth century small-city life! So think about your early toys, pets, bedroom, shops and anchor your poem in detail. (For my I come from stanza, I wrote about times with my friends when we pried mica up with our fingernails from Hudson River rocks in our local park in northern Manhattan.)

Have fun, and save what you write!