Confession. I have not yet read The Fault in Our Stars. I’m sure it’s a lovely book. Everyone I know is talking about it. And I haven’t read it for the same reason that I’ve never made it all the way through A Walk to Remember, and The Notebook. My chest constricts just thinking about it. Tears well up in my eyes and I start wandering the room for chocolate. I’m not a fan of sappy.
I know, I know. So many good books I’ve missed out on because I don’t like to face that raw emotion.
Then there’s my temper. I teach teenagers. I’m paid not to lose my temper. And with that, I’ve learned to let things roll off my shoulders. It takes a lot to make me mad these days, which makes it really hard to write a dramatic scene in a novel.
Yet, I’m working on a scene where I need to vamp it up. And I’m stuck. I guess I’m going to have to grab some tissues and force myself to read a few of those sappy books.
Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice, wrote this article on writing about raw emotion. His first thought was to draw inspiration from music. That, I can do. I can actually listen to songs that evoke that sort of emotion as I write. I’ve never been a playlist writer, but I know that writers are. Bunting suggests using repetition and restraint to convey the emotion. I like the thoughts, but I felt like the article could have given a few more examples. So I Googled on.
Nevermind that when I searched (when should a character let emotion go) and found Elsa, or (when should a character break down) and found Twilight.
But finally, I came across this little gem: Character Rants and Breakdowns–Let ’em Rip by Beth Hill. I realized how much of the problem is me–holding back my own emotions, so I hold back the emotions of my characters. Writing and reading is an escape. Catharsis is acceptable on the written page, and it will lead readers to compassion for my characters.
This reminds me of Romans 12:15, one of my favorite verses on compassion.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
It’s exactly what readers want to do. Now, to push my sleeves up and make them feel that scene.
First, a quick shout out to my readers. I appreciate each and every one of you and thank you for playing a small role in my quest to be published. Cavernous is still going strong.
I wish I could remember who told me this. It might have been my good friend Kimberly Grenfell, a.k.a. Devon Winterson.
It’s the small details that make the story.
Lately, I’m finding that more and more to be true. But a lot of times, we miss out on the small details because the big picture in a story is so exciting/overwhelming/larger than life.
The above picture is a favorite from years ago, one of my first documentations of my daughter’s uncanny ability to destroy a room within a matter of minutes. If you examine closely, you can see that her destruction follows a specific path from my kitchen through my living room to the front hall. It might be easy to retrace that path and come up with the story of all the things she’d done along the way.
If memory serves me right, I was folding the laundry right beside her and came out to this mess. It took about ten minutes, tops. I walked out, gaped, snapped the picture, and shook my head at the chaos.
My in-laws joke with us sometimes. They say, “Y’all blame everything on little Dana.” And it’s true–if there’s a mess in my house, she’s the first one I’m going to turn to. But just for kicks, I zoomed into the picture to see if I could figure out what she was thinking when she made the mess.
I saw: My son Matt’s shoes, his little cardboard/aluminum foil “creation,” paper plates, the foam letters he loved to play with–maybe, just maybe she wasn’t the only culprit. The details tell a completely different story than first glance. And I think that’s true in novel writing, too. I always start a chapter with brainstorming and freewriting, which generally leads me to a skeleton scene that consists mostly of dialogue. What I’ve learned is that the fill-in details I choose to add can completely change the tone or intensity of a scene. They can make a likeable character suddenly heinous or a villain seem tolerable.
I’ve been focusing on ways I can make my writing more believable and character emotions more compelling. In my quest, I stumbled on this blog post from Author Magazine from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association: Believable Fiction.
I love this quote:
Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.
I wonder if my brainstorming might be more effective as a series of thoughts compelling our characters rather than characters generating thoughts. In other words, the thoughts come first, including a decision about the emotions I want to convey. Then, the actions to show that emotion–slamming things for anger, dropping things for shock. Next, the objects from the setting–the papers that are shoved off a desk, the priceless artifact that’s dropped. Finally, the character attached, who is the kind of character that would behave in such a way. Hmm… Guess I’ll experiment and let you know.