Monday, June 20, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- The Emotional Level

When I submit a chapter to my critique partners, I ask them to mark MOEs – missed opportunities for emotion. Because for me, remembering to stick in the emotion is the hardest thing to do. After all, writing about the emotion forces me to feel the emotion. And you know, with what I put my characters through, there’s times when I’d just as soon not feel that.
But emotion is what readers crave.

Romance is all about emotion. But it’s not the only genre in which emotion counts. Readers of historicals seek the emotional link that connects our era with theirs. Readers of YAs chase the fist-punching-air “ha!” of victory and the soul-plummet of angst. Readers of thrillers, mystery and suspense go for the chill up their spine as the protagonist’s situation turns from dire to desperate.

Once you’ve gotten the mechanics of structure and issues with POV worked through, the next level of layering a scene is the emotional layer.

Start by reading the chapter over again in one quick swoop and mark all the places you’ve shown the emotion. This can be:

Naming the emotion:

      Now I’m facing Joseph, but I’m afraid to look in his eyes, afraid to see the hurt that must be there.

Body language:

     Joseph blushes and rubs his collar with his left hand. The way guys do with a new shirt when there’s a pin still sticking there that their mother forgot to take out. Except this is a pin he’ll never find. It will always be there, itching and rubbing, for the rest of his life.


      “Not again!”

Dialog cues:

      “I think,” she says in a voice cold as the snow that will start falling any day now, “you made your position clear.”


       My mind is going fast. I’ve forgotten everything I meant to say. But, then, I said it. I apologized. What else does she want?


      The scent of gardenias drifting through the open window reawakened the sweet memory of an awkward boy’s blush as he struggled to pin a corsage to her prom dress.

Go back now and look more closely at the various ways you’ve shown emotion. Have you used them to the fullest?

OK, time for an unabashed and blatant promotion. If you really want to learn to write emotions well, take one of Margie Lawson’s on-line courses. In fact, take all of them. She is the dean of writing emotions, bar none. What I’m going to jot down here is just a drop in the bucket compared to what she knows and teaches. End of commercial. We will now resume our regular programming.

Naming the emotion

Naming the emotion is “telling”, not showing, but at times it’s ok to tell. Be judicial your use of naming the emotion. It’s not a blanket replacement when you can’t think of how else to show emotion. 
Body language:

 Most writers use facial expressions, but there’s a lot more to body language than whether the character looks, smiles, raises her eyebrow, etc. Other stereotypical body moves are touches, shrugs, nods, shakes and turns. Go beyond the standard repertoire. Think about:

  • Where are the two characters in relationship to each other? How close? Does the space change? How comfortable are the characters with the space?
  •  How are their bodies oriented towards each other?
  • How your character uses his hands and feet? Where are they placed, what are they touching?
  • Visceral reactions and their signs. Visceral reactions are the automatic responses your body makes to strong emotions like fear and attraction. They’re things like increased heartbeat and breathing, blood rushing to face and neck (and genitals), sweating, increased or decreased focus, etc. Whenever something important has happened, whenever you want a strong emotional hit for the reader, remember to include the visceral reaction. 
Dialog and Dialog Cues:  
Often the words in dialog itself convey an emotion. But if there’s potential ambiguity, then you can clarify the emotion with what Margie Lawson coined “dialog cues.” Dialog cues go beyond simple dialog tags to actually convey how a line is delivered. They indicate the speaker’s volume, tone, or pitch.

Internalization is the character’s thoughts. It’s internal dialog, and it goes without saying it can carry emotion. But it’s a weak way to convey emotion, as intellectualization is one step removed from the actual feeling. Think about combining it with a physical reaction, as well.

As writers, we’re told to use all five senses in our descriptions. Writer and medical researcher Marilyn Kelly (11 Senses: Who knew?) says actually there are eleven:

  •  The 5 senses plus
  •  Sense of temperature
  •  Sense of time
  •  Sense of equilibrium/balance
  •  Sense of motion/speed
  •  Sense of pain/pleasure
  •  Sense of orientation
  •  “6th sense” – intuition/ESP

If you're writing a  Paranormal: does your character have other senses?
When you’re writing in Deep POV, descriptions need to serve emotions. Characters don’t just see or hear something. They filter what they experience through their own world view. Your descriptions should reveal what they feels about what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste… 
      Photos of a younger Miss Pride, in slinky sequins and fluttery feathers, sneer at us as we follow her through the front hall and to the kitchen.

 In this sentence from my WIP, we don’t just get a description of the pictures on the walls; we get how Sophie, my POV character, feels about them. She feels looked down on, judged and found wanting by someone who considers herself superior.

 And there’s one more I haven’t mentioned: The subtext – what are the characters NOT saying or doing? Can you show internal dissonance? (Internal dissonance is when what they say contradicts what they do.)  For example, a shivering heroine can shrug off the jacket the hero tries to lay around her shoulders.  
     “I’m not cold,” she said through blue lips.

Now that you’ve looked at how you’ve handled the emotions in the places you’ve got it, go back again and mark every Missed Opportunity for Emotion (MOE). If you’ve got good critique partners, this is where they come in really handy. If you don’t have CPs to do this for you, you can still identify where emotions should come. Just ask yourself, “How does my character feel about that?” after every:
  • Line of dialog
  • Move by another character that
  • Is overtly or subtly threatening
  • Closes personal space (including touches)
  • Opens personal space (including turning away)
  • News or event that the character didn’t want
  • News or event that the character wanted
  • News or event that the character didn’t expect
Dig hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook. And think of fresh ways to show the emotion. Don’t let yourself get away with clichés, including less obvious clichés like “he glared, she shrugged, he grinned” that are simply shortcuts for what the emotion really looks like. Push yourself to make the way you express the emotion be as strong as the emotion itself.

Next week: Layering to speed up the pace

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