Thursday, August 30, 2007

Style, Part Five: Emotion and Intent


Question: To what level are the readers affected by the emotional elements of the piece? Are the events more or less important than their emotional responses?

To be sure, there are few good stories where the reader's emotions are not affected as she reads. Without some emotional attachment to the characters in a story, all the clever plot twists in the world won't help you retain your readers. Readers will only sit still and follow your plot if they care about your characters.

This is an emotional response, most often, but this doesn't mean that it's outside the realm of rational discussion. It's not black magic. Making characters who are interesting, believable, and sympathetic is neither a trick nor a science. It's somewhere in between. We, as authors, have to do our homework. Think about characters who have been your “friends” in the stories you've read. What qualities did they display? How did the author portray them? What was it, in the end, that made them so remarkable? Were they especially brave, loyal, or true to their word? Did they make you laugh? Did they remind you of yourself, or someone you care about, or someone you've always hoped to meet? Whatever the case may be, try to distill these qualities and pour them into your own characters.

Of course, the characters you portray can owe debts to real people, not just book characters. The more true-to-life your characters can be, the more honest to your own experiences, the better. In reality, that's the heart of it. Be honest. Fix yourself in the point of view of your characters and be sure that you're having them act as they would normally do. If a character would fall prey to their weaknesses, let them do it. If they would figure out what's going on, don't have them play dumb. Readers will always know if you're straying away from a character's true nature. If they stop trusting you, they stop caring, and you're sunk.

A good character is the carrier wave of your story. She's the point of entry for a percentage of your readers. And yes, you'll need more than just one. Not everyone will identify with the same character. If your lead character is stern and difficult, perhaps even unknowable, you'll need to have a few secondary characters to lend the story a human touch. So often, people's favorite characters are the second leads, the sidekicks, and the mentors. These characters, while having admirable qualities, are often flawed and prone to mistakes. They're funny. They're more brave than competent, perhaps, or they're doomed to fall so that the hero can succeed. In some ways, the second lead, the supporting role, is the glory spot. They can be braver, perhaps, than the hero, because their abilities are not so grand.

This is not to say that it's wise to fashion a lead character who's hard to like and harder to understand. That's bad structure. Still, it's often the case that your readers will admire your lead role, but identify with your supporting character. After all, how many of us are really the iron-jawed hero? Maybe we want to be, but it's a lot easier to relate to a character with smaller dreams and smaller responsibilities.

After that long preamble, let's talk about how much emotion you can realistically hope to elicit from your audience. First of all, there is no way that some of your readers will cry, no matter how much poignant tragedy you put before them. Not all readers are open enough emotionally to be affected in such a way. I don't know if you should, as a matter of premeditation, set out to make your readers cry. Obviously, you'd like your readers to feel sad when they're supposed to, elated when you hope they will, and so forth. If they're laughing at the scary parts and shrugging at the glorious resolution of tension at the end, something has gone very wrong.

My advice is to try to make the most honest story you can, telling it with the drama that you're able to use, but not going overboard. Trying for an emotional response can lead you astray. Don't compromise your story for the “big emotional payoff”. If you've done your job all along, you won't need to stretch to get there. Your structure and style will naturally lead you to that great scene you hope for. Someone once told me that it's not sad when your characters cry, it's sad when they should, but can't or won't. Often, a scene presented with subtlety and restraint will end up touching your readers more than a ham-handed attempt at sentiment.

Okay, on to the second question. Is it the action or the reaction that carries more weight? This is really all about the type of story you're telling. If you're writing a story that's all about the external struggle, the characters fighting like hell to break through the physical barriers in their way, you'll pay most of your attention to actions. You should ground your characters as real, fallible people who can reach the end of their endurance, but you'll want to avoid long sessions of naval-gazing. That slows down the story, and you'll want things to go fast.

If you're writing a story where many of the struggles the characters encounter are internal, emotional in nature, you'll want to have fewer events, but bigger personal consequences. Maybe something that happens on page one or two is an event that the characters will need the whole rest of the story to live down, if they can ever do so.

When telling this sort of story, you'll have to be careful not to let the inquiry into the emotional fallout of these events become boring. At worst, the reader can completely lose patience with your characters and throw the book at the wall. Avoid prolonged bellyaching. The reader wants to see the character striving to get somewhere. If the story devolves into simple complaint, you're sunk. Stories are all about trying and failing, not sitting around and bitching about problems that you're not even trying to solve.

Often, stories fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The characters encounter both physical and emotional obstacles, and the author will need to work hard to make both of them important to his reader. In the best of times, there will be a synergistic relationship between each of the events in the book and the resultant aftermath. The character will have some physical episode, then grapple to deal with what happened, thereby steering herself ever closer to the next physical challenge.

Though events in reality often occur in random patterns, fiction requires more cohesiveness than that. We need to create webs of meaning and emotion around the events in our story. Things shouldn't happen for no reason, or be unconnected to anything else in the tale. This is one of the harder lessons to learn for many of us. We insert events to keep the characters busy along the way, but they are apropos to nothing. We end up grappling with whole chapters that seem exciting but go nowhere. The obstacles a character encounters need to forward the story, revealing something about her, pushing her further into a difficult situation, letting her gain some vital bit of information.

Don't just give your characters busy work to pad out your word count or spice up a trip from point A to point B. Like Depeche Mode said, “Everything counts in large amounts.” Don't let yourself write do-nothing scenes. The character has to be taking on a challenge or fighting to cope with the aftermath of that challenge. Everything else runs the risk of being unimportant. Stories don't need extra baggage. Explain what you have to, when you have to. Nothing less, nothing more. Lightness is rightness and fat don't fly. It's the same with writing as it is with ski jumping.


Question: Does the piece aim to inform, persuade, entertain..? Is the piece, in the end, hopeful, tragic, humorous, or simply factual? Does the story end here? Is the piece part of a larger framework of other works, or does it end with a full stop, standing alone?

There's an old Joe Jackson song that states, “You can't get what you want/'till you know what you want.” That's just as true in writing as in any other field of endeavor. If you don't know what you're trying to do with the story, you'll have an awfully hard time getting the job done. We're not an army of chimps at typewriters. We can't afford to struggle along without any idea of what we're trying to accomplish, just hoping we trip over it in the gloom.

If we're writing our fiction to inform, we're going to have to fashion a story where this information is critical to the story. The reader, in learning about topic X, is going to have the tools to unravel the mysteries of the story and appreciate it.

If our purpose is to persuade, we'll have to create a sort of parable or morality play. The characters who act in the method we're promulgating will be the ones who succeed in the end. Those who act counter to our thesis will have to suffer the consequences. Whenever we have characters fail, suffer ignominy, or die badly, we're unconsciously making a value judgment about their philosophy of life. If we structure a story in such a way as to reward whatever “piety” we're pushing, we create an effective morality play. A good example of these in modern culture can be found in the 80's horror movies. The teenagers who were smoking reefer and having sex all got iced first. The good kids at least had a chance to survive. Get it?

It's possible that my view of morality stories is jaded, but the process is the same whether you're a true believer or a BS artist. Beware of “laying it on too thick” when you're trying to persuade with fiction. If your thesis is so obvious on every page, you're going to lose your readers. You have to use a little finesse. The idea is to leave your readers thinking about the broad topic of your story, moved somewhat toward your view of things. Bold-faced statements of purpose are better reserved for speeches and sermons. If your characters are delivering these speeches, make sure there's a logical dissenting opinion of some sort. If your story looks like the following dialog, you may be in trouble.

“This is so,” said Joe.

“Amen, Brother,” said Fred.

“Testify,” said Sally.

“Good then. Let's go kick some ass,” Joe replied to the congregation.

Many of us are just trying to entertain our audience. If that's the case, remember that an audience of readers still wants a good story in there somewhere. Trying to get by on shock value, low humor, and foolishness won't do. Give your audience a little credit. They may not want to read Dostoevsky, but they deserve a good story. If your plotting is cribbed from a bad romantic comedy and your character never encounters any more adversity than a bad hair day, you're cheating your readers. If there's one cardinal sin in fiction, that's it. Don't cheat your readers. Even in “light reading”, there's room for quality prose, deep characters, and genuine conflict. Heck, it's even possible to get ambitious and make a statement about the human condition.

In most cases, we've got a number of goals for a story. Maybe we want to get the reader thinking about the morality of some social phenomenon. Maybe we'd love for the reader to empathize with the character's plight, which is not so different than millions of people across the globe. Maybe we also want to take the reader away from their hum-drum life for a few hours, too. These are all parts of a good story, roles a good story can fill. If we can parse through our expectations and figure out if our story is working on these levels, we'll be on the way. We'll know what we want, and be able to set about getting it.

Let's talk now about the mood of the story. If your intent is to present a humorous tale, you'll want to be sure you're supporting this mood with your line-by-line tone. The big events of a humorous story don't all have to be laugh riots, but a funny story generally doesn't batter its reader with a long litany of tragic events. No story is just one thing, nor should it be. There will be moments of humor in the sad stories and points of pathos in the silly ones. That's life.

That being said, we have to understand what we want out of the story's mood, and make sure we're feeding and watering that mood. Funny stories are, in point of fact, funny. Tragic stories lead the reader to believe that, yes, it's possible that everything will turn bad at the end. Putting the “and then all the bunnies died” ending after a happy story is going to do nothing but make the readers angry. Give the story the ending it deserves. If you build up a grim mood throughout the story, then let all the characters get away unscathed, you'll let the reader down. Know what you're shooting for, write your story accordingly, and don't change your mind at the eleventh hour. What use is foreshadowing if you don't know what you'll do in the end?

Another question comes down to your future usage of a story. Is there anything left to examine after the story ends? Do you want the reader to nod, put the book down, and have no more expectation of seeing those characters again? Do you “leave the door open” for future stories?

A few stories stand on their own, needing no preamble and calling for no second interval upon the stage. In most cases, however, a story hints at earlier events that could be amplified or consequences that could be explored. Whether or not you, as the writer, choose to those roads yet traveled, is an open question.

Really, you have three choices. Your story can either preclude any further stories, hint that there could be, or make them a necessity.

Some stories end with the character changed so much that there would be no point in writing more. If the character's big problem is solved, why go further? If the character is dead, yeah, you can stop. (Unless it's a supernatural story, then you may just be getting warmed up!) If the character has one great purpose, whether she succeeds or fails in the attempt to fulfill that purpose, the story is finished when you write the last line. There's nothing more to say or do.

Most stories offer the ability to go on and tell another tale. Because readers become attached to characters, they often want more stories about those “friends”. A story that can be expanded is one where a big event happens, but leaves the characters in a position to take on another event. There are unexplored elements to the setting and the characters, so that you'll have plenty of “ammo” for another story. Still, these stories have a satisfying conclusion, and if the reader never gets to see the next story, she won't feel cheated.

There are stories that ask as many questions as they answer, stories that interest the reader in plot elements that cannot be resolved within the confines of that tale, but lead inevitably to the next one. If the reader finishes the story saying, “cool, but what about...” then you're in this third category. The story has started, but the saga has only begun.

What can we take from this? If it's your intention to write a series of stories, don't sew the story up so much that there's nowhere to go. If you're writing a stand-alone story, resolve your plot threads and be sure that the ending leaves the reader feeling satisfied. If you're not sure, it's best to have a good, rousing ending, but leave a few people “standing” to continue the story.

If you remember nothing else, remember that most of a writer's problems stem from being uncertain about what she's trying to accomplish. You don't have to know everything, but if you can start a story with an understanding of your characters, their roles in the story, how you want the readers to feel as events unfold, and what the overall mood of the story should be, you'll find that things go a lot more smoothly.

Next Time: The Biggest Question of all: Character


drthunder said...

Excellent thoughts. Makes me feel as though you have been visiting the privaate recesses of my grey matter. This series of articles will make a wonderful book for anyone who aspires to be a writer when you're finshed.

Patrick M. Tracy said...


I think it'll end up being at least semi useful. Here's to hoping!