Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Blank Page - The Show and Tell & Layering of Emotion


So, continuing with the questions I've been asked of late... Janet asked:

How do you layer in the emotion? Experienced writers say you need to show and not tell--- so instead of saying 'a feeling of disappointment came over her,' it's better to say something like 'she swallowed and blinked back the tears,' so the reader deduces the emotion from the body language.

Show not tell. This is a bit of a mantra these days. Along with the fact that every book should show an emotional journey. So, as Janet has asked me, I'll chat about how I handle it...

I write for the lines I write for for one good reason outside of the fact that my voice fits there... They are Modern Day love stories with real people. The relationships are supposed to seem as attainable as possible to the reader - may even show some echoes of people they know - or remind them of emotions they have felt. And for that reason I tend to use *methods* and *tools* that the reader will understand, that make sense to me when I read the kinds of books I like. Actually, thinking about it, this is something that can carry into every line and every genre. Because, as I may have mentioned a time or two before, people are people. It's a simple law of the universe.

If we are writing about people in their twenties and thirties and beyond, then life has been lived enough to take a little of the magical glow off it. And yet, some things will always remain constant - our need to feel needed, our need for human contact in the shape of friends and family as well as in the mystical thing known as a soul mate, our need to be accepted as we are, to have someone understand that we have lessons to learn and will grow as a person all the more with the right person by our side - and most of all - our need to be loved. And so many other things too. It's a common bond we all share. And it's this common bond between you and your reader through your characters that you need to keep in mind while you write.

What you then need to think about is what would stop two people for reaching out for the things they need? This is a big part of your conflict. Why, when they meet someone they are attracted to, who they could be very happy with, would they hold back? The simplest answer in this day and age is emotional baggage. We all carry it, and quite often the way we protect ourselves from getting hurt a second or a third or a fourth time, is by putting up barriers that get in the way of us reaching out to grasp the very things we need. How we then get round this - is the emotional journey. And this is what the lines I write for are most concerned with...

So, how do we convey this to the reader without laying it out like a shopping list or having our characters do some big reveal early on in the book that will have the reader cringing and thinking LOSER?

We build it slowly - we reveal it little by little - we, as Fiona Harper so succintly described it on her blog recently 'screw the punch'...

By screwing the punch I take it to mean a boxing analogy - rather than hitting the punchbag with full force we hold back a little - small pow in first hit - then we add a little more - a heavier second punch - and we continue doing that until we're building to a combination of punches that end in a massive POW...

In describing the emotions we take the reader inside the characters mind, we describe how they feel physically, we describe their outer movements (yes - this is where body language comes in) - and by means of interaction and an outer plot to move the story forward we allow the characters to make their emotional journey.

So, let's look at Marriage Lost And Found. We have two people who loved each other and married and were then seperated by circumstance. And in the opening Prologue we have the heroine finally writing to the hero to be set free. We convey her emotions through her inner POV in the form of introspection:

Abbey felt her heart cramp in her chest. Damn him.

Pushing her writing pad to one side, she stood and paced the floor in oversized fluffy socks. She'd lived up to her part of their great magical plan. She'd come home to wait, to finish her education as they'd agreed and to prepare herself for their new life together. They'd really been very sensible about the whole thing considering how fast it had happened...

But then he'd disappeared, abandoned her and the dreams they'd talked about for their future. Together.

And then her Father had died and the world had been an empty, lonely place.

No, she could never forgive Ethan for breaking the promises they'd made. For taking away the magic. She couldn't go back and make it all right again.

Abbey was just going to have to get on with the business of letting go. Pure and simple. It was time. She squared her shoulders, took a breath and closed her eyes for a second. Finding her strength sometimes just took a moment. Especially when it came to letting go of Ethan.

Wasn't it always that way with a girl's first love?

So, let's look at this passage a little closer... We already have a fair idea of how difficult a letter this is for our heroine to write... How do we know this? We know it through a series of devices -

Firstly, her heart has cramped in her chest... Think for a moment about how this feels - a cramp in your chest - it's sharp - it's painful - it hurts - so we know she's feeling pain. We have conveyed an emotion without saying something as simplistic as 'Writing the letter hurt.'... And we have conveyed it by describing something that everyone has felt at some time so the reader gets it.

Next. She thinks - Damn him. And it's in italics in the book so we know it's been said with force. So we know she's not his biggest fan - we know she doesn't like him very much for what happened. We have used her introspective POV on the subject to show how she feels... Without saying something as simplistic as 'She really hated him'. And in using this phrase and repeating it through the story as I do when she has moments that she hates him - I have screwed the punch... adding layers each time to back up the phrase so there is more impact before I land the big whammy where the heroine discovers that maybe the blame didn't lie entirely on his shoulders...

Then we have a moment of movement to keep the story flowing... she stood up and paced as she thought - loads of people do that or have seen people do that - so we have conveyed her agitation. Then we return to inner POV showing introspection - as she goes back over some of their history - but not enough to slow the story - until we get to the emphasized 'Together' - which enforces the pain she feels that it didn't work out that way.

And then her father had died and the world had been a empty, lonely place. - This is an example of where you take a common bond of shared experience and share it with your reader through your characters. There are very few, if any of us anywhere, who have not experienced grief. We all know exactly how it feels. And this one simple line is enough to portray a world of hurt, pain and loneliness. So we have no doubt at all of how the heroine felt then and there. We get it. We get it because we have lived it.

So she then echoes the emotion she portrayed through the Damn him by telling us point blank that 'No, she could never forgive Ethan for breaking the promises they'd made.' This is the most simplistic way of coveying an emotion - its a whammy - a big punch with nothing held back - that is then punched again with a smaller rippling punch by adding 'For taking away the magic.' - We know without a shadow of a doubt that this guy HURT HER. Emotional punch.

We then move the scene on again - first in thought and then in physical action which conveys hows she's feeling - 'squared her shoulders, took a breath and closed her eyes '- hinting at how she's feeling and then backing it up by explaining that 'Finding her strength sometimes took a moment' - again something the reader can understand cos we've all been there - and if we, as readers, square our shoulders, take a breath and close our eyes, we can feel ourselves trying to draw on inner strength as she does...

Until we add the final layer and whammy punch of 'Wasn't it always that way with a girl's first love?' - Who hasn't felt the anguish of that first heartbreak? That first time we fell head over heels and ended up sobbing into a pillow when our heart was broken for the first time and a little of that childhood magic we all have was taken from us? We all grow up believing in in Happily Ever After - no one is ever going to tell a child that it's something that has to be worked at every day cos we want that magic to last as long as possible - so the first time we learn the lesson that it's not always a guaranteed hea - we hurt. So we have used that common bond again between writer and reader through characters. We have allowed them to understand where our heroine is at the start of the story and we then use similar devices through the book to show how her emotional journey progresses, how she heals and learns to trust herself again as the story reaches it's conclusion...

Show not tell. ......... While making an emotional journey.

4 comments:

Jude D said...

Trish - thank you thank you thank you. This wee lesson is fantastic and just what I needed - emotional digging is my mission. And you just made it all make a whole lot more sense - you're insights are much appreciated.

Jude

Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Brilliant as usual Trish, thanks! Whenever I read one of your How-to posts it always sets me up for the day with my own writing.
Sue :-)

Trish said...

Glad they're useful guys... You keep telling me you want them and I'll keep doing them...

Sue, hope they set me up for the writing day too.... I'm a tad stressed deadline wise....

Anonymous said...

Trish, I can't thank you enough for the answer to Janet's question. Your examples bring a real 'a-ha' momet.

Carol