What? You didn't think I'd share? Ta-dah! (warning, some of this is stuff you've seen, as I worked through the ideas.)
5/26/2015 Update: Over the years I've noticed a lot of page views for this post, and while most of it didn't change, some did. I first wrote this post back in '08 and that's a long time ago. If you're interested in ES, check out some of the more recent posts and if you're interested in the whole "too much plot" thing, I did a series on it. Thanks for stopping by.
A Place on the Keeper Shelf
Structuring your Novel for Emotional Resonance
What separates regular books from books that stay on the keeper shelf?
Keeper books are based on strong, simple story lines that have well developed characters and plots that grow out of who the character is at the time the story starts, and who the character is when the story ends. The characters feel real, with emotional lives, and the action has meaning.
What is emotional structure?
Emotional structure is the creation of a transformational character arc in which the writer knows where the high and low points are, and through the use of pov depth, subtext and cinematic storytelling, puts emphasis on the emotional journey.
Barriers to Emotional Structure
Overly complicated, convoluted plot.
Characters feel interchangeable and race from event to event without reason. Gratuitous scenes and gimmicks.
Writing in the latest “hot” field without an emotional connection on your part. Writing a type of hero or heroine you can’t identify with.
Too much backstory.
If it’s not important, take it out. If you spend more time describing a food item than the time it takes your character to eat it, or create a nail by nail description of his house, it creates an emotional black hole. Words go in, nothing comes out.
Lack of a proper skill-set.
If you are serious about publication, you must be serious about craft. Basic grammar, writing techniques, and the conventions of your chosen genre are important. When was the last time you read and understood a craft of writing book? Mistaking writing-inspiration books for craft of writing books. When you walk away with a "I can do it" attitude, it's an inspirational book. When you walk away with a "I know how" attitude, it's a craft book.
Not reading in your field. Read. It’s important.
Failure to know yourself.
A writer writes from his truth. We all have “hot” buttons and secrets, things about ourselves we wish didn’t exist. Writing is public vivisection. You lay it on the line. You can’t connect with your reader if they can’t connect with you.
How do we start?
First, define your major characters. We are all products of our environment. Where you grew up, what your socio-economic status was, how your parents treated you, if you had brothers or sisters. A character lives in context. All characters have an ethnic, religious, social and educational background which influences how they dress, talk, think and react.
You don’t have to fill out a character sheet, but you do have to think them through. A character with one set of characteristics will logically have another set that ties into the first. Caring about the character is not the same as liking them. Characters don’t have to be likeable. We can dislike a character and yet still be drawn into their emotional world, what they’re doing and why.
Goal is everything. What happens to your person? Do they go from being angry and shut off to open and caring? Do they start off full of angst and find themselves? Writers should create a plot tailored to who their character is on the external level, that challenges who they are on the internal level.
The under layer, the emotional structure is the deeper elements of the story. In a correctly structured story with two layers, external motivation/plot/visible goals and emotional understructure/transformational character arc each external plot point must happen at the right time for the corresponding emotions to be revealed.
Ie. The heroine gets captured by the bad guys so the hero can reveal, not just in words and internal dialogue, but in actions and visuals, how knowing and loving her has transformed him from a guy who can’t connect, into a man who cares—at least for this one woman. When a character responds to dramatic events intensely, even if he represses or sublimates his response in misplaced anger or visually shutting down even more, the reader can see what’s at stake for him.
Emotion intensifies the drama, raises the stakes and confirms psychological growth. The characters emotional response to conflict tells us who the character is more than “who” they are and how they act. Conflict pulls out who the character is becoming and also reveals the emotional connection of the characters to their actions.
Things they do in a story have to be powered by emotional logic, or it feels forced (this is where I make my character do this) rather than something not only would that person choose to do, but that person has to do. When you’re creating a story, you need to know why your characters are doing what they do. It doesn’t need to be spelled out for the reader, but you, the writer, need to know. Emotion progresses through the plot in relation to external goals and conflict and it gets more intense as the climax approaches. By the end, the character has changed enough to be the person he has to be in order to have an emotionally satisfying ending.
Disappearing words (subtext)
Subtext are disappearing words that for all practical purposes are still there. Subtext is sometimes called showing, not telling. When you show a character doing something, or dressed a certain way, or interacting with others in context, you create expectations.
A man dressed in a business suit, on a commuter train is probably a businessman. As in character building, that implies a whole set of skills, traits and knowledge, you “show” by simply letting us see a businessman on a train. By going deeper into subtext and setting expectations, you create the beginning of a thought string--maybe the man is wearing a brown suit, and his hair is stuck a few decades behind, he’s got a brown bag lunch, you think, well, maybe he’s not well off, lower level at whatever he does, can’t change. Add a beaten down attitude, and you’ve got the guy in Falling Down, or the company doormat. An expensive new suit, in a fancy color with a loud tie and expensive cologne shows a man with confidence—maybe too much confidence, maybe he’s a college grad with a brand new job making lots of money. From his grin, you know he’ll talk fast, swing his shoulders and hang out with friends after work while the other guy goes home. Subtext. Cinematic storytelling.
Subtext is also used for emotional reactions when you don’t want to go into internal dialogue. If the first man loses his job and stands there while the color drains out of his face, you don’t have to tell your reader he’s in shock and has no idea what to do next. If the second man is in the same office and grins at the news, you don’t have to tell your reader something is going on and there’s bad blood between these two men.
You’ve shown it. Through subtext.
POV is Point of view. The camera through which you view your scene to put proper emphasis on an emotional plot point. The actual tool for fictionally showing the emotional journey would be blocks of deep pov showing plot points, broken by transitions that move the story forward and connect the emotional highs and low.
Let’s put it all together
The top layer in an emotionally structured story would be plot. The actual--what drives this story? Maybe John goes to college to improve himself, falls for a woman and drops out of school. The emotional structure would be--John feels inadequate despite his good job, people tell him he's wasted his life and college is the way to earn respect, he has some internal issues, so he goes to school. He meets a woman who accepts him for himself.
He realizes the problem has always been in himself and once he starts respecting himself it doesn't matter "what" he does. He drops out of school, marries the woman and they live happily ever after.
John walked up the stairs to the student center.
...the stairs went up. The door at the top was closed. Maybe it was locked. With any luck it'd be locked, and he could just walk himself back to the car and away from here.
By going into John's emotional state from a "behind the eyes" viewpoint, it's the "experience" of going up the stairs. John's experience. Everything is closer. More immediate.
John walking up the stairs is perfectly adequate. It tells you what John is doing. But, it gives no clue to how John feels, what his emotional state is, or why we should care.
The trick is knowing when to use a more immediate, deep pov for structure. Some things don't have to be shown because they aren't important. John getting out of the car, walking up the hill to the student center. That's just extra information. What's important is John going through those doors. It's the first step on his journey. It's a major part of A) plot and B) the emotional structure. So beneath A and B at that point in the double structure, there would be a block of "deep pov" to slow the story down, and place the emphasis where it belongs--on what John feels as he walks through those doors. As the plot progresses, and the emotional story grows--say, John feels inadequate compared to all these kids and it's hurting his self-esteem. Outwardly in the plot, he's cold and distant and not the kind of person you'd "want" to know, because in the second layer--in his EJ, he's hurting and confused. He thought this would be the right thing to do. Transitions are needed because time has to pass--things have to happen to propel the plot to the next point.
They can be as short as a sentence, or as long as a paragraph, or a short series of little incidents--a collage. A series of snapshots. John walking into a class of eighteen year olds, and they all turn to look at him. John fumbling at the mouse. Getting something to eat, and the person in front of him thinks he's the parent of the girl behind him. Stuff like that. A quick collage which ends in deep pov where he's sitting on a bench--by himself, wondering why the hell he's putting himself through this, and feeling like a total failure.
In the plot, this is where he meets Anne. The minute she starts talking to him--the pov gets deeper, because to place a proper emphasis on the event, which is big in John's emotional journey, you have to almost stop.
John sat and talked to Anne.
Her mouth curved, just the tiniest bit at the side. She dropped her bag and sat, right there next to him on the bench. Her thigh pressed up against his. It was a small bench.
"I'm crowding you," she said.
He almost didn't answer, his mouth refused to move. "It's a small bench." God, had he just said that? Way to sound like an idiot.
The elapsed time goes from a sentence to...probably about ten pages or so. And as they part, goes to a slightly less deep pov so the emphasis remains on the event.
She stood and walked away. "Bye," she said, over her shoulder.
The backpack fell over. John grabbed it and stood, holding it out for her to grab.
"Thanks," she said. She hesitated. "I have to go."
He released the strap. She slung the bag over her shoulder and started away. Her head tipped like she was listening to something, and she glanced back at him, over her shoulder.
"Bye," she said.
And kept going.
...yeah, it was a little more on-top, not as deep. Not quite a transition from point A to B. It relied more on subtext which spring-boarded off the earlier in the scene, deeper pov--where you get to see Anne and John talk.
Subtext is what we use to ease out of the deeper pov structure.
It's like a thought string. A thought string is thought that in turn retrieves other thoughts. Like a reader who just has to look at an author's name to know every plot and character in an eighteen book arc.
When Anne first sits on that bench, and I drop John into deeper pov, a lot of info comes out. He's interested. She touched him, she's interested. They talk and discover they have common interests. It's not just a hello-good-bye type talk. They actually connect. So when I pull back into a slightly more shallow pov and she turns with a smile, but doesn't say anything except "bye"--your reader knows--even though it's not written, they will see each other again.