Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emotional structure for the self-contained

A running in the dark post

A few weeks ago, I asked if anyone had something I could answer for them and Kaige came up with a question so hard I've been circling around it for days.

What do you suggest doing to deepen emotional punch in scenes? Especially if you're not an expressive person yourself and are afraid it will come out too purple or melodramatic.

The pat answer would be "--use emotions common to the human condition. Like the love of a child, or situations that are emotional in themselves."

But y'know? The reasons cliches exist are because they're common. Hot pregnant women, cute babies, precocious 6 year-olds--the angry teenager who just needs the mother/father love of the man/woman the hero/heroine is hot for. It's been done.

The question is more complex than it appears. Back when I was studying the Meyer-Briggs personality types, extroverts and introverts fascinated me. The way they interact with each other, and how "what" they are influences their perception of others. In a lot of ways, we're introverts--not too many extroverts like sitting at a computer all day creating worlds in their heads. But y'know? We write about people who show emotion because that's what we've been trained to do.

Show, don't tell. Be visual.

I have a lot of storyboarding books and stuff on shot set-up. In some ways screenwriters do it better, because screenwriting is the written interpretation of a visual medium.

In my stuff--in case anyone's been reading the excerpts I've pulled from Kill Velocity? I do shot set-up to figure out where the people are and what they do, and go back into layer the visuals on the second pass. The last couple months I've had summer school, and much as I want to go in and clean and layer, I ran out of time. I rarely bring up my own stuff, because I hate people who talk about themselves, so bear with me.

Tris is not a visual person. He's one of my favorite characters, but he's hard to write because I'm an introvert and he's an introvert. I could write him differently, but then he wouldn't be Tris. He'd be someone else.

He doesn't "allow" himself to feel emotions. He "processes" emotions and sometimes has the wrong response to something because of his background, but the story is about how he learns to feel. In other words. You don't always have to layer. As shallow as it is, his emotional layering is where it needs to be for where he is in the story.

The same thing with people who aren't overly expressive. It's not that the emotion isn't there, but that being all introverted and contained, it doesn't show. There's a disconnect between feeling something and expressing it in a way that "other" people would interpret as being that particular emotion.


Cowboy is an extrovert. If something happened to him he'd have no problem telling you how he felt. His gestures would get big, his voice would get loud. He'd connect with other people because he would be using body language and cues that other people--who use the same cues, would recognize as tagging that particular emotion.

If something happened to me, I'd think about it first--which right off would create distance and depending on how it impacted me, or how strongly I felt about it, I'd either talk about it, or express myself, but since it'd be a subdued version of something Cowboy already did ten minutes ago, I'd appear to care less, or have issues.

The extrovert would see me, the introvert, being all cold and overly controlled. But as an introvert I'd interpret the extrovert as being all bouncy and loud.

But he isn't--he's simply acting true to type, in a manner consistent with his personality.

To sum up what's probably meandering all over the place by now--emotional depth depends on your characters and how you built them. Shallow emotional depth is just as important a tool in showing character as constant 24/7 deep pov.

Emotional layers are actually emotional clots. Pretend a scene is a piece of paper. There are edges where they connect with transitions or other scenes, a few inches the eye skims, and the center, where the really interesting stuff is.

Pick out the stuff that is important to "this" scene and check out where each important character is at this stage in the book.

Belle and Danton are at a ball. They've been friends for years. Now that Belle has to marry--so her younger, prettier sister can marry (it's a regency)--she thought he'd offer.

She's falling in love with him, and because he's her friend, she's open to him. He feels "something", but because of his background--shuts it down. So in this scene the emotional clots form around Belle's interactions with Danton and her emotions. Because it's very difficult, if not impossible to write a story where both people are shut down.

The ball itself? The border of the paper? Belle's feelings toward the room, her family, the heat, the food, whatever textures the scene, aren't all that important.

The paper that connects the clots is important (give me a second to get to that).

If the emotion isn't already there growing out of the characters and how they've interacted to this point, then it needs to be dissected still further.

What exactly is Belle feeling? Is she feeling betrayed or lost? Angry? Confused? Pick out the "top" emotions, the emotions that show and write them on the top half of a paper. Draw a line horizontally in the middle of the paper and write her internal emotions.

I'm going to say Belle appears angry and mad. Her internal emotions are betrayed and lost.

Now do some free association. Angry, red face, open mouth, narrowed eyes, flush, stomping, big gestures. Stuff that shows visually. Things your reader will connect with.

Now do the same thing for the internal stuff. Stomach hurts, can't breathe, want to cry, want to touch Danton, afraid to touch Danton. Thoughts circling like leaves in a hurricane.

Whatever you want to write. Don't worry about what it is, simply get down stuff you know you'd feel or want, or think. Internal stuff. Needs and fears, all the grotty stuff you've felt yourself. Write it all in section you saved for those emotions, and keep going until you can't write anymore. If you simply can't figure it out, ask someone.

"If you saw an angry person, how would you know they were angry?" "If you felt lost, how would you feel?"

Scared? Write it down. Clingy? Write that down too.

Now take another piece of paper and write down all the "things" in the scene that could point up those feelings, visuals and emotions.

Angry? Maybe the room they end up in has red wall paper, or there's a statue of Medusa on the mantel. Betrayed? Maybe there's a porcelain heart on the mantel, and when Belle waves her arms, she knocks it over and it shatters. If she can't breathe, maybe the ball is a squeeze.

Lost? Maybe the host has children who wander out on the terrace and get lost. A nursemaid comes running after them, terrified she'll lose her job.

Now take all that and use it.

It's only melodrama because as introverts that's our perception of it.

Belle corners Danton, with a flush running up her chest, beet-red, eyes narrowed, and so incredibly hurt. She can't breathe, her stomach hurts and as she swings around after confronting him, she knocks over a delicate porcelain heart and it shatters on the cold white marble floor.

The more free association you can include in the scene, the deeper the emotional clot you form around Belle.

It'd work the same way with Danton if he wasn't (imho) cold in this scene (which you just pointed up with the cold marble floor breaking the porcelain heart). If you create a scene in which he's also angry on top and hurting underneath, maybe he has a cold kind of anger which manifests in stiff lips, or a pale white face. And maybe all he wants to do is escape because he can't deal with "her" anger. So it's like someone keeps punching him and he gets whiter and whiter, and finally turns to leave.

And that Medusa? The reflection of Belle's anger? The red wall paper? Mood setting? Maybe a storm is rising and a cold wind rattles the windows and breaks a pane.

Layers. Lots of layers.

In a very deliberate kind of way.


Elune said...

Brilliant and so very helpful. I love Kaige for asking that question.


Jennifer McKenzie said...

Yes, yes, yes!!! Layering is SO HARD!!!!

Kaige said...

Thank you so much for your detailed explanation on this. It made perfect sense with your example using Cowboy and your different reactions. I will work on putting it into practice while remembering the following:

"It's only melodrama because as introverts that's our perception of it."

We're rather drama and conflict adverse in our household, so this sentence really resonated with me and thinking about what I like to read and really just grabs me, I know it's my perspective and it's ok to venture deeper and let go.

Thanks, Jodi!

jodi said...

Elune--it was the hardest question she's ever asked me,lol.

Jen, you're scaring me. 0.o

Kaige, you're very welcome. :)

jMo said...

You never storyboarded your writing?

jMo said...

I mean apart from shot set ups, do you try to sketch your ideas?

jodi said...

hmm, that's a good question too.

no, not really. I don't really sketch things out. I close my eyes and try to figure where the people are and if there's something going on off in the corner, or behind my people.

I think...(you know I think too much, my boss accuses me of it all the time, like it's a bad thing) as I grow as a writer, I learn "how" and "why" and how it all interconnects. Stuff I was still learning to do when I wrote HC.

When it comes to something really complicated, like a scene where there are lots of characters, I sketch out clumps and where people go when. I had to go outside for that scene I deleted, and work out logistics.

Say, if these people were here, and those people were there--and this group moves, how much space would that need? So maybe I do storyboard, but in a real life kind of way.

I figure if I ever do a shot in a mall, I'd probably go sit in a mall and check out the people, just to see how it'd all work. Maybe shanghai family and get them to block out the action. :)

jMo said...

A living sketch pad, cool. I always wondered if you could work out a story or novel in jail. Like when Gauis Baltar didn't have a pencil. I would have thought he could have worked it out in his head, being a genius and all.
If I'm really stuck, storyboarding or using a flow chart will get me unstuck.

jodi said...

that'd be really bad. A writer with no pen, pencil or computer? Ouch.

jMo said...

Computer, we don't need no stinkin' computers. What happened to cocktail napkins and eyeliner. Isn't that what Dorothy Parker used?

Lauren Murphy said...

Ok really you are a genius. I am so taking all this back to the WIPs I'm working on now. You have no idea how much I needed this! How can you wonder why I'm always singing your praises? Don't worry I won't tell my mom this one time. :P

jodi said...

lol, Lauren. If I'm a genius, I hope it gets discovered now and not when I'm dead , "and she was "so" smart, one of the undiscovered greats of the twenty first century." *sigh*

Ha!! You're right Jeanna. I love Dorothy Parker. One of the snarkiest women ever.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it's always just my luck to get One perfect rose. — Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Eva Gale said...

You mean they're NOT just bouncy an loud? There goes the evening.