Sunday, July 24, 2011

Practical Emotional Structure Part 1


A while ago, which goes to show if you ask me something, I might not get to it for months—a friend asked me to take a look at her story. It's very much a traditional regency, reminiscent of back when Signets were still the most popular format and Avon was just coming into its own. There some things I thought would benefit from a fix and I agreed to take it on if she'd let me blog it. She agreed and we both agreed it had a couple of major issues—it was too short, and it was lacking an emotional component.

Quick synopsis:

Lady Velma and the Scoundrel (okay, made that up, but it's still a cool title) is a 41k novella about a woman who is traumatized during her first masquerade ball by Lord Clinton—the man who abandons her to a near rape. She can't "do" masquerade balls anymore. (The chance of being separated from her family or friends and swept away in a crowd of unfamiliar faces paralyzed her with fear.) Fear of a repeat occurrence and self-loathing color the next six years of her life, turning her into a drab little mouse who stands a very good chance of being left on the shelf.

Lord Clinton on the other hand, becomes a popular scoundrel with a drinking problem. He doesn't remember anything to do with Velma—but like Velma's friend, Persephone points out, no one does.

Or do they?

When Clinton and Velma are pushed together by a meddling friend and Velma's matchmaking mother, Clinton is puzzled by a niggling sense of familiarity. Little do they know the evil Lord Evilstoke also has his eye on Velma. The chief groper at her traumatic first masquerade, Evilstoke isn't finished with her yet! Will Evilstoke debauch the unwilling Miss? Will Clinton stop him in time? Or will Velma do it herself and grow into the woman Clinton wants and needs?
--
The good things about Lady Velma and the Scoundrel are that it's almost grammatically perfect and it's got a good ending which needs a little padding, but is in otherwise good shape. I suspect after putting 40k into the story, Katy (the author) hit her stride, because the characters act with more confidence and the story is smoother.
Older regencies were plot driven. Either the handsome lord would fall in love with the governess, or the rebellious/bookish/unconventional young chit would win the heart of a jaded rake. There was a lot of clothing description, balls, parties and people eating ices at Gunther's, taking the waters in Bath or gossiping about Lady Jersey. 

Proportion wise, LVS is clean. There's just enough description. Not a huge amount of clich├ęs and the requisite "eating ices at Gunther's" scene is done well. Not a history lesson, but it's not glossed over either. This is very much a stripped down 3 act structure—the perfect vehicle for a character-driven story. Which to me means it was targeted at the regency historical market.

Unfortunately, the characters feel detached, like they don't have a personal stake, and Velma's insistence on clinging to her pain—which wasn't really all that traumatic—makes her look unsympathetic. Even her best friend tells her to get a grip.

While it's important to show change in the transformational arc—and this story has arcs for both the hero and heroine—it's more important to create buy-in.

Part 1—Creating Buy-in.

What "is" buy-in?

Buy-in usually means getting some kind of commitment. I want the reader to care about Velma and commit to reading the next hundred pages, but it's hard to care when Velma comes across as emotionally immature and that's part of the emotional understructure.

When we first see Velma, she's burning an invitation to a masquerade ball. She's crying. Why don't we care? She's obviously distraught and she's feeling strong emotions. 

Miss Velma Louise Danford snatched the ivory invitation from the salver and perused the elegant handwriting. Dashing away a tear that clung stubbornly to her lashes, she wished six years of accumulated shame could be brushed away as easily. Her hand trembled as she crossed the room and flung the horrid thing into the fireplace.

Then, with her arms wrapped tight about her, she encouraged the grasping flames while reflecting on how the Talleigh’s annual masquerade never failed to transform her into a watering pot.

Burn before Mother sees you, please.

As she stared into the unobliging fire, cherished memories renewed their endless struggle with those she was unable to forget. First, the visions of fairytale splendor and extravagant costumes became a phantom flight of swirling, snapping black capes. The gentle masculine hand, firm at the small of her back, turned into rough paws groping, pinching and lobbing her back and forth. And perhaps worst of all, the feelings of anticipation and freedom were replaced by the stickiness that had lingered in the wake of their slobbery kisses.

Pulling Velma out of her reverie, her mother's footsteps echoed in the hallway only to be followed by the inevitable cheery greeting, "Darling, did you see Lady Talleigh's invitation finally arrived with this morning's post?"

The Talleigh's Masquerade Ball was the one invite her mother delighted in receiving each year.

"These violets are shrinking and need replaced. See to it, Sarah."
Her mother's voice sounded from the other side of the half-closed door to the hallway.

Velma reached for the poker but her hand never closed on the handle. Light from the hall flooded the room as her mother swept into the library. Velma spun around to face her and clutched at her skirts, straining to block her mother's view of the fireplace.
"Mother." After dropping a polite curtsey, Velma stared at the floor.

She stifled a groan and watched in silence as her mother's keen gaze darted from the empty salver on the side table to the crackling fire only partially obscured by Velma's skirts.
A rush of blood heated Velma's cheeks but she dared not move.

Her mother arched one immaculate eyebrow and shook her head. She strode across the room to stop in front of Velma. "Step aside, dear."

Obedience trounced rebellion. Her mother rescued the card from its less than imminent demise. The parchment dangled from her pinched fingers and she pursed her lips as she dispersed the fine covering of stray ashes with a breath.

"Velma, darling, my oldest and dearest friend would never forgive our absence. We shan't disappoint her, shall we?"

"No, Mother." She hated how meek she sounded, but experience warned that her mother would remain deaf to any arguments against attending. Each invitation made an explanation of her aversion to masquerade balls that much more difficult.

One simply did not discuss such ordeals. Even with one's mother.

Especially not her mother.

"I believe we shall forgo a round of visits and stay in this afternoon. We do want to look our best for the new Duchess of Bolster's dinner party tonight."

Velma groaned aloud at the reminder. Viscount Carlyle, the best friend of the Duke of Winfred and the one she held responsible for that disastrous night six years ago, was certain to attend.

Her mother swept out of the library and paused in the doorway. "And do get some rest, Velma. Your color is a tad flushed today."

Turning back to gaze at her daughter, the light from the hall illuminated her mother's gorgeous mane of blonde hair, shining like a halo. Anything but angelic, the glint in her mother's eye promised excuses would not be tolerated.

Velma is upset, but she's not "upset", you know? Not in the way you'd expect from a six year old trauma that is still as fresh and immediate as it was when it happened. So let's take a look at that again—picking out the important pieces.

This is the trauma--

As she stared into the unobliging fire, cherished memories renewed their endless struggle with those she was unable to forget. First, the visions of fairytale splendor and extravagant costumes became a phantom flight of swirling, snapping black capes. The gentle masculine hand, firm at the small of her back, turned into rough paws groping, pinching and lobbing her back and forth. And perhaps worst of all, the feelings of anticipation and freedom were replaced by the stickiness that had lingered in the wake of their slobbery kisses.

And this is the reaction—

Dashing away a tear that clung stubbornly to her lashes, she wished six years of accumulated shame could be brushed away as easily. Her hand trembled as she crossed the room and flung the horrid thing into the fireplace.
Then, with her arms wrapped tight about her, she encouraged the grasping flames while reflecting on how the Talleigh’s annual masquerade never failed to transform her into a watering pot.

It's very medium—both passages aren't tepid enough to be a non-event, but neither are they strong enough to drive the story. The event wasn't horrific, and her feelings are easy to control. Word choice has a little to do with this, but we can't really get out of the voice of a gently bred lady of this time period.

Suggestion 1. Make the original event bad—we don't want to rape her, because that would change the story—but it needs to be "more" Although the event drives the story, we never see it, and I strongly feel even if we never do it needs to be written. 

So for this first tweak, we're going to write the pertinent backstory.

Put Velma back at that masquerade—pull the pieces from later in your original story if you'd like to flesh out the scene—and continue it—write something horrible. Something traumatizing. Something so bad and shameful, it'll give Velma PSTD. 

I did notice the scene changes from a bunch of people touching her during the first mention of the incident—and I thought it was a bunch of drunks—to just Evilstoke later in the story. I'd suggest keeping it at just one person to make the story itself more focused. I like the rivalry between Evilstoke and Clinton, and a minor suggestion would be to make them cousins or step-brothers.

Because this is a regency historical, not a classic regency it's important to go big. Don't hold yourself down by wondering what people will think of you for being able to write something dark and twisted—just let it grow out of Evilstoke. Put them in a corner of the garden, or an isolated room—rip the gown from her, touch her a lot more intimately, maybe slap her around or slam her against the wall. Crank it up to the point you think the words are coming out of your fingers more purple than purple. Make it scream. Make Velma scream—then send it to me. 

We'll make people care.

2 comments:

Kaige said...

So it's not just about picking the right core event, but pushing that event far enough that it makes HUGE ripples that we believe and empathize or at least can sympathize with?

Everything you've said makes sense. V elma comes across as a little drama queen with no good reason. With sufficient reason, we'd be pushing that invitation into the fire right with her.

jodi said...

I'd also say it depends on what you want in your story. A core event and inciting incident aren't always the same, but in this case they are.

Because it's so character-driven the people need to be people we can understand, even if we don't like them yet. It's like that Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink. We form our impressions and stick with them.

Giving the impression that Velma is more OCD than PSTD hurts the storyline because it's about recovery and redemption--not changing an OCD personality.

And because the core event/inciting incident is also the story driver--what pushes the action--it needs to be big enough to push at least 75 percent of the story.

Look at the initial scene with Velma. If she's controlled, but with severe PSTD, she'd be "more" controlled, because she'd "need" more control to handle a bigger event. That'd push her perilously close to frozen.

Can you see her? standing over the fire, slowly--very slowly, tearing the invitation into little squares. They drop into the fire and burn like dying stars. And when her mother comes in and grabs for the invitation--there's only a tatter. Or she burns her fingers trying to grab the pieces. Or knocks a flurry of fiery ash onto the hearth and stands there...looking down at it.

The scene becomes more intense. More driven.

Her mother becomes more threatening, and controlling when she's holding a poker, staring down at a melted wax seal and a glitter of burnt parchment and looks up at Velma with her head tipped to one side, out of the corner of her eyes.

She can still want what's best for her daughter--but she can also be judgmental and p'ssed off.