Emotions: Sharks in the Word-Pond part 2 #amwriting

via buzzfeed

When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral level. Merriam Webster says:

Visceral is an adjective:

vis·​cer·​al | \ ˈvi-sə-rəl  , ˈvis-rəl\

Definition of visceral

1: felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body DEEP a visceral conviction

2: not intellectual INSTINCTIVE, UNREASONING visceral drives

3: dealing with crude or elemental emotions EARTHYvisceral novel

4: of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera SPLANCHNIC (internal organs, especially those of the abdomen) visceral organs

In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds. Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions, but facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.

Visceral reactions are involuntary—we can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding. We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. It is this internal physical gut reaction that is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.

Simplicity has impact, so selecting the most powerful words to convey emotion is critical. What do we want to do with our opening paragraphs? We want to tantalize the reader.

Words are the author’s Jedi mind tricks. The right words compel the reader to turn the page because they must find out what comes next.

When choosing words with visceral and emotional impact, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants have more impact.

One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
  2. Follow up with a thought response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
  3. Third, finish up with body language.

Twenty years ago, I witnessed a horrific motorcycle accident. The young man flew by me on his bike at twice the speed limit, with his girlfriend clinging precariously behind. Both wore helmets but were dressed for a hot day in the sun, wearing cut-off shorts and tank-tops. As they passed me, I had a premonition their ride would end badly. No sooner had I registered that thought, when they blew through a red light at the next intersection and crashed into the side of a minivan at fifty miles per hour.

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.

In the slow-motion minute that the motorcycle plowed into the side of the van, I experienced those reactions in that order. In the immediate moments following the crash, I felt disbelief, which transitioned into calm disassociation. Separated from the emotion, I was able to think clearly, knew exactly what to do. Getting the medics called and the injured stabilized took priority: action overrode emotion. However, afterward, with the injured gone from the scene, I broke down, shaking so badly I was unable to drive.

When you dissect them, you will see that all emotions, from the mildest to the strongest, affect us both physically and mentally in that 1-2-3 order:

  1. Initial gut reaction
  2. Flash of mental processing
  3. Body language, expression etc.

When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because mild is boring. But strong emotions create powerful, compelling characters and highly charged situations.

But if you want to emphasize a certain chemistry between two characters, good or bad, visceral reactions on the part of your protagonist are a good way to do so.

Here are some examples of simple emotions from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it was written ninety years ago, and we all have different tastes in reading, hopefully you will see the powerful words he uses.

Here, Fitzgerald describes a feeling of hopefulness:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees—just as things grow in fast movies—I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

Next, he describes shock:

It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Jealousy:

Her expression was curiously familiar—it was an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable until I realized that her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom, but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife.

The discomfort of witnessing a marital squabble:

The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.

Fitzgerald’s prose is written in the literary style of the 1920s, but we modern writers can learn something important from him: We can convey a wide range of emotions without resorting to cliché descriptions. His words are carefully considered, deliberately chosen, powerful words intended to convey the greatest impact in the least amount of space.

  • great bursts of leaves growing on the trees
  • the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
  • an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable
  • intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back

Throughout the novel, the way Fitzgerald combines words evokes emotions in the reader.

We feel shocked at the casual callousness of our protagonist and the cruelty of the others; the lack of empathy for the working class; and the hedonistic immersion into a culture where money and alcohol can get you anything you want—except love. We feel pity; we feel Nick’s remorse for the things he couldn’t change about Tom and Myrtle or Tom and Daisy, and Jay Gatsby.

We understand Gatsby’s final act of self-sacrifice, although we don’t agree with it.

We will continue the exploration of depth in the Word-Pond that is Story with a look at the influence of atmosphere/ambiance on the reader’s emotions and their perceptions.

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Edit: The accident I witnessed actually occurred in the summer of 1999. As I was writing this post, my wonky grasp of passing time incorrectly listed it as “ten years ago.” My, how time flies!


Credits and Attributions

Definition of visceral, Merriam Webster Online © 2019 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/visceral (accessed 07 July 2019)

Quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. PD|75 Fair Use.

Original Cover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. Cover artist: Francis Cugat. PD|75 Fair Use.

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#FineArtFriday: The Drunkard by Marc Chagall 1911

In this image, Marc Chagall manages to capture the determined self destruction of the addict. His colors are vivid, intense, and the images slightly shocking. The addict has lost his head.

About the Artist via Wikipedia Commons:

Marc Zakharovich Chagall was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal  6 July [O.S. 24 June] 1887 – 28 March 1985). (He) was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic format, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists”.

Author Serena Davies writes that “By the time he died in France in 1985—the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years—he had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, and had witnessed the end of the Pale of Settlement, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of Vitebsk, his home town, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War.”


Credits and Attributions:

Marc Chagall, 1911-12, The Drunkard (Le saoul), 1912, oil on canvas. 85 x 115 cm. Private collection Der Sturm, Volume 11, Number 3, 5 June 1920, p. 41 This image is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States prior to January 1, 1924.

Wikipedia contributors, “Marc Chagall,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marc_Chagall&oldid=903514404 (accessed July 12, 2019).

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Emotions: Sharks in the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

To write characters with emotional depth, you must dive into the waters where the sharks of show-don’t-tell lurk, waiting to bite your… backside.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. They would never stoop to merely saying  “He was happy” – no! Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of happiness, anger, and spite. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble; lips turn up and dimples pop; lips curve down and eyes spark—and so on and so on. When done sparingly and combined with other clues, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more aggravating than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

We must be as concerned with what is happening inside these poor emotional basket cases as we are about the melodramatic outward display.

Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Most times, you can get away without slo-o-o-owly dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought. Then the emotion becomes one the reader can feel too.

This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles. When you are happy, how do you feel? Energized, confident.

So now you need to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

A short list of simple, commonly used, easy to describe, surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anticipation
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Denial
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Interest
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise

Other emotions are tricky, difficult to show, and even more difficult to properly express internally. They are complicated and deeply personal, but these are the gut-wrenching emotions that make our work speak to the reader.

So, here is an even shorter list of rarely well-described, difficult to articulate, complex emotions:

  • Anguish
  • Anxiety
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Indecision
  • Jealousy
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Inadequacy
  • Powerlessness
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions that are best shown by (maybe) an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the basic emotions of your characters, a good handbook that offers a jumping off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters, which makes the story deeper as a whole.

Just don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions. But do your readers a favor: only choose one physical indicator per emotion, per scene.

Please.

Double Please. With cherries on top.

Going overboard in showing emotions makes a mockery of your characters. Subtle physical hints, along with some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons too, inspired by a flash of memory or a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

  • Formerly a soldier, experienced guerrilla warfare.

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

  • Impoverished childhood, baby sister died of starvation.

Why does the sight of daisies make an old man smile?

  • The memory of the best day of his life, sixty years gone past.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. I’ve mentioned this before, but motivation is key. WHY does the character react with that emotion? Emotions that are  undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential. When the emotion hits and the character is processing it—that is the moment to mention the memory in passing. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

Use powerful words that carry emotional impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.

To swim in the word-pond at the emotional level is to swim with the sharks of mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for characters you currently have no use for. I say this because just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

Practice really does make the imperfections in our writing less noticeable, and you may find a later use for these practice characters.

(edit) P.S. I forgot to mention that this subject is so large it will be continued on Monday. I will include examples of what I consider good and bad emotional scenes, and explain why I feel the way I do about them.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=80715597 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg&oldid=289210320 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Judith Leyster The Proposition.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Judith_Leyster_The_Proposition.jpg&oldid=354595803 (accessed July 10, 2019).

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The inferential layer of the Word-Pond: Mood and Emotion #amwriting

Today we go a little deeper into the Word-Pond that we call Story. In talking about literature, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere march along together; separate, but intertwined so closely that they seem as one. Mood is long term in the background and makes the emotions evoked within the story specific. Atmosphere is also long term but is part of world-building. Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys.

Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.

Robert McKee, in his video seminars, tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.

While emotions are immediate, they can be subtle. I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Emotions that are undermotivated lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is flat. We have deep, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our characters.

A woman shoots another woman. Why? Add in the factor of her child having been murdered by this woman, and you have high emotion, high drama. Therefore, motivation for a character’s emotions is fundamental to the motivation for their actions.

Which is more important, mood or emotion? Both and neither. Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual moods affect the emotional state of the group.

Because emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again, emotion changes a character’s values, and they either grow or devolve. This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (deduce) the experience.

You can’t tell a reader how to feel—they must experience what the character feels and understand (infer) the character on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created by means of setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and descriptions. Though atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry.[1] Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative

SO:

Setting can contribute to atmosphere, but in itself, the setting is only a place, not atmosphere.

What is atmosphere? Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is an ambiance that pervades a literary piece with the intention of evoking a certain frame of mind or emotion in the reader. Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as it is by the characters’ moods and emotions.

Now we know that atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece. From the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

PEDIAA https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/  says:

Mood vs. Atmosphere

Although the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, there is a subtle difference between mood and atmosphere in a general sense. Mood can refer to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual. However, the term atmosphere is always associated with a venue. But, the mood and atmosphere are interrelated in this aspect as well. For example, a gloomy and dark setting in a play creates an ominous atmosphere. This atmosphere can also affect the mood of the characters as well as the audience.

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere

  • Mood refers to the internal emotions of an individual.
  • Atmosphere is usually linked to a place.
  • However, both mood and atmosphere are used as synonyms in literature.   
  • They refer to the emotional feelings inspired by a piece of literary work.
  • Mood and atmosphere are created by diction, dialogues, descriptions, tone, setting, etc.

Robert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. Happy, sad, neutral—the overall emotional mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions, but the two, overall mood and emotion must work together to draw the reader in.

This inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is the place where we realize that creating this pond requires thought on our part. Like a diver seeing an undiscovered shipwreck for the first time, the story is still waiting to be uncovered. The bottom of this pond is still distant, and we have a lot of deep water to travel before we get there. On our way down, we have more denizens of the deep to examine.

Next up: a closer examination of Writing Emotions: the sharks of the Word-Pond.


Credits and Attributions:

Much of my information comes from watching seminar-videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube, and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and YouTube University is a free resource for the struggling author. His book,  “Story” by Robert McKee, is a core textbook of my personal library. Robert McKee on YouTube

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere, by Hasa © 2017 PEDIIA https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/ (accessed July 7, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Oracle_-_Hawaiian_Symbolist_by_Marguerite_Blasingame.jpg&oldid=276120985 (accessed June 27, 2019).

Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer) – Caspar David Friedrich 1835 [Public domain]
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Caspar David Friedrich 011.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_011.jpg&oldid=326731449  (accessed May 24, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Peter Purves Smith: New York, 1936, and Rickett’s Point, 1937

Usually, in literature, surrealism is shown through the thought processes of the characters rather than in alterations of the environment. On the surface, you believe what they say they think, but their perception of the world is skewed toward a hallucinogenic feel.

In art, the surface, the visual layer is what it is all about. Everything is displayed for you to view and interpret as you will.

Sometimes surrealism asks you to think deeper. Other times, surrealism says “enjoy the moment.” In “New York” Peter Purves Smith asks you to think deeper about our mania for building densely and tall. Skyscrapers grow like weeds, springing from the earth like dandelions in the lawn. What other concepts does he ask us to consider?

Progress and impermanence. Beauty versus utilitarian requirements. He asks us to think deeply.

In Ricketts Point, he asks you to just enjoy a sunny day at the beach.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Peter Purves Smith – New York, 1936.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Peter_Purves_Smith_-_New_York,_1936.jpg&oldid=149235926 (accessed July 4, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Peter Purves Smith – Ricketts Point, 1937.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Peter_Purves_Smith_-_Ricketts_Point,_1937.jpg&oldid=296570789 (accessed July 4, 2019).

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The Word-Pond – Surface #amwriting

Story is an arc of action, but it is also a deep pond filled with words. Today we are looking at the visible layer, the surface.

When you look at a real pond you will see the effects of the world around it reflected in its surface. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm and things change. The waters move; ripples and small waves stir the waters, which only reflect the dark gray of stormy sky.

The surface of the Word-Pond is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

The storms that alter the surface are the events and the way our characters move through them.

This surface layer is comprised of

  • Setting,
  • Action and Interaction,
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

The surface of a story is like a picture. When we look at it we immediately see something recognizable. The surface is comprised of:

Setting – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate environment
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background of the immediate environment
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment.
  4. Objects the characters interact with in their immediate environment.
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The still, reflective surface of the word-pond is affected by the breeze that stirs it. As mentioned above, the breeze is made of the action and events that form the arc of the story:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

These components form the literal layer because they appear to be the story.

How do we shape this literal layer? We can add fantasy elements, or we can stick to as real an environment as is possible.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll showed us that while surrealism is a large, ungainly concept to describe, it can be incorporated into the literal layer. An author might build into the setting an unusual juxtaposition of objects. The characters behave and interact with their environment as if the bizarre things are normal. The setting may have a slightly hallucinogenic feel to it, making the reader wonder if the characters are dreaming. The placement of the unusual objects is deliberate, meant to convey a message or to poke fun at a social norm. Surrealism on the surface level takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning but doesn’t say “Look what I did!” It tries to pass as “normal.”

Most Sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in real-world(ish) settings, with a good story and great characters. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, we could be in that world. That is where good world building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

SO, we know that the surface layer of our story can contribute to the feeling of depth. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are deeper aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the winds (action and reaction) may ruffle the surface, stir things up on the literal layer, it rarely disturbs the deeper waters of the Word-Pond. A good story has all these components, but it also has soul, makes you think about larger issues. The way our characters interact within this surface layer are influenced by what is going on in the next layer down—the Inferential Layer.

Just below the surface, in the Inferential Layer lies Mood and Emotion. They are not the same and the differences will require a little examination.  Friday’s art post will be a dip into surrealism–but on Monday we will pick this discussion up and talk about Mood vs. Emotion.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “American Realism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=American_Realism&oldid=902714117  (accessed June 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Adriaen van Ostade – The Painter in His Studio – WGA16748.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_The_Painter_in_His_Studio_-_WGA16748.jpg&oldid=270705051 (accessed May 10, 2018).

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Creating Depth: Layers of the Word-Pond #amwriting

We often talk about the story arc and its component parts and features. But when we want to add depth to a story, we must look at it from a different angle. Yes, “Story” is an arc, but it is also like a pond. It is something vast and deep, set in an enclosed space.

We know it has a beginning and end, a top and bottom, with something murky and mysterious in the middle. We instinctively know the pond is made up of those three layers, although we may not consciously be aware of it or be able to explain it.

Today we will have an overview of Depth, a component of Story that we will be exploring over the next few posts. This is a part of the puzzle that eludes many authors as depth is an advanced concept requiring a great deal of thought to convey.

On our pond, Layer One, the surface layer, is the most obvious. When you look at the pond, it could be calm , or if a storm is brewing, it will be ruffled and moving.

First, we must understand that Story is an immense, unfathomable word-pond.

In Story, Layer One, the surface layer is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

This is the setting, the action, the visual/physical experience of the characters as they go about their lives.

On the surface of a story, when you see something, you immediately recognize what you think is there. You immediately believe you know what is going on. This is the surface meaning. A gun is drawn, the weapon is fired—what happened is clear and obvious.

The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Realism is serious, a depiction of what undisputedly is.

Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. It takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning.

This will be a fun layer to explore, with lots of wonderful art to help us along the way.

Back to the pond. Beneath the surface is Layer Two: the middle, the area of unknown quantity where lives are lived, and events happen. Fish hatch, swim, and eat other fish. These are the creatures of the middle, entities who rarely breach the surface layer or see the bottom and who exist independently of them.

Yet their world has limits—they are confined, as we are confined by the sky above us and the soil beneath our feet.

In Story, Layer Two, the wide layer of unknown quantity is the Inferential Layer. This is the layer where Inference and Implication come into play.

We show why the gun is drawn. We imply reasons to show why the weapon was fired. We offer ideas to explain how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they squeezed the trigger.

We make these implications and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

In a good story, the path to the moment the trigger was pulled is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it, but your task is to fill the middle of the pond with clues, hints, and allegations. This is where INFER and IMPLY come into play.

You can only imply something to someone, in our case, the reader.

A speaker (author) implies. One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story. Take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it.  Then write one word, “avenger,” on a  note and slip it inside the envelope. The message (inference) inside the envelope (story) is conveyed to the listener (reader).

A listener (reader) infers. The listener (reader) deduces or catches the meaning of something that is not said directly. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note and deduce the meaning of what is about to happen.

The layer of implication must be done well and deftly because you want the reader to feel as if they have earned the information they are gaining. They must be able to deduce what you imply. As a listener (reader) you can only extrapolate knowledge from information someone or something has offered you.

Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.

This layer will be shallower in Romance novels because the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, there will still be some areas of mystery that aren’t spelled out completely because the interpersonal intrigues are the story.

Books for younger readers might also be less deep on this level because they don’t yet have the real-world experience to understand what is implied.

This middle layer is, in my opinion, the toughest layer for an author to get a grip on. We will go to popular literature to find examples that will lead us to draw our own conclusions about this layer.

Below the middle layer is Layer Three, the bottom of the pond. This is the finite layer: Whatever passes from the surface travels through the middle and comes to rest at the bottom.

In Story, Layer Three is the Interpretive Level:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Message
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

This layer is sometimes the easiest for me to discuss because we are dealing with finite concepts. Theme is one of my favorite subjects to write about, as is symbolism. Commentary is something I haven’t gone into in depth, nor have I really discussed conveying messages. Archetype is another facet I haven’t gone into in detail, and yet it is a fundamental underpinning of Story.

I am looking forward to gaining more understanding of the subtler, more abstract aspects of writing as I do the research for this series. When I come across a book or website that has some good information, I will share it with you.

In the meantime, a good core textbook is “Story” by Robert McKee. If you haven’t already gotten it, get it.

Another excellent and more affordable textbook for this is “Damn Fine Story” by Chuck Wendig. Chuck delivers his wisdom in pithy, witty, concise packets. If you fear potty-mouth, don’t buy it. However, if you have the courage to be challenged, this is the book for you.

In my next post we will begin at the surface of the Word-Pond: realism and surrealism.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: The Oracle by Marguerite Blasingame


The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame

Date: circa 1935

Marguerite Blasingame was a Hawaiian artist, world-famous for her sculptures, but less so for her paintings. She painted in a “Symbolist” style, which is very different than surrealism, although the two styles appear to share some commonalities.

About the symbolist style in art, via Wikipedia:

The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.

What I love about this picture:

The dreamscape is captivating, inviting you to look closer. The water and the land seem to embrace the figures and the plants, and also cradles the sun. It is perfectly balanced. The colors are intense yet muted; the curving sinuous figures seem both familiar and alien. This painting gives the viewer much to think about.

As a writer, I’m attracted to symbolism in art and literature. When an artist goes to the trouble of offering me something of substance to think about, their work stays with me. I find myself thinking about it long after setting the book down or leaving the gallery.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Marguerite Blasingame (1906 – 1947) founded the Hawaiian Mural Arts Guild in 1934, along with Isami Doi, Madge Tennent, and others. She died young, at the age of only forty one.

On Saturday 15 March 1947, fellow island artist Madge Tennent published the following tribute to Blasingame in The Honolulu Advertiser:

“To her many artist friends she represented a youthful and indomitable vitality in art, which was supported by a capacity for grueling hard work in her chosen field of true fresco and sculptured bas-relief in Hawaiian wood and stone. She was, by almost any way of thinking, too young to die. But the strangely wonderful thing is this, that she has in her sadly short young life, left more important works of art which have been placed where everybody may enjoy them, than any other island artist.”


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Marguerite Louis Blasingame,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marguerite_Louis_Blasingame&oldid=885666667 (accessed June 27, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Oracle_-_Hawaiian_Symbolist_by_Marguerite_Blasingame.jpg&oldid=276120985 (accessed June 27, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Symbolism (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Symbolism_(arts)&oldid=894767208 (accessed June 27, 2019).

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Dramatic Irony: adding depth #amwriting

Creating depth in writing is an involved process. When we talk about adding depth to a scene, we are talking about many things, and over the next few weeks, we will explore the ideas and facets of depth more fully.

First of all, “depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene.

Even before we get into the deeper waters, writing fiction is a complex undertaking. We need a wide vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too “high falutin’” with it. This requires an understanding of our chosen genre and the general expectations of our readers.

Also, the way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) can add to the feeling of depth. Of course, it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. How we plot a story requires a little thought and sometimes we cut or rearrange things.

If we are writing fiction, we need to be able to think critically and see a character’s thought processes from all sides. If we have tunnel vision in our writing, we only write what is directly in front of us. This can be one dimensional, boring. There is no surprise because we saw it coming all along, and no effort was made to counter it.

So how do we take that one-dimensional idea and make the reader believe we have (figuratively) plucked them from their comfortable existence and placed them in a real, three-dimensional world?

We do it layer by layer. Some layers are more abstract than others, but they add so much to a story. Take the unexpected. When you add something unexpected into the mix, the reader becomes interested in finding out more. They keep turning the pages.

One way to introduce the unexpected is to employ a literary device called Dramatic Irony. Employed deftly, irony inserted into the ordinary adds the element of surprise and a moment of “ah hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Let’s consider Romeo and Juliet. The way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of irony, applied heavily.

First, the prologue announces that the  Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families. That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters are not is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor was extraordinarily daring in its day and was one of the things Elizabethans loved most about the play.  

Now, the next layer is one that resonates with modern audiences. The second layer of irony is laid on when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch enemy. Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him. Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.

And at this point, despite the blatant warning the prologue gives us at the outset, we are all hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know how this will end, and it isn’t good.”

Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, assuming he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t!”

Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;

stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;

shot through the ear with a love-song;

“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic prose in any era. All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and was a contributing factor in the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.

But tastes have changed over the 400+ years since that play was written. We can still inject irony into our work but don’t have to be quite so heavy-handed in our writing.

I’m just saying that nowadays it’s a bad idea to write a prologue explaining the end of the book, as that will encourage readers to put the book back on the shelf and purchase one where the outcome is more of a mystery.

Perhaps we have scene involving a committee’s conversation about what to do with a plot of land. Should we let it be developed commercially or make it playground? In itself, the topic might not be terribly interesting.

But what if in the opening paragraph a woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting and places a backpack under the table. She makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to go off at 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then leaves, being careful to leave no fingerprints.

Now every second that the conversation drags on ratchets up the tension. Each time a committee member gets up to get a glass of water, or make a phone call, and the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25, you wonder: will they be the one to escape death?

Irony should be the backpack lurking under the table. It’s there; the reader knows it’s there but once it’s placed under the table we don’t have to mention it again until it is found or the clock ticks to 2:25.

Consider Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury uses irony to convey information. First of all, Bradbury challenges us by introducing “firemen” not as those brave people who put out house fires, but as men charged with starting fires and burning all books. The naming of that job title is subtle. The author never resorts to explaining the irony, but it packs a punch when you first read it. So, in that case, we have “situational irony” delivering information we need, in a way that packs a wallop and promises more to come.

In the 1948 short story, The Lottery, Shirley Jackson wrote about something we typically think of as good. After all, winning the lottery usually means we’ve won money or a wonderful prize. But in Jackson’s story, it’s not about what is won, but what is lost. The irony is that stoning someone to death yearly purges the town of the bad and makes way for the good.

Dramatic Irony adds depth to a story, especially when done in such a way that the reader understands it but hasn’t been told what to think. Readers like to think for themselves.

For a good speculative fiction story that is one long scene filled with dramatic irony that becomes humorous, you might want to read The Machine that Won the War, by Isaac Asimov. This story first appeared in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was reprinted in the collections Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) and Robot Dreams (1986).

 


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 – 1595 PD|100.

Cover for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Artwork by Joseph Mugnaini Published October 19, 1953, by Ballantine Books. Fair Use.

Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg&oldid=354454367 (accessed June 25, 2019).

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Update on Works in Progress #amwriting

Time flies when you’re having fun—it’s June already, and nothing I planned to have completed is done at this point.  However, I have made progress on some really important things.

I bought a new vacuum cleaner.

I’ve got a new vegan cookbook.

I dog-sat my neighbor’s boxer for four days.

But we’re here to talk about writing. In the short story department, I have had one story accepted by an anthology. I sent two others to magazines, and they’re currently hanging in that peculiar limbo. Waiting to hear if I’ve sold them or not is always a little frustrating but I try to just send them off and forget them, which is why it’s good to keep a list of what you sent and to where.

This is where the spreadsheet for submissions comes in handy. You can do this by hand or use Excel or Google Sheets. (see my blogpost of 1 May 2017 – Submissions: discovering who wants them and how to manage your backlist. My list has:

  • Date of submission
  • Title of Story
  • Genre
  • Name of publication/contest it was submitted to
  • Website for publication/contest
  • How it was submitted (i.e., through Submittable or through the publisher’s website)
  • Closing date
  • The date you can expect to hear back by at the latest: 90 – 175 days is common.
  • Where to respond and who to notify in the case of simultaneous submissions – some publications/contests allow simultaneous submissions, but you must notify them immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere.
  • Accepted Yes/No
  • Date accepted/rejected
  • Remarks if given

Once your spreadsheet is set up, it’s easy to keep track of what you sent to where and where it is in the process.  Using the Submittable App makes it even easier—they keep track of your submissions for you.

I’ve slowed down on the short story mill—my novels have once again claimed my attention.

The Author in her natural habitat.

The first draft of Heaven’s Altar is ¾ of the way done but is at a creative plateau point. This is a novel set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah but takes place fifteen generations before Edwin’s time. I have taken my main character through his vision quest, and he is now headed toward the showdown with destiny.

Those final showdown scenes are always so difficult to get out of my head and onto paper.  I do a lot of thinking, of trying to pry that elusive nugget of gold loose. But it’s still refusing to show itself, so for the moment, that manuscript is at the “inching” stage—mostly on the back burner.

Bleakbourne on Heath, my alternate Arthurian mishmash is nearing completion. This is a work-in-progress that began life as a serial, and while I did end the serialized version with a wedding, the main thread was left incomplete. That story has languished for two years while other projects took up my attention. I intend to finish Bleakbourne during NaNoWriMo this year, so I have been designing the final showdown for Merlin, Mordred, and Leryn. I know where Bramblestein, Lancelyn, and Galahad must be and what they each must do. I have also figured out how Morgause the Cat fits into the story and what her role will be in the big event.

Baron’s Hollow, my contemporary novel is in the outlining and backstory stage still. This book will also emerge more fully during NaNoWriMo if all goes well with Bleakbourne. As that should only take about 10,000 words to finish, I will have plenty of time to get Baron’s Hollow off to a good start. I expect Baron’s Hollow to top out at about 60,000 words.

I’m still trying to figure out the characters, what secrets each is keeping from the others, how those secrets mount up, and how each member of the cast makes it to the final showdown. In order to write their story, I need to know these people as individuals, understand how they would or wouldn’t react to each situation, and what the catalyst for the final event is. I know what has to happen during that scene. I know where it will happen. I just need to know why these particular people do what they do.

Finally, Julian Lackland, the final installment in the Billy’s Revenge series has been completed. I am just waiting for comments from the final group of beta readers. If all goes well, he will go to print in September. If more revisions are required than I hope, it could be November or December–I refuse to rush him to print.

So that is the update—I’ve been averaging 700 to 1000 new words a day, which isn’t exactly burning up the universe. However, combined with the revisions and editing work for other authors, it does move me forward.

How has your new work been progressing? Feel free to let me know in the comments, but include no links please, as the spam blocker will send those directly to the spam folder.

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