Tag Archives: Depth: the Word-Pond

Schadenfreude and Humor #amwriting

September is conference month for me. I just finished attending the Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference in Centralia, Washington. On Thursday the 12th of September, I will be in Seattle for four days at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Conference.

I will be attending a masters’ class offered by Donald Maass, on exploring depth with The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Writers’ conferences are great ways to connect with agents and publishers, but they are also excellent ways to connect with other writers. A good conference offers the best education a new and beginning author can get.

This last Saturday, while in a seminar on injecting humor into the narrative, I reconnected with an old word that is making a resurgence in the English language: Schadenfreude (shah-den-froid-deh) This word from our Germanic roots describes the experience of happiness or self-satisfaction that comes from witnessing or hearing about another person’s troubles, failures, or humiliation.

I discovered this lovely (Deutsch) German word years ago while in college and had forgotten it. However, we are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level quite often.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an uncharitable emotion, and we don’t like it in others. But for many centuries, popular humor had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

Since the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians began writing plays, people have always enjoyed seeing other people’s missteps and pratfalls as long as the comedian recovers with a smile and “keeps on keepin’” on. Aristotle said that we are amused when we feel superior to others.

Dr. Adam Potthast, in his 2016 thesis on the Ethics of Slapstick Humor discussed how the recurring themes of clowns and idiots in popular slapstick comedy evoke a subtle feeling of superiority and also desensitizes us to violence. It makes bullying acceptable.

And, until recent years, dealing with bullying has been a common theme of childhood that teachers and parents, all former victims of bullying, weren’t equipped to deal with. According to Andy Luttrell in his post for Social Psych Online, psychologists believe we find something funny when it’s a “benign violation.” In other words, we are amused by things and incidents that violate the way we think things should work and which do so in a non-threatening manner.

In our current society, we don’t want to promote bullying or harassment as a positive thing in any form. But in the narrative, we do want to inspire that feeling of “payback” in the reader whenever roadblocks—instant karma—temporarily halt the Antagonist. If we can inject a little humor into a narrative, the reader feels an extra burst of endorphins and keeps turning the pages.

Exchanges of snarky dialogue (mocking irreverence and sarcasm) liven up regrouping scenes, transitions from one event to the next.

Humor and what is hilarious can vary widely from person to person. E. B. White wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

He was right. I can’t know what you find humorous, but I do know what makes me smile. I like snark and witty comments. I like things that surprise me, and which take a sudden detour from the expectations of normal.

Some of us have an earthy sense of humor, while others are more cerebral. For me, humor occurs when conventional rules are undercut or warped by incongruity. I have never liked slapstick as a visual comedy, but Horror authors often have it right: in the narrative, putting your characters through a little comedic disaster now and then can’t hurt.

When I was growing up, my family ran on “gallows humor” and still does, to a certain extent. We put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

That grim and ironic tendency to find humor in a desperate or hopeless situation is a fundamental human emotion.

This is why I often find myself writing gallows humor into my own work. We all need something to lighten up with now and then.

Adding a little humor can add both depth and pathos to the characters, humanizing them without your having to resort to an info dump. Each individual character’s sense of humor (or lack thereof) shows more of who they are and why the reader should care about them.

For many reasons, humor is an aspect of depth in the narrative that is impossible to fully define, but which adds a little fresh air at places where the story arc could otherwise stall.

Humor in literature occurs on an organic level, arising during the first draft before the critical mind has a chance to iron it out. Have you found yourself writing the occasional hilarity into your work? If not, why not? What holds you back from expressing this aspect of your personality in your work?

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Structure of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Today we’re winding down my summer blogpost series, The Word-Pond. We’ve explored the myriad aspects of ‘depth,’ the wide inferential layer of Story. Depth isn’t easy to categorize, nor can we point to one aspect and say, “Get this right, and you’ve got a story with depth.”

I’ve described Story as a pond filled with words and discussed the three layers:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Middle: The Inferential Layer, where Inference and Implication come into play. This is an area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: the reasons why these lives are portrayed, and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only.

In our word pond, the one large thing containing our words is “story.” So now we want to form these layers into a coherent, meaningful story. We need a container for our words, the hole in the ground for the story to flow into.

This container is the story arc.

Many people say they have a book in them, one they’d love to write. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

This is where the skills I’ve developed through my years of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has paid off.  If you want to write a novel, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting it, but if you don’t get the original ideas down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

A story begins with an idea for a character. That character usually comes to me along with a problem. This is the seed from which the story grows.

I sit down and draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points to write to. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are, and what should happen at each. This ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

I’m going to use the original plot idea for a work in progress as my example. My WIP is a short story, 5000 words in length, but you can plot any length of story.

The story: Our Protagonist is a courier, transporting a valuable artifact. This artifact brings her to the attention of the Antagonist who intends to seize it, no matter the cost.

You must know what the surface of the Story looks like before you can explore the depths. A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts:

Act 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

  1. Setting: a village near a crossroads.
  2. The weather is unseasonably cold.
  3. The protagonist is carrying a jewel reputed to enable a mage to control the weather.
  4. The protagonist must travel alone, as her partner was killed.
  5. Unbeknownst to her, a traitor in her employer’s court has designs on the artifact. By possessing it, the Antagonist will have the power to usurp the throne.
  6. She is wary, knowing the danger of traveling alone. She conceals the artifact by sewing it inside her shirt.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

  1. The Antagonist’s hired thugs capture her.
  2. She is thrown into prison.
  3. A fellow prisoner has overheard that her partner was murdered to ensure she would be traveling alone.
  4. This fellow prisoner believes he has a plan to enable their escape.
  5. The protagonist isn’t sure she should trust him but refuses to let the artifact fall into the Antagonist’s hands.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

  1. Seeing no other way, our Protagonist agrees to the Sidekick’s plan.
  2. He is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. By working together for several days, they manage to complete the escape route.
  4. Timing the rotation of their guards is critical to the success of their plan.
  5. Just as they are about to make their escape, the Antagonist makes a surprise visit to the dungeon and roughs up our Protagonist. He batters her physically and mentally, attempting to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the jewel, but she manages to keep her secret. When he leaves, her shirt is torn, but the jewel is still safe.

Act 4: Resolution:

  1. They must wait for another rotation of the guards, giving the Protagonist a chance to rest. She is injured but can still do what she must.
  2. The two make their escape but find themselves emerging near the kennels.
  3. The Sidekick gives the watchdogs the food he had saved for their journey, distracting the dogs and allowing them to escape over the walls.
  4. The Protagonist and the Sidekick manage to keep ahead of their pursuers and arrive back at court, where she delivers the artifact and reveals the identity of the traitor.
  5. The Employer is grateful, and the Protagonist and her Sidekick are all set for another adventure—perhaps a novel.

You have an idea for a story. Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good story.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

This is why we never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

Draft a short plan for a 50,000 word manuscript. 50,000 words is the industry standard for a novel. Write 1,667 words a day that connect those events together, and in thirty days you will have written a 50,000 word first draft of your novel.

To see more of what National Novel Writing Month is all about, go to: www.nanowrimo.org

I am dragon_fangirl there. Look me up and become a writing buddy!

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The Inferential Layer: Building Characters #amwriting

When a character pops into my head, it’s usually a brief glimpse at first. Sometimes the character arrives unannounced, and I must build a story around them. Other times, sometimes in the same story, the plot demands a character, and I must build them.

In the beginning stages, we see a large picture, and the details are not too clear. We have an overall idea of what the story could be.

Readers always pick up on mushy characterizations. Characters must be as individual as the people we know. Every now and then a manuscript comes to me for editing where the characters talk and sound the same. They ring false, and I know what happened.

The author became so involved with creating the plot and circumstances that characterizations were overlooked.

In your mind, you have the basics:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

You can tell me all these things, but unless I see it, I don’t believe it. Good characterization shows those things but also offers me hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with history.
  • An individual’s personal style.
  • An individual with or without boundaries—things they will or will not do.
  • Someone with secrets they believe no one knows.
  • Someone with secrets they will admit to.
  • And someone with secrets they will deny to the grave.

This is a key component of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story. As the narrative progresses, we offer a few more clues about each character, maintaining the mystery, yet giving the reader a small reward.

We begin to see the details buried in the noise of the larger picture.

In real life, people who accost you and dump their whole life on you in a ten-minute monologue immediately lose your interest. In fact, you avoid them, fearing you will be subjected to more of their history.

Don’t make it too easy for the reader because the sense of reward is a ‘found’ thing. The ‘ah-hah!’ moment of discovery is what we readers want to experience. We enjoy the ‘oh, my god’ moment of shock when a deeply personal secret is hinted at, and only we, the reader, suspect the truth.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and react to the inciting incident the way their established personality would. As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

We want to read about characters with secrets because they are a mystery, and we love to work out puzzles.

Certain tricks of plotting work across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter what the setting is:

  • One or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  • Every character projects an obvious surface persona.
  • Early on, the reader sees glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  • Each character has emotions and thoughts they conceal from the others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge.
  • Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what?

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. In order to do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
  • What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Write nothing that seems out of character, unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We know the obstacles our characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices, and they will take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role. And yet they still harbor secrets that surprise and shock me. We see the smallest details hiding in the background, nearly obscured by the distractions in the foreground.

We see what is hidden in the shadows.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.

I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I have to create a personnel file for them. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

I am privy to what secrets they will consent to share with me. Those secrets propel their story-line. But they don’t tell me everything.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story as a whole. Allowing them agency makes it unexpected. When characters are portrayed as truthfully as possible, they will feel real.

In real life, smart people reveal their secrets only at the right time, or they keep them forever. If they don’t, we will do anything to avoid those people, fearing they will spew too much information, stuff we don’t need or want to know. When they get on the bus, we avoid making eye contact and put our possessions on the seat beside us so they can’t sit there, pretending we don’t see them.

In a gripping story, characters keep their secrets close, revealing them only at the one moment when the protagonist and the reader must have the information.

Now, if only I can write this story that I woke up thinking about. If only I can pry loose who they are, learn their secrets. It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the talk is the difficult part of writing. This is where writing become work.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Details sections from Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Accessed October 22, 2017).

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The Depths of the Word-Pond: Archetypes #amwriting

Down at the bottom, lodged in the mud of the Word-Pond we call Story are the foundations, the underpinnings. One of these foundations is archetype.

An archetype is an ancient pattern, describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with different cultures, yet our myths and legends share these common, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.

Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

There are other archetypal characters that we find in all sorts of guises. Consider the “wise old man/woman/mentor.” This character exists in the stories of all ancient cultures, offering advice, and pushing the protagonist to achieve the goal. The mentor is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch—or even a small, green dispenser of wisdom called Yoda.

Psychology says that an archetype is a recognizable behavioral pattern. In a story, the archetypal character is the embodiment/reflection of that familiar pattern of behavior.

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology, or literary canon.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change

Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, tells us that the following basic archetypes underpin the plots of all stories:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

We feel comfortable with these basic recognizable plots, no matter how differently they are presented to us. They are peopled with characters we feel we know, friends who occupy the familiar traditional roles. Even in a non-heroic story, we have these archetypes:

Take The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The archetype of the plot is a Quest.

On the surface, this is a detective novel, a thriller, nothing at all like The Hobbit, which is an obvious quest tale. However, The Maltese Falcon most definitely is a quest tale.

Yes, it’s a quest with a twist.

The object of the quest is a black statuette of significant value. However, the statue itself is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations—in this case, the quest changes Sam’s life. The sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The object of the quest was not the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade (the hero) and Brigid O’Shaunessy (the shapeshifter/trickster), two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

So, The Hobbit and The Maltese Falcon begin with the same character archetype of the unintentional hero. Bilbo (the hero) is hired to steal the Arkenstone back from a Dragon for Thorin (the trickster) and the dwarves, and Sam Spade is hired to obtain the Maltese Falcon for Brigid O’Shaunessy.

In both tales, another archetypal role that appears is that of the mentor: Bilbo has Gandalf the Wizard, and Sam Spade has Caspar Gutman. Despite their very different personalities and reasons for offering wisdom, both are mentors.

The fundamental stories are the same: the hero endures hardship to acquire an object (the Maltese Falcon or the Arkenstone) but finds that the object is no longer that important. Sam never acquires the true Maltese Falcon but finds out who really killed his business partner. He loses much in the process and emerges a different man.

Bilbo also loses his naïveté, and after all the work of finally finding it, he hides the Arkenstone because of Thorin’s uncharitable actions toward the Wood-elves and the Lake-men who have suffered from the Dragon’s depredations.

Despite the similarities on the level of archetypes, these are radically different novels.

And that is the beauty of the deeper level of the story. Something so fundamentally similar as plot archetypes and character archetypes can be written so differently that the same story emerges completely unique and wildly dissimilar from others based on that archetype.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more of what archetypes are and how they fit into the story:

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Archetype,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archetype&oldid=906671691 (accessed July 23, 2019).

Christopher Booker (2004). The seven basic plots: why we tell stories. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0826452092. OCLC 57131450.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608  (accessed July 23, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016  (accessed July 23, 2019).

 

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Deeper into the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

For the last two weeks, we have discussed how, in the word-pond that we call Story, below the surface is the wide layer of unknown quantity: the Inferential Layer.

But as we go deeper, we discover the vast expanse of words is comprised of many smaller, less obvious layers of varying temperatures and clarity.

We sink past the sharks of Emotion and the intangibles of Atmosphere and Mood. There we discover a murky layer where the visibility goes away, and it’s difficult to find your way. Deeper down, below the slightly too-warm danger zone of mawkish show-don’t-tell, lies the cold, silty layer where Inference and Implication come into play.

Consider the oft repeated mantra of Chekhov’s Gun:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” [1]

In this dark, eerie layer, we show why Chekhov’s gun is on the wall through the actions of our characters. 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 took the gun from the wall and squeezed the trigger.

But we don’t baldly state in chapter one that “Bob was a jealous bastard.” We slowly dole out these implications in Bob’s conversations and mental dialogue. We show the visuals of his demeanor and his actions, and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

In the best stories, the path to the moment the gun was fired is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it. As the author, your task is to fill the middle of this story-pond with clues: broad hints and allegations. This is where Inference and Implication come into play, the two aspects of Story that give the inferential layer its name.

You can only infer something from clues offered to you. The author presents clues, and you interpret the meaning.

You can only imply something to someone. In our case, we are offering clues to the reader.

One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story.

For example, take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it. This is the inciting incident, the engine that drives the story. It is clear and obvious, as dead bodies always are.

Then write one word, “obsession,” on a  note. Place the note inside the envelope and seal it. Leave that note laying around for our reader, who is the sleuth, to discover. The Envelope is the story arc that encompasses the note, which is the “why” of the narrative.

That is how we convey meaning. The message (inference) is inside the envelope (story) that is gradually revealed to the reader. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note, and with each clue, they 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. Yet, you must leave enough clues lying around that they can understand what you are implying. Readers can only extrapolate knowledge from information the author has offered them.

This is where those sharks of show-don’t-tell still lurk, waiting to make a mockery of your narrative.

Balance is crucial. Our story is like the seesaw on the playground. “Tell” is the older, heavier child—it carries a lot of weight in comparison to “Show,” that slender young visual descriptor.

If we “tell” a little and “show” a lot, we’ll keep the seesaw of the narrative balanced.

We employ this balance because we must offer the reader the framework to hang their imagination on. Making strong word choices is the key to maintaining this good balance. Lean, hard verbs and nouns that begin with consonants convey impact and lead the reader in the direction you want them to go.

On a subconscious level, serious readers want to discover something that isn’t obvious at the surface. The feeling of triumph for having caught the deeper meaning keeps them immersed in the book. It’s a surge of endorphins that makes them want more of your work.

I concede that in most Romance novels, the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, the surge of endorphins is there with the successful completion of the star-crossed love-quest. Each of the two characters will have some air of mystery about them because the interpersonal intrigues are the story, and readers love to discover secrets.

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. The level of language must be a little more direct than in books meant for adults.

This middle layer is difficult to get a grip on. Knowledge of the craft of writing is important. How you use grammar, the tense (first person, third person, etc.) in which the piece is written, length and structure of sentences, word choices, metaphors and allegories—these aspects of an author’s voice also contribute to the feeling of depth.

And underlying all of this is the bottom layer—the Interpretive Layer. Everything thing you throw into a pond finds its way to the bottom. The things we met and passed on the way down are there:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism

When all else fails, gravity still works.

Gravity pulls everything down to the bottom adding to the mud that eventually becomes the bedrock of our story. Everything that that drifts to the bottom becomes lodged in the soft mud along with

  • Archetypes

We haven’t discussed this aspect of the pond, but Archetypes are up next.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Chekhov’s gun,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chekhov%27s_gun&oldid=902300179  (accessed July 21, 2019).

Skagit River Mist/PFly CC-BY-SA-2.0

Sunset view from the back of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, photo by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0.

 

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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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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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