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The Inferential Layer: Motives #amwriting

We talk a lot about motivation, in rather general terms. We ask what the characters want most and what they’re willing to do to obtain it. As an overview, that’s a good place to start.

Motivation is sometimes defined as the overall quest. Motives are more intimate, secrets held closely by the characters.

Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring. Every person in the Fellowship is motivated by the need to keep the One Ring from falling into Sauron’s hands. This is the acknowledged reason for their accompanying Frodo and is the core plot point around which the story unfolds.

Yet they each have secret thoughts and desires, some of which are subconscious. Some have plans that are left unspoken.

Each member of the Fellowship has personal reasons for volunteering to accompany Frodo to Mordor. In the end, those secret motives are the undoing of some and the making of others.

Samwise is a loyal friend who refuses to leave Frodo’s side. Fear that Frodo will need him forces him to insist on being included. Pippin and Merry have similar but different reasons—they don’t want to be left out if Frodo and Sam are going to have an adventure. Their motives are simple at the outset but become more complicated as their stories diverge and unfold. Pippin and Merry are separated from Frodo and Sam at Amon Hen. In the process, these four young hobbits lose their youthful naiveté and become leaders, warriors to be counted on when the going is rough.

Boromir desires the ring for what he believes is a noble purpose, and intends to take it to Minas Tirith. This is evident at the beginning of the Council of Elrond, but he soon sees he won’t achieve his overall goal unless he agrees to join the quest to destroy it. He tells himself he wants it so he can preserve Gondor. In reality, he knows the power of the ring and believes that by his possessing it, Gondor will return to its former glory and be safe forever. He will rule the world with a just hand. His true motive is a quest for personal power.

When we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled—a quest of some sort. For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal, but he/she also must have secret, underlying motives not specifically stated at the outset. Each of the supporting character’s involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

The Antagonist must also have motives both stated and unstated. He/she has a deep desire to thwart the protagonist, but there are reasons for this, a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad-guy and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

Motivation is a major current in the inferential layer of the story. The hints of backstory, combined with clues, information delivered via conversation, should show each character as an individual. They must have underlying personal reasons that have nothing to do with acquiring the object or achieving the goal. These secret motives may or may not be important enough to be stated.

The hints and clues can be divulged both in conversation with the character in question or about them. Either way, snippets of dialogue are a useful tool for offering the protagonist and the reader information as needed.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason, or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse.

The fundamental laws of physics, the rules that govern the universe are in force here: Nothing that occurs happens for no reason whatsoever. There is always a causative factor. Without a cause, there is no effect. Cause is motivation. Effect becomes cause, which becomes motivation. Motivation is a chain reaction of cause and effect, which becomes the story.

And it’s all traceable back to the character’s first idea, their first secret desire to do or have something.

When we look at things this way, we see that motivation must be a multilayered thing if we are to have well-rounded characters, people the reader can believe in.

Characters that feel too shallow sometimes lack sufficient personal motivations for buying into the larger quest. If we have supplied each character with a secret backstory, those hinted-at motives can sometimes push the story into newer, more original waters.

And isn’t that what we readers are looking for? We read because we are searching for a story that feels new, offers us a fresh view of the world through the characters’ eyes.

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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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Depth – creating reality #amwriting

We have been talking about ways to create depth in our writing for the last month, and we still have areas of the Word-Pond we call Story to explore.  One aspect of depth that we can’t skimp on is setting.

Setting is a surface element but it also has a subliminal role in creating depth.

The problem is, many people believe that world-building requires a massive amount of effort.

It does take some work up front, but  once begun, worlds grow as we write them.

Perhaps you have an idea for your story and characters who have great chemistry. However, while you might know how the plot will go, you feel like you can’t quite get a grip on the story. This is because the world is still mostly unformed.

At this early point in the process you don’t yet know their world. So, the setting is the literary equivalent of an empty apartment with a chair and a table but nothing else. You have an idea of what you want it to be when it is fully furnished, but aren’t sure how to make that vision real.

I have a method of building worlds that works for me, and I will share it with you, but you must keep it an absolute secret. This is just between you and me and the internet at large.

I move in and live there, mentally.

I picture the opening scene, and in a separate document labeled something like (story title)_worldbuilding.docx, I begin writing, answering questions about this world as I think of them.

What is the name of the place the story opens?

Does it take place on earth in a real place? On earth in an alternate time/place? Or is it set on some other world entirely?

Where is my protagonist? Does the environment work against him/her?

Looking through their eyes, are they indoors or outdoors?

What does s/he see at that opening moment?

How does the air feel and what scents and odors are common to that place?

How is the lighting both indoors and out? If they are out of doors, what is the weather like?

On this world-building document, write every single detail, from the largest down to the insects. Keep adding to it whenever you think of something new as you are writing the first draft. The act of designing this scenery builds the world in your mind. I go with the world that is familiar to me, with some unfamiliar creatures thrown in for fun.

The Tower of Bones series began life as the story line for an anime-based RPG that never went into production. The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s familiar to me because it’s based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and the way they fit into the geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

I created the maps, so I knew the topography. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and elemental creatures are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist. So, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Ten years of writing work set in Neveyah is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.

You say you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. But what does that really mean? Open your eyes and look around. At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory. I say, use what you know, reshape it, reuse it and make it yours.

Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home. Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing it, I recharge my serenity-batteries.

Think about a place you love but are parted from. What is the strongest memory about that place, the one that calls to you, lingers in your heart and makes you happy?

If you can describe that feeling, that memory, you can create a world.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. We see them on the news, or read about them, but until we visit them, they are distant, merely rumors.

Our consciousness is contained in the packet of water and flesh we call our bodies. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals. The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch.

Everywhere else is only a daydream or a memory. When you aren’t there, it doesn’t exist.

However, you can go there in your mind if you picture it strongly enough. We build worlds every day just by planning our next move. We do it by thinking about where we are going next, and where we have just come from. If you can visualize stopping at the mini-mart on your way home after work, you can visualize the convenience store on a space station.

It does take time, but not a lot. Consider spending an evening building the framework of the world for your novel. Use your best, most colorful words to show that place in a word-picture that is just for you.

Get fluffy in your writing—it’s only a practice piece, and no one will see it but you. The smells, the sounds, the way certain doors creak are all good things to know. Draw maps and floor plans. List the furniture the characters interact with and know where it’s placed.

Use all the descriptive words you can think of to build that world in your mind–this research document is where adverbs and adjectives should be used.

Once the world in which the story opens is solid in your mind, rewrite that opening scene again. Allow the world to unfold through the characters’ experiences and interactions. Show us the world your characters inhabit in that scene.

The following passage is from the opening page of my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, the third and final installment in the Billy’s Revenge Series. In the opening scene, this is how I show the world my protagonist inhabits.

All the world-building was done ten years ago. Building an RPG world taught me to visualize and describe heavily in my background notes. I used the same method when plotting Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers as I did for Tower of Bones.

Now, ten years on, I’m a leaner writer, so those images are condensed into a only few words, a picture to show where he is on day one of our story. As the novel progresses, his environments change, but it’s my task to keep the word-pictures concise and yet as visual as possible.


Credits and Attributions:

All photography in this post is from Connie J. Jasperson’s portfolio

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The Depths of the Word-Pond – Word Choice #amwriting

The depths of the Word-Pond we call Story are clouded and visibility is poor. Who knows what creatures prowl down here, waiting for their next meal?

Exposition, the Kraken of the Deep is down here somewhere, lurking. How will we get out of here alive?

In a balanced narrative, some exposition is essential in order to provide context. How much is inserted and how it is delivered is what makes or breaks a story. The same goes for those subversive packets of inadvertent exposition: adverbs.

Some newly converted zealots loudly repeat mantras uttered by their personal gurus, whispering prayers to the demi-god Elmore Leonard– an author whose advice was good, but who would be surprised to learn he’s been elevated to such heights, his short list of advice turned into a holy text. The crusaders can be recognized from a distance because they’re all standing on soapboxes shouting, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Kill every Darling who uses an adverb!”

That kind of devotion is short-sighted. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are adverbs. Do these well-meaning fanatics really believe they can write decent prose with no adverbs whatsoever?

As with all religious cults, there is a solid kernel of truth to that arrogant fixation, but to think you can ban exposition and adverbs from the narrative completely is a delusion. Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

“And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.” [1]

Other Word-Choice Mantras bring discord to the ranks of the newly converted. The word ‘very’ comes in for a lot of abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms.

Suppose you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You are savvy—you understand your word-processing program well and know all the shortcuts. You open the navigation pane and bring up the advanced search dialog box. In the ‘Replace With’ box you don’t key anything, because you know this will delete the word and are convinced this will eliminate the problem and tighten your prose.

Before you click ‘replace all’ consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

Deleting every instance of ‘very’ could mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You’ve already spent a year or more writing that novel, so why not take the time to do it right?

“Actually” is another word to look at individually. Perhaps you have been told it is a ‘weed word,’ and, feeling mocked by the more experienced authors in your writer’s forum, you experience a nearly uncontrollable gut reaction to eliminate it entirely in a scorched earth campaign. Before you obey that compulsion, examine the context.

Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? If so, you may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word in conversation.

Just as the laws of physics break down at the center of a Black Hole, the inviolable laws of grammar break down in conversations. And, just as gravity still rules, keeping chaos constrained in the singularity, punctuation still reigns in conversation, holding our sentences together.

Now that we have adverbs and religious zealots out of the way let’s continue on with word choice. Words, carefully chosen and used properly, have power. Choosing your words with care and binding them into small packets inserted into conversations is how you distribute your exposition (backstory) without resorting to a blatant info dump. Dole it out in small portions, delivered only when the reader needs to know it.

We choose words with power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and therefore carry more power.

Verbs are power words. Fluff-words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose.
      1. I ran toward danger, never away.
  • Parallel construction
    1. When two or more ideas are compared in a sentence, each part of the sentence uses the same grammatical structure.
    2. What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered.” in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela. Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering.
  • Contrast
    1. In literature, we use contrast when we describe the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire, but the ever-present wind chilled one to the bone.
  • Simile
    1. Similes show the resemblances between two things through the use of words such as “like” and “as.” They are different from metaphors, which imply that something “is” something else.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire.
  • Deliberate repetition.
    1. Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
    2. Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
    3. Repetition of words or phrases in the opposite sense.
    4. Repetition of words broken by some other words.
    5. Repetition of the same words at the end and start of a sentence.
    6. Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
    7. Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
    8. Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
    9. Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
    10. Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
    11. It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry. [2]

  • Alliteration
    1. The occurrence of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of successive words.
      1. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled p
      2. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe 1845) [3]
  • When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, (Birches, by Robert Frost 1916) [4]

Poets know and use all the above word choice concepts to convey large ideas and entire stories with a minimum of words.

How we add depth to our prose without adding kryptonite involves verb placement and using ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary. Craft happens when you combine those common words in unexpected ways, forming extraordinary passages.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble, http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/12/12/the-danger-of-writing-advice-from-industry-professionals/  ©2017. Accessed 31 July 2019.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published in 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (31 July 2019)

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “The Raven,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Raven&oldid=908701892 (accessed July 31, 2019).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Birches (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birches_(poem)&oldid=886359747 (accessed July 31, 2019).

Images

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Print, Three ships surrounded by monsters, ca. 1590 (CH 18553601).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Print,_Three_ships_surrounded_by_monsters,_ca._1590_(CH_18553601).jpg&oldid=276506077 (accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Black hole – Messier 87.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Black_hole_-_Messier_87.jpg&oldid=359992100(accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Childe Hassam,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Childe_Hassam&oldid=831999910 (accessed April 6, 2018).

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The Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond – Symbolism #amwriting

The Word-Pond is dark, and near the bottom the waters are murky. It’s hard to find your way, but knowing the theme gives us a diver’s guide-rope to hold onto.

We’ve identified the theme, but we need to strengthen it. We want to add depth to our narrative, but wonder how. This becomes easier when we remember that theme, mood, and atmosphere work closely together.

An important tool in our writer’s toolbox is Symbolism. It is an aspect of Story that helps create mood, atmosphere, and supports and strengthens the theme. When a little thought is applied to how you place it, symbolism becomes a subtle tool that speaks subliminally to the reader.

Intentionally placing symbolic objects in the setting influences the characters’ emotional mood. It represents the theme and will help reinforce the desired atmosphere without your having to resort to an info dump.

Words can have subtle meanings beyond the obvious, when used as allegories. Using allegory in the narrative offers images for the reading mind to see and understand.

So, what is an allegory? An allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words.

The storytelling in The Matrix series of movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the multilayered theme of humankind, machine, fate, and free will. The theme is represented with heavy symbolism in:

  • The names of the characters,
  • The words used in conversations
  • The androgynous clothes they wear

Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. Inside The Matrix, the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens. In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.

In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.

Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.

The reader/viewer infers the mood and atmosphere by virtue of embedded symbolic clues, hints that also strengthen the theme.

One of my works-in-progress that is in its infancy is a contemporary novel. I want to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the  21st century. I can only do this through the use of allegory. I will have to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie, keeping the symbolism in mind.

In this novel’s case, I have several character threads that converge in the large themes of trust and fidelity. It’s a multilayered piece, and each layer has its own sub-theme

  • Social responsibility.
  • Ethics and the lengths we will go to achieve a goal.
  • What constitutes family, nurture or nature?

Making good use of symbolism and allegory will be critical if I want to convey the mood and the atmosphere without resorting to an info dump.

Just to be clear, a plan is not always required because sometimes the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme in itself.

If you are lucky, the theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. This strong theme will whisper suggestions and symbols to you as you create the world and the visual environment.

In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects in the setting
  • Conversations

We try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. As you do so, consider how you can insert small allegories and symbols to support your theme.

The casual reader doesn’t notice symbolism on a conscious level. However, dedicated readers will, and that is what will keep them reading. Dedicated readers love work that holds up on closer examination, enjoying work that has layers of depth.

Yet, for the casual reader, it is all there, making the imaginary surface look and feel real, solid, and concrete.


Credits and Attributions

The Matrix movie poster, © 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (US, Canada, Bahamas and Bermuda); © 1999 Village Roadshow Films Limited. (All Other Territories) Fair Use

The Temptation of St Anthony, Joos van Craesbeeck ca. 1650 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Interpretive Layer of the Word-Pond: Theme

Deep within the narrative, mingling with other heavier aspects of Story and sinking to the bottom of the Word-Pond is theme. A fundamental underpinning of the story, theme can be a tricky fish to get a grip on. Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

According to Wikipedia:

A theme is different from the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.”

The themes explored in the films might be “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.” [1]

In other words, theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story, supports and gives meaning to the plot. On the surface, each of the different commercial literary genres looks different. Each genre is deliberately tailored to fit a wide variety of niche readers. Yet, from shelf to shelf, we will find commonalities, themes that all stories tell in one way or another.

Genre is the bookstore label guiding a reader to the shelf containing books they are most likely to enjoy.

But some aspects of Story are universal and independent—they roam through all the genres from children’s books to literary fiction and connect them.

Theme is a universal feature of Story.

We all recognize Romance as a theme. It can be the major theme or a supporting theme. Romantic love is a defining feature of the genre of Romance. But what are some different aspects of love that can be found in every genre from fantasy to sci-fi, to horror, to crime fiction?

  • Love gained (the fairytale romance)
  • Love lost
  • Tragic love
  • Selfish love
  • Passion
  • Brother/Sisterly love
  • Dangerous Attraction
  • Friendship
  • Parental love

Love is only one theme despite the fact an entire genre has been built around it. Others abound, large central concepts that build tension within the Story.

Here is a brief list, just a small jumping off point for your creative mind. Some are large themes that entire genres have been built around, and others are good supporting themes:

  • Separation and reunion
  • Grief
  • Nostalgia for the good old days
  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Rebellion and revolution
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Crime and Justice
  • Midlife crisis
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • The hero’s journey
  • Humanity in jeopardy
  • War
  • General dehumanization of society
  • Conspiracy
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Plagues
  • Religious intolerance
  • Abuse

Again, Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, offers us wisdom:

(Theme) can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis (hypothesis; idea)—the text’s or author’s implied worldview. [2]

Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi, or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level. When you see a dog grieving the loss of her mistress, or a husband grieving for his wife—what do you see? You can’t read their mind, so you must look for clues. What behaviors inspire empathy for their sorrow in you, the observer?

Highlighting a strong theme can be a challenge if you begin without a plan. A plan is not always required because, in some stories, the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme. The theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

Other times, it is difficult to decide what the underlying theme is, and the story is weak. It has no legs and won’t ring true until you find out what the underlying theme is. This requires a little mind-wandering on your part. You must ruminate on the character’s quest or dilemma. Ask yourself what the root cause of the issue is—if it is a crime, why is crime rampant. Is it a societal problem? If the core dilemma is unrequited love, what are the roadblocks to a resolution?

Themes exist in every story. However, when we are first laying down the story, themes are like your drunk uncle—they hang out in the bar until closing time when they have to weave their way home through dark alleys and the neighbor’s shrubs. When you have finished your first draft (closing time), if you still haven’t found the defining theme, look in the local bar in the first chapters for clues your subconscious mind has sprinkled throughout the story. If you still haven’t got a theme, pick one and develop it.

At the surface level of the Word-Pond, each genre looks widely different. But when you go deeper, you find that all literary genres have one thing in common: they have protagonists and side-characters who all must deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721 (accessed July 27, 2019).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed July 27, 2019).

Images:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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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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Atmosphere and Mood, the Conjoined Twins of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Within the depths of the Word-Pond that we call Story is the inferential layer. This is the layer where the reader must infer (deduce, guess) many things, all of which form a subtle, invisible path to understanding and connecting with the story.

We have talked at length about conveying Emotions, Part 1 and Part 2. But the inferential layer is about far more than the immediate emotional condition of your characters. The mood of the piece also comes into play.

Mood and atmosphere are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters. For this reason, when talking about depth in a narrative, the conjoined twins of mood and atmosphere are best discussed together.

We know that emotion is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. The overall mood also changes over the course of the story. Mood is an emotional setting that begins with the characters and their experiences, and encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story. It is developed by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful and based in reality or it becomes maudlin.

The same goes for atmosphere and mood–they must feel real; solid. The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions you can’t figure out how to write. However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

What do you want to convey? Let’s talk about one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

Theme is the universal, fundamental ideas that are explored in a work. Theme is also an underlying aspect of mood. In Wuthering Heights, the two main themes are

  • The many aspects of love: obsession, hate, selfishness, and revenge. These are shown in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.
  • Social class, gender inequality, security and insecurity in a society where money and breeding matter.

World-building comes into it. Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks that shape the reader’s mood. They give us hints about what we should feel.  In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. The depiction of these desolate places is wild and starkly beautiful; wide expanses high in elevation but also boggy, as they are made of peat.

Setting the story there immediately implies infertility and death. Moorland cannot be cultivated, and the desert-like lack of landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In some places, the land is so waterlogged a person can drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times over the course of the story. Thus, the moors symbolize the threat posed by untamed nature.

Houses are also symbolic in the piece: most of the action in the novel occurs at Wuthering Heights (the manor from which the novel takes its name) or Thrushcross Grange. Also, much of it happens on the vast stretch of moorland that lies between the two houses. All three locations are distant from neighboring towns, most especially from “the stir of society” (London) which emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Each house is symbolic of its inhabitants. Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be strong, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands. Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters as well as affecting the overall atmosphere of the novel.

The mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

Words are our tools, and they are also our Jedi mind trick–properly wielded, words put the reader into the story where they live it, becoming the characters.

In this quote from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, we see how he uses words to convey a dark, ominous mood:

“There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”

A gloomy setting creates an ominous atmosphere, which affects both how we perceive the characters and how they perceive themselves.

In Chapter Two of The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening paragraph runs like this:

About halfway between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.  

This sets the tone for what follows. In reading these passages, we know that the way we present the setting impacts the mood. Also, the overall emotional life of the characters contributes to the mood of the piece. If they are tense, worried, then the narrative takes on an ambiance of tension.

Use your Jedi mind tricks. Set that interpersonal stress in the right environment, as Brontë, Dickens, and Fitzgerald did, and write a story that will compel the reader to keep turning the page.


Credits and Attributions:

Quotes from:

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens PD|100, originally published by Chapman & Hall.

The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald PD|75, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Images:

Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Ellen Berry McClung, by Lloyd Branson. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg&oldid=324386360 (accessed July 16, 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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