Tag Archives: fiction technique

Yearn and Burn

Character emotions bring fiction to life.

You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.

Here’s an example:

Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.

Flat, isn’t it?

Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.

The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.

Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.

What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?

Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?

Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?

From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.

No character reaction = no importance.

Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?

Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:

*They’re messy.

*They’re challenging to write.

*They’re exhausting.

*They’re hard to do well.

Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.

When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?

Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.

Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.

Try this:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?

It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.

Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?

Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.

Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.

Let’s try one more time:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”

“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”

“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”

Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.

And maybe readers will start to care also.

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Jump Forward, Fold Back

Linear plotting may be straightforward and designed for readers to follow easily, but that doesn’t mean it has to plod or be predictable.

Hooks and plot twists serve to jazz up a story and hold off monotony.

One variant of the hook technique is known as the jump forward, fold back strategy. It can be used to open a book chapter partway through a story. It can be used in the middle of a short story to keep readers slightly off-balance and intrigued.

Generally, it’s most often employed after the protagonist has planned what he or she will do next. Okay, Reader thinks. This is what we’re going to do next.

Except that when the page is turned, Reader finds herself jumped ahead of the planned event with the characters already involved in what follows it. Then there is a foldback that summarizes what was jumped over.

This technique injects a little excitement into a story event where something important to the characters is going to occur, but it lacks enough conflict to be dramatized into an actual scene.

Let’s draw an example from romance author Betty Neels, one of Harlequin’s most successful authors, who wrote well into her 90s. Often in these “sweet romance” stories, the waif-heroine will be offered an outing or a date with the handsome, rich hero. It’s built up with much anticipation. The heroine has to plan the outfit she’ll wear, and she usually worries a little about how the date will turn out. Directly after this build-up, Ms. Neels jumps forward with a transition sentence such as …

“Late that night, Heroine climbed into bed and thought over the evening. It had been more special than she’d ever dreamed possible. The restaurant was … ” And then the high points of the lobster thermidor gourmet meal, the dancing, etc. are mulled over in the heroine’s thoughts.

Another variant of this technique is when the event that’s jumped over is both dramatic and vital to the development of the story. In such an instance, the fold back becomes a flashback delivered in full scene/sequel structure. In novels, it’s useful in the middle to convey backstory and explain character motivation by dramatizing some key points of conflict between the protagonist and another major character. Televised soap operas also employ this method.

It can also be used to open a story at an exciting point and then deal with what led up to it.

An example would be this week’s episode of the television program CASTLE. Generally, CASTLE is one of the better-written shows on television. Aside from the little injections of humor, a deftly handled romantic subplot that’s broken the so-called MOONLIGHTING Curse, and engaging characters, the show is worth being studied for the way its scripts are written.

Last night’s teaser opened with a night-shot. A huge building fire roars in the background. Firemen, cops, and paramedics are standing around helplessly. Beckett is on the phone with tears in her eyes, telling the pregnant wife of a fellow officer that “something’s happened.”

Then the story rolls back twelve hours and brings us up to speed on the case and the investigation.

This was a brilliant plotting strategy, given that the crime of arson this time overshadows the crime of murder. And the best way to effectively convey arson isn’t by showing a ruined ash heap but by showing fire engulfing a building.

Jumping forward and folding back is simple enough to use. It works effectively, yet it’s not confusing. Just make sure that you work out your plotline in a straightforward, linear, step-by-step fashion for your own understanding. Pick the slowest spot in your story and jump over it, making sure that you then inform or show the reader what initially seemed to be skipped.

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Me, Myself & I

What is your protagonist’s self-opinion?

Does she believe she can never do anything right?  Is she always late?  Does she hate her own body image?  Does she feel eclipsed by her younger, beautiful sister?

Or perhaps she thinks very highly of herself, values her opinions above others, believes in speaking frankly even if it hurts someone’s feelings, and feels complacent, sure of herself, and entitled.

We have two very different women here, don’t we?

Example A (let’s call her Amelia) is going to behave in certain ways that reinforce her self-concept.  She may make remarks such as, “Don’t depend on me to be there on time.  You know I’m always late.”  Or she may grow flustered whenever given a responsibility.  She will reflect her dislike of her body image by the clothing or colors she wears.  And even if friends invite her along, she may refuse to join in the fun if her sister is part of the group.

Example B (let’s call her Beatrice) will always be dispensing advice, whether the recipient has asked for it or not.  She will speak loudly and in a forthright, blunt manner.  She will probably trample over the feelings of people like Amelia, and then become impatient or embarrassed by the reaction she gets.  She will be calm and self-assured in her demeanor.  She will always take the best chair or help herself first to the plate of cookies.  Even if she is overweight, she will not be embarrassed by it, but may instead drop comments such as, “You should know, dear, that men always prefer full-figured women to beanpoles.”

In character design, choose that individual’s self-opinion and then devise personality traits and behaviors to correspond.  You’ll end up with a believable, plausible character.

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