This post is copied almost verbatim from the Friday night writer’s chat held on Friday August 4, 2012. Friday night chats are held in the Black Velvet Seductions Chatroom on Friday nights. Sign up for our free email that goes out each Friday announcing whether there will be a Friday chat and if so what the topic is (It’s the Live Chat Email sign up on the right). Chats begin with a casual chat that begins at 9 PM Eastern Time. At 10:30 the lesson begins. The chats are open to everyone who has an interest in writing. Both published and unpublished are invited. Though topics are likely to appeal most to romance authors (since that’s what Black Velvet Seductions publishes) most topics are applicable to other genres as well.
Dissecting Emotional Experience
Those of you who have taken my full length workshops in the past know that one of the ways I gain understanding of complex things is to take them apart – to look at each piece individually – then put the pieces back together to see how they work singly and in concert with other pieces.
Writing emotion has to be one of the biggest, broadest, and most sprawling of unwieldy topics to cover simply because there are so many aspects to emotion and so many tools to use in creating character and reader emotion through writing.
As with other unwieldy topics it is useful to start by taking things apart…so let’s get started.
When I first began thinking about this lesson the first thing I thought was all emotion is a reaction…so we need backtrack the emotional experience to an empty, blank, white canvas upon which there is NO EMOTION. But that is NOT really the case.
People and characters don’t exist in emotional no man’s land where they feel nothing…where their experience is like a blank, bland, white canvas. Going back that far would be a step too far and would not give us the base that we need.
That brings us to something I’ve defined as BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD.
Though we don’t exist in a no man’s land of emotional blankness what people (and characters) do experience is a BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD which is our normal unruffled…nothing particularly good …nothing particularly bad is happening status.
BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD can vary a lot from person to person and character to character. We all know people who when nothing special is happening are glum and quiet. We know people who will notice the one cloud in the sky and wait for a tornado to form.
We also know people who will look at the split between storm clouds and be absolutely certain that the storm clouds will part and the sun will shine.
This can be seen as pessimism and optimism…but it’s also a big part of this person’s BASE MOOD. It hasn’t anything really to do with what is happening NOW. It has more to do with the way they overall…in general…all of the time see the world around them. It is their overall…general…most of the time emotional experience of the normal ripple of life.
When we start dissecting emotional experience this is the place we start…because this is the norm. All emotion outside of this realm is a REACTION to something else that is going on in life or in the character’s world.
Since BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD is where we start it is important that we think about what this is and how to at least conceptualize it for each character. BASE EMOTION is going to play a HUGE part in the emotions the character experiences when things do happen in their world.
In essence, something happening in the character’s world causes the character to react emotionally in a way that moves them away from dead center of BASE EMOTION. When there is nothing more to react to the character again returns to dead center of BASE EMOTION.
I mentioned the word conceptualize above because in a sense BASE EMOTION is a concept we are using as kind of a ground zero. There is ALWAYS something going on in our lives…we have thousands of tiny emotional reactions to very small things all of the time. Some of our emotional reactions happen below the level of our consciousness…others happen in the realm of consciousness where we are aware of them.
I don’t believe that a BASE EMOTION or a BASE MOOD in the sense of real world practicality really exists. In practical terms we really can’t step it back and strip it down to a place where we are not reacting emotionally to something. We are never that free of distraction. Even in a dark room we would respond emotionally to the dark. But in a conceptual sense we can strip it down as far as we can…and that’s what we’re after here.
What we are getting at is the character’s ground zero. We’re looking for his or her normal mood and emotional state…kind of a baseline of his emotional experience when his emotional experience is not impacted by outside influence.
So…how do we create a character’s ground zero – or their BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD?
For me it is helpful to envision the character in a neutral place…perhaps surrounded by nature…where he or she is alone. I sometimes imagine the character on a deserted beach…or in a grassy glen…or on a deck overlooking a place like this.
It’s important to envision him or her alone as we are trimming out distractions…and other people are definitely distractions. If we have other people, animals, other beings in the scene the character will have reactions which will disrupt his or her BASE EMOTION or BASE MOOD.
So…I put my character on a wood chair on a wood deck overlooking a quiet beach. There is nothing much there for him to respond to. There is just him…and his emotional state…and me looking on over my spectacles as I move around him in my white lab coat prodding, poking, measuring, taking his emotional temperature and his emotional blood pressure and madly writing in my chart as I go.
I start by noticing…what he feels in this state. Is he generally an optimistic person – a pessimistic one? Is he somewhere near the middle…how close to the middle? Is he three ticks toward the optimistic side or fifteen ticks that way? It’s like taking the character’s emotional blood pressure. Getting a read on what he’s like at his most emotional bland state.
Once I’ve established whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic I look at whether he tends to look more toward the future or more toward the past or whether he is laser focused on the now. Generally his emotional balance will be more closely tied to the past, the future, or the present.
Another important thing to understand about the character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE is whether he responds emotionally primarily internally or externally. Some people wear their emotional hearts on their sleeves. Others keep their emotions buried deep. Even characters who respond more externally feel emotions inside…this is not a get out of jail free card in terms of later describing emotion. It’s just a reading…to help you understand whether the character feels things at a deeper or shallower level.
What’s the character’s empathy rating? In other words, how much do the emotions of someone else impact your character’s emotions? Some people (and characters) seem to possess little empathy. They do not respond at all to anyone else’s emotions. Other people (and characters) are very empathetic. They feel other people’s emotions as if they were their own. They cry when they see someone on TV cry because the scene conjures emotion inside them. Where does your character fall on this spectrum? In short, how deeply does your character feel the emotions of others? How much of the spectrum does he or she take up? Most people are not all one or the other…but are somewhere in the middle. There are exceptions. Psychopaths for example have no empathy.
What’s his normal emotional tenor like? Is he normally emotionally calm…responding very slowly to emotional influences or is he someone who is more emotionally hyper? Does he respond quickly to emotional influences or does he respond slowly?
What about his overall level of emotional reaction? Some people (and characters) have emotions that run a full gamut….they live in a space that contains both deep, dark, bleak, very dark emotions and a space at the other end of the spectrum where everything is light, bright, bubbly and happy. Does this character live at one end of the spectrum or the other or does he live across the entire spectrum? Other characters live in a space more at one end of the spectrum or the other. How much space along the spectrum does this character cover? And where on the spectrum? Does he cover ¾ of the spectrum – ½ of it – along which part of the spectrum?
Another thing I consider – another reading I take — is how much does the character react emotionally when something happens? If I charted his emotional reactions on graph paper would there be sharp peaks and valleys in his emotional demeanor or does he respond slowly and with shallower peaks and valleys? Does his emotional graph look more like a bell curve or an ekg? Does his emotion ever flatline?
Another thing I look at is how emotionally controlled the character is. Some people (and characters) hold their emotions in very tight check. They fear sharp emotions like anger and rage and so they exert great pressure to keep them in check. A character like this might live in the middle of the spectrum in terms of the darkness of his emotion…but it’s only because he exerts great control over his emotions. If he didn’t exert control over his emotions he might be way at the dark end of the spectrum.
Control can also impact how radically a character reacts to emotion. A tightly controlled character may through exertion of control have an emotional graph that looks like a flat line…but if he releases control his graph might look more like an ekg.
It bears considering first how much control the character exerts…what influence the control has on his BASE EMOTIONAL STATE. It also bears considering the cost of the control. What does it cost him emotionally to be in control? What if he no longer needed to exert control over his emotions…how would his readings change?
Along with psychological control that your character exerts it is important to think about the role of alcohol, drugs, and food on his emotional status. If you’re taking his readings while he is medicated with alcohol, drugs, or food it might be beneficial to take another set of readings when he is not medicated. In this way you have both a view of his BASE EMOTIONAL STATE when he is medicated and when he is not.
The answers to these questions – or these readings – however you choose to look at them – will give you a good view of your character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE.
The character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE is at the core of every other emotional exchange and reaction the character has. It is the place that the character returns to when his emotions are not in flux.
Given that a character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE is so important and is so much a part of their other emotional exchanges and reactions it makes sense to simplify some of the results so that they can be used to provide the reader an understanding of the character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE.
The readings you have taken are for your own private consumption. You are NOT going to present the reader with the raw data. Instead you are going to use the data (your knowledge of your character’s BASE EMOTIONAL STATE) to further define your character so that you can convey the base emotional state of the character throughout your story.
Here are the things that I define (usually mentally but on paper works fine too) before I start writing.
If your character was to be defined by a single emotion at the start, middle, and end of the story what three emotions would define him? For some characters (your hero and heroine) the emotion should change through the story. For other characters (villain) the emotion probably won’t change or won’t change much through the story. Your heroine might start out fearful, move to calm in the middle of the story and confident by the end. Your hero might begin the story as vengeful…move to gentle anger in the middle…and by the end might feel just frustrated by the loss of time spent being vengeful and angry.
Color is particularly useful in describing emotions as color is something most people respond to in a primal way. Describe your character’s emotional status in terms of a color. Does he change color throughout the story? Be specific. Black and gunmetal gray are emotionally much different colors.
Texture is particularly useful in describing emotion. What texture is your character’s emotion? Is his emotion sharp or dull? Does his emotion tend to cut and stab and pierce or does it swell, expand, unfurl? Does his emotional texture change throughout the story?
Choose some words to describe your character’s level of emotional control. Is his control tight…hard…stifling… or is he less controlled? What words can you think of to describe his level of control over his emotions? Do the words change over the course of the story?
Light and heavy weigh heavily on emotional description. Choose some words that depict the lightness or heaviness of your character’s emotion as he progresses through the story’s beginning, middle, and end. Emotions might be heavy, staggering, suffocating in the beginning and light, bubbly, frothy by the end.
What we’re really working on here are some general words that describe each character’s base emotions…and the changes in the BASE EMOTIONS which might happen slowly over the course of a story.
A word on changing BASE EMOTIONS:
We write romance. We write about love and the power of love to change people’s lives, their outlooks, and their inner emotional worlds. One of the things that readers like to see in romance novels (especially those with dark, wounded, emotionally unhappy characters) is a gradual change in the character’s BASE EMOTIONS. What this usually means is that the readings you took in the first part of the lesson are going to change quite a bit by the end of the story.
The character who began life on the negative or far negative side of the spectrum will slowly…gradually move toward the middle of the spectrum in terms of the BASE EMOTION readings you took. Rather than returning to the darker side of their emotions after emotional reactions they will gradually begin to move their territory to the happier more positive side of the scale. This HAS to be gradual or it is not believable.
You may want to take an initial set of readings and then think about your goal for your character. Where do you want him to be by the middle of the book…the end? What scenes…what emotional experiences does he need to have to get to that place by the end?
Are there any questions or comments on Base Emotional State?
This post is transcribed almost verbatim from the Friday night authors’ chat held on Friday July 21, 2012. Friday night chats are held in the Black Velvet Seductions Chatroom on Friday nights. Sign up for our free email that goes out each Friday announcing whether there will be a Friday chat and if so what the topic is. Chats begin with a casual chat that begins at 9 PM Eastern Time. At 10:30 the lesson begins. The chats are open to everyone who has an interest in writing. Both published and unpublished are invited. The focus is on romance writing as that is what Black Velvet Seductions publishes, however most topics covered are applicable to other genres.
Emotion Part 1 – Using Empathy To Tug At Readers’ Heartstrings
As we finished up our series on being specific the last time we met we touched on writing emotion.
One of the things I said the last time we met was that one of the things writers do to get readers to vest emotionally in their stories is essentially create an emotional situation and then ask the reader to empathize with the character.
Though I said that empathy alone is often not enough – that we need to have a great more diversity within our toolbox it can also be said that empathy is something that most readers possess. Most of us have at least some ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. When we imagine ourselves in someone else’s emotional situation most of us have at least some fledgling ability to imagine how we would feel in the same situation so we bring our feelings to the fore and project them onto the character.
We do this in real life. I’m guessing that today with the shootings in Colorado all of us have spent some time empathizing with the people who lost loved ones or who had their lives shattered in other ways. We don’t know precisely how those people feel because we aren’t them. But we can IMAGINE how they might feel by putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining how we would feel. That’s the basis of empathy.
Though it shouldn’t be the ONLY tool in our emotion writing toolboxes it is a good tool to have and so tonight we will take a deeper look at it and examine how it can be used within our writing.
Empathy really comes into play in three ways that I want to cover tonight.
First we’ll cover reader empathy for the character.
Second we’ll cover the viewpoint character’s empathy for secondary characters.
Then we’ll cover how emotional tension and chemistry can be fostered between the primary characters in a romance novel.
So…let’s jump right into creating empathy for a character.
I said it a lot during the last series of lessons on being specific. Readers invest gradually in stories. It is the job of the author to pave the way for the reader’s gradual increasing vestment by giving the reader the specific things he or she needs in order to move mentally away from his or her own real life concerns into the fictional ones of the characters. We talked about this as it related to using strong words to create a sense of place and specific physical experiences for your characters. We talked about it as it relates to drawing your reader into the mental thoughts and ideas of your characters. It’s true that readers gradually invest more emotionally in the characters and in a story too.
If you think about it, this makes sense. We vest more emotionally in people and situations as we learn more about them. As we learn more about them our emotional connections become stronger and more specific…more detailed. This is true in the world of books too.
If there is huge detailed, descriptive emotion dump in the first paragraph of a book before the reader knows or cares about the character the emotion will seem overwhelming…overwrought…and out of step with the situation.
For this reason as authors we often use an emotional crisis in the opening of a story. We silently expect our readers to empathize with the character which puts them on a path of deepening emotional vestment.
Empathy is a gateway. It doesn’t take a great deal of detail to cause a person to have an empathetic reaction. Think about the ways this plays out in your real life.
You see an email titled “prayers needed” and read the single sentence email asking for prayers for someone’s mother who is intensive care. You’re new on the loop. You don’t know the person asking for prayers for their mother. You don’t even know whether DC49 is male or female. You don’t know how old the mother is, you don’t know why they are in intensive care, you don’t know whether they’ve been sick for a long time or if they were just rushed to the hospital this morning.
NONE of those details matter to empathy. Without any of those details you form an emotional connection to the writer of the email. Automatically – without you even thinking about it you think of your own mother (or someone else important to you) and you think about or feel emotionally what you would feel if your mother or someone else important to you was in intensive care.
The same thing happens in books when we create an opening hook or an inciting incident that causes the reader to empathize with the reader. An emotional connection is made.
Because it is normal for human beings to respond with empathy without needing many details to conjure an empathetic response most opening hooks rely on empathy.
An empathetic emotional reaction on the part of a reader is enough at the outset.
Empathy functions a little like a topic sentence in a paragraph. It lays out a general direction or general parameters of the emotion which are then developed to a finer, more specific, more finely honed experience as the story or scene is developed. Sometimes the emotion that the reader empathizes is just a starting place and the author develops the emotion more specifically as things happen in the story that provide more emotional fuel.
Another useful way to think of empathy is as an opening shot across the bow. It hooks the reader with an emotional vestment which is quick. The emotion is then built from that point fine tuning the emotion the reader feels as more details are given.
One of the most important things to remember when writing emotion is that it changes…it grows…or shrinks depending upon what happens in the other parts of the scene. Emotion is a REACTION to the rest of the scene.
When you create a scene the reader naturally empathizes with the character in the scene. Most of what you need to do to create the initial emotional empathy connection between reader and character is create a strong scene which gives the reader plenty to respond to.
Once we have the foundation…the reader has vested emotionally then we can dig deeper and make the emotion more specific. Once the reader has vested emotionally through empathy they are READY to take the next step and vest a little more.
If you try to plunge into deep emotional description before you’ve established an empathetic connection with your reader the emotion will feel overwrought…overwhelming…out of step with the reader…and the reader will likely be repelled rather than drawn by it.
Tread carefully. Drawing readers in is like dating. You make a connection…you deepen the connection…you deepen the connection again before you go all in asking them to marry you (aka commit fully to your book.)
Though I mostly want to look at emotion writing as it relates to making readers feel what characters feel I think I would be remiss not to mention the role that empathy can play in characterization. The ability to empathize is something that most humans possess. We see it as a human trait…a good trait.
We can use a character’s ability to empathize with others as a way to characterize them. This is especially true when it comes to how our main character relates to secondary characters in his or her life.
If a character is in a scene with her best friend hearing about her best friend’s breakup and her emotional reaction to the friend is all mental and there is no emotional empathy it makes the character look cold, hard, and not very likeable.
Empathy is especially important for characters that tread a shaky edge between likeable and unlikeable.
The character on a shaky edge doesn’t have to empathize with everyone, but find someone for her (or him) to empathize with.
Remember too that empathy is kind of an ongoing…always on thing. Readers empathize with characters all through the book. If your character is hearing about the best friend’s break-up the reader reading the dialogue between friends will probably have an empathetic reaction to the dialogue. She may think of her own break up or how she would feel if her beau broke up with her.
Empathy is always on. You need to be aware of it ALL the time. It is a tool to use consciously…but just because you’re not using it consciously doesn’t mean it is turned off and the reader isn’t empathizing. They probably are.
The third thing to consider in relation to empathy is that empathy isn’t just an emotional reaction the reader has to the character’s emotionally laden experiences. The characters too should feel empathy for one another however they can’t do this at the same time as only viewpoint characters can actually feel empathy inside their beings.
Non-viewpoint characters can demonstrate that they do understand what the viewpoint character feels through their actions, body language, facial expression, dialogue, etc.
There has been a lot written about both the good and bad aspects of 50 SHADES OF GREY. I’ve already written plenty of words myself about what I think of the book. What I will say here is that it is worth reading at least the first book to take a look at how the author uses empathy to create not just a sexual connection between her characters but an emotional one as well.
Are there any questions about using empathy?
This post is copied almost verbatim from the Friday night writer’s chat held on Friday July 6, 2012. Friday night chats are held in the Black Velvet Seductions Chatroom on Friday nights. Sign up for our free email that goes out each Friday announcing whether there will be a Friday chat and if so what the topic is. Chats begin with a casual chat that begins at 9 PM Eastern Time. At 10:30 the lesson begins. The chats are open to everyone who has an interest in writing. Both published and unpublished are invited.
Getting Specific – An Introduction To Writing Emotion
We talked last time we met about the way that readers relate to story gradually vesting more of themselves into a story as the author provides gradually deeper experiences.
We began this series by looking at the role that specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives play in providing the reader a firm foundation – a physical place and specific physical details to envision when beginning to vest in a story. We then went the next step and actually talked about giving characters specific physical experiences.
We looked at these experiences, paying particular attention to incorporating the things a character might experience through each of their five senses. The purpose for doing this is to bring the reader a richer and more diverse experience…and to prepare them to go even deeper into our character’s experience.
When we moved from physical experience to mental experience, which we did the last time we met, we moved from the land of physical, tactile, experiences into the land of the abstract with character thoughts, which include such things as dreams and memories as well as the analytical and decision making processes of the character.
Tonight we’re going to an even deeper level of the abstract as we delve into the emotional experiences of our characters.
I initially began this series of lessons because I’d been editing a lot and I noticed that a high percentage of my editing marks were some form of be specific. Nowhere are those editing marks more prevalent than when we are talking about the emotions of characters.
Before we dive in…let’s take a step back. Let’s look at why writing emotion is difficult.
We can easily clarify a visual experience a character has by choosing specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives to make the experience of the character ever clearer to the reader. We do this by changing house to cottage. And by perhaps adding a specific adjective like stone or brick. With just those few words the reader has a working mental framework in which to envision the character…and thereby themselves.
A stone cottage is a physical thing. It exists in the real and tangible world. It is not in the least abstract.
As we move into the land of thoughts we become more abstract. You can’t touch a thought. You can describe the process of thinking. You can describe which points are considered and how they impact on a decision a character is making…but you can’t actually reach out and touch the thought itself. It is abstract…which makes writing thoughts more difficult than writing physical experiences.
The same is true of emotions. Emotions are difficult to write because they ARE abstract. We cannot reach out and touch an emotion. We can feel emotions inside us. We can intuit the emotions that others feel through their body language, their facial expressions and through empathy. We know what they might feel because we know what we might feel in a given situation. But we cannot reach out and physically touch an emotion. Emotions are abstract…yet they can be physically felt and mentally identified. This makes them particularly difficult to write.
Emotions are abstract and yet can be felt as physical sensations inside us, which we identify mentally – sometimes through subconscious intuiting of body language, facial expressions, and the use of our own innate empathy. This means that a number of aspects of emotion come together to create this thing that we identify as emotion. Most of these things that come into play dwell in the land of the abstract…and so require a slightly different vocabulary than the one we use for describing tactile physical experiences. This makes writing emotion difficult.
Tonight’s lesson is intended only as a basic overview of writing emotion. We will delve deeper into writing emotion, the vocabulary, the techniques, and tools, of actually writing emotion in future lessons.
Tonight I want to talk about the basic things that come together to create this thing called emotion.
When we write emotion into our stories to large extent we expect our readers to pick up on the emotions of our characters through the use of empathy. We expect the reader to know and feel what the character feels because the reader can imagine himself or herself in the character’s shoes and the reader knows what he or she would feel in the same situation.
Empathy is a great tool…but for a lot of writers it is the primary tool and in some cases is the only tool that is used.
Empathy can only go so far—and you can read when it does not go far enough for specific readers when you read reviews in which the reader expresses confusion about the character’s feelings and actions within the story. In the cases when empathy goes awry the author has presented the character’s emotional situation…they have expected the reader to empathize with the character and to arrive at the same feelings the character would have in that situation. BUT THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN!
A good deal of the time empathy alone goes awry. The reader may simply (because of experiences he or she has had in his or her own life that differ from the character’s) have a different emotional reaction all together. Something that makes the character angry or unsure is something the reader has already dealt with and overcome in his or her own life – so he or she doesn’t respond emotionally with anger or uncertainty. Instead the reader believes the character should take a deep breath and get over it already.
Empathy alone doesn’t always work. It’s a good tool but it has shortcomings. Readers have had life experiences that are different from the life experiences the characters in our books have had. So when we ask them to empathize they do…yet they arrive at a different emotion than the one our character arrives at and instead of being sucked into the experiences of the character (emotional and otherwise) we now have a disharmony between the character and the reader. Instead of the reader easily following the character’s experiences and identifying with them the reader is now looking at the character askance or is completely confused as to why the character feels what she feels. Motivation is lost or doesn’t make sense. The reader is having a hard time understanding not just the character’s emotional experiences but also everything (aka motivation for behavior) which flows from those emotions.
This can break an otherwise good book – at least for that percentage of readers who for reasons of their own do not empathize and arrive at the same emotional place as the character.
So…it is not enough to just ask the reader to empathize and expect them to arrive at the same place the character does. As writers we need to do more to lead readers to the emotional experience we want them to have.
One of the stronger ways to lead a reader into an emotional experience is to describe the emotion through the physical sensations it imparts in the viewpoint character. We still expect the reader to read the character’s emotional experience and to bring their own empathy to the fore…but now instead of leaving the reader to figure out the emotional destination on their own, we leave some discreet signs along the way to help them arrive in the right place.
Physical sensations that are associated with emotions help steer the reader and their empathy to the right emotional place…and they help provide the right tenor to the emotion.
Irritation, frustration, anger, rage, and blind fury might be shades of a similar emotion. Depending on the backgrounds of the character and the reader a specific event might cause an emotional reaction anywhere on the spectrum between irritation and blind fury.
Using physical sensations to help describe the emotional experience provides some clues to the reader as to just how irritated or angry our character is. It helps the reader to harmonize their emotional response with the character’s so that the reader and the character continue to move through the story in emotional harmony. It may still be true that the character reacts more or less to an event than the reader would…but at least now the reader knows what the character’s experience is and they can usually see why their experience might be stronger or weaker than the character’s. The reader will also understand any motivation that flows from the character’s experience.
The physical sensations you describe should jive with the emotional experience you want the character to have. For example you wouldn’t have heat climbing up the hero’s body, his vision becoming tinged with red if he was only irritated or frustrated. Heat climbing up his body and red tinged vision, tension in every muscle of his body are things that go with a high level of anger…not with irritation. By using physical sensations that are consistent with the emotional reaction of the character you give the reader clues as to the depth and breadth of the emotional experience the character is having. You paint in essence an abstract picture of the emotion anger…or blind fury…or just minor irritation.
Sometimes emotional experiences are close together. Sadness and despair are similar emotions which have similar physical manifestations. So…if a character feels heavy darkness weighing them down how is the reader to identify whether the character feels sadness, despair, or depression?
The answer is essentially, the same way that the rest of us identify our emotions. When we feel emotions what we feel are physical sensations within our bodies. We might feel a giddy bubbly feeling in our chests…a tightness that makes us want to jump up and down…an urge to cheer and high five. But how is it we know that this feeling is excited exhilaration of the sort one feels when they achieve something they’ve struggled to achieve instead of just simple joy?
We basically feel emotions inside ourselves as sensations. We identify the emotion using all the knowledge we have at our disposal…including what caused the emotional reaction and what the emotion feels like physically within us. Using these things we can almost without conscious thought identify the feeling as exhilaration. Exhilaration includes the urge to cheer and high five…which joy might not have. We know these things intuitively…and so do our readers.
Still when emotions are close together in tenor and in physical sensations AND it is important that the reader understand EXACTLY what emotion our character feels it is helpful to identify the emotion. For example: She felt exhilaration surge within her. Giddiness bubbled in her chest with a tightness like champagne in a bottle just before the cork spews off. The feeling made her want to jump up and down and high five those closest to her. When you identify the emotion by name and you describe the physical sensations it causes then your reader can feel the same things…and fully experience the emotion with your character.
Getting specific with emotional writing means going beyond just asking the reader to empathize and feel what they would feel in a situation like the character’s. It requires giving the reader some emotional clues that bring their emotional reaction to the event into harmony with the characters so that reader and character feel the same thing. This can be strengthened when necessary by identifying the specific name of the emotion. Using emotion names is often discouraged because it is so often overused. It’s a powerful tool…one to use lightly…when the situation requires it – which is when it is important that your reader know exactly what emotion your character feels and the physical sensations alone do not provide clues strong enough to convey the exact emotion.
Tonight we’ve only touched the surface when it comes to emotional writing. Writing emotion is a huge topic which we can approach from a number of different vantage points. Next time we’ll look at emotional writing from a different angle and I’ll bring even more emotional writing tools out of the dark into the light where we can use them.
Any questions ?
We began this series of lessons by talking about using specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives to give the reader concrete details. Then we kicked things up a notch by creating very specific physical experiences for our characters. Tonight we’re going to take things another step and talk about the mental experiences our characters have and how to make them specific and meaningful.
It isn’t happenstance that I’ve chosen to teach the lessons in this series of lessons in a specific order. I believe it’s important to understand how things work, so often you’ll find my lessons begin with taking things apart to see how they work. In a sense I’ve done that with these lessons.
I began with the lesson on specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives because experiences don’t take place in a vacuum. They take place in very specific settings. In order to vest further in a character and a character’s experience the reader needs a specific sense of where things are happening. Using specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives allows us to provide that foundation with a very few specific words.
Last week we went a step further and gave our characters specific physical experiences. When we gave the character specific sensual experiences we allowed the reader to connect with the character, to vest in the character in a very basic and primal way.
We can almost use the analogy of the specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives provide a doorway that allows the reader to enter the story. The specific physical experiences that the character has (and the reader experiences through him or her) can be seen as a bridge that allows the reader to transition, deepening his or her investment in and connection to the character and the character’s situation – the story.
Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are very concrete things. Nouns are people, places and things. Very concrete. Easy to envision. Verbs too are very specific. Easy to imagine. If I say jumped you can envision exactly what I mean. Adjectives add clarity to nouns making them more concrete.
Similarly, physical experiences stem from physical sensations – things we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel in a physical way. They are very concrete. Not at all abstract.
When we talk about thoughts though we are moving into more abstract territory.
Because mental experiences (aka thoughts) are more abstract the reader needs a stronger connection to the character to be ready to deal with the abstract nature of the character’s mental experiences. For that reason we use all of the techniques we’ve talked about up to this point to prepare the reader for mental experiences.
We 1.) create the doorway into the story by creating a place for the story to happen with a few well-chosen nouns, verbs, and adjectives. 2.) We deepen the reader’s connection to the character, the character’s plight and the character’s experiences by giving the character specific physical experiences. THEN we’re ready to lead the reader into the more abstract areas of the character and his or her experiences…the character’s mental and emotional experiences.
Physical experiences in some ways act as a bridge that usher the reader into the character’s experience and allow for the experiences to deepen in abstract ways.
What I mean is that in general, the pathway for most things that enter the story will be through the character’s physical experience. The character will generally have a physical experience…which he or she responds to in a mental or emotional way.
This is perhaps easiest to take apart and examine in this example:
The heroine is driving home from her job as a stripper in her beater of a car.
She has the physical experience of driving home in the beater. There are specific things she experiences – perhaps the smell of unburned gasoline or other noxious fumes – maybe the car burns oil and she smells that. She might hear the sound of the noisy muffler. If it is winter and the heater is broken or inadequate she might feel cold. Maybe she has trouble seeing out of the windshield.
She might have a mental reaction to the experience like one of these:
She might worry about whether the car will make it home.
She might worry about the car breaking down in the 2 mile space where there is nothing but woods…no way to call for help.
She might wish for a better car.
She might think about the money she’s stowed under the floorboard at home and about how very soon she’ll ditch the car, take the money, and leave this place.
All of those things would be parts of her mental experience that could possibly come out of her physical experience…starting the car and driving home from work.
If she doesn’t have a strong physical experience related to driving her unreliable car then there isn’t really a place or a reason for her to worry about getting a better car. The mental experiences by and large come in as a result (usually a reaction to) a physical experience the character has.
There are many types of mental experiences that characters can have. Among them are:
Character has a thought as a response to a physical stimulus. For example the character above has trouble keeping her car running after she’s started it and she thinks about what would happen if the car died in the 2 mile gap where there are no houses and no phones.
Character has a memory triggered by a physical stimulus. An example would be…the character above has trouble keeping her car going, has a thought about the car stranding her in the middle of nowhere. She remembers a previous incident in which she was stranded.
Character analyzes potential courses of action to arrive at what to do. Let’s assume our heroine from above is followed by a big black scary looking truck with yellow fog lights on top. She physically sees the truck. She knows it is there behind her as she starts out of town. She considers whether to keep going out of town with the truck following her or whether to turn around and go back to the club where she works. She would weigh both courses of action laying out the potential courses of action and choosing one based on her analysis of the situation.
Character interprets physical stimuli mentally. Let’s say our heroine above gets stranded in the dead spot she’s dreaded. After nearly running into her the big black truck stops behind her. She looks at the muscular, tattooed, man wearing black leather who comes to her door and has a mental reaction. She mentally sums up whether he is trustworthy or not based on her interpretation of his physical demeanor and behavior.
In each of these cases, and in others you could come up with the mental activity that goes on is very much abbreviated. Being specific usually requires showing specific detail…and interpreting the detail through the character’s unique way of seeing things.
To do this well you have to do a couple of things. First, you have to choose some specific parts of the physical experience for your character to react to. Second, as you create your scene you build those specific things that your character is to react to into the scene. BUT…and this is a BIG BUT…you do not put the details back to back or right next to each other. Instead you leave some space after each of the details you want the character to react to. The space is the place where the character will respond mentally to the specific details you’ve planted.
She stomped her foot on the gas, turned the key in the ignition and prayed the old car would start. When the engine finally coughed its way to life the fumes that filled the dark cabin burned her throat.
[Space for a mental reaction]
Mental Reaction – a memory – The sharp odor and the sting in her eyes reminded her suddenly of her father. He would have been able to diagnose the problem in a heartbeat. She was pretty sure he’d have been able to fix it with a paperclip and a rubber band too. He’d been clever like that.
If we were going to continue with this example I would go back to the details of the scene…like this:
Her breath fogged the windshield and she rubbed furiously at it with one gloved hand.
[Space for mental reaction]
Mental reaction – thought – knowledge – She knew it would do little good. With the heater on the fritz the windshield would fog over almost as quickly as she wiped the fog away.
Do you see how I feed in some details and then I allow my character to respond mentally to those details in some way?
That’s what you want to do. It’s very like the blowing up the scene technique which I’ve taught before …except that in this instance we are only talking about adding in mental experiences.
Some things to consider:
KEEP THE MENTAL REACTIONS FOCUSED: One of the things that is problematic when we start playing with mental and emotional reactions is that a given set of details can inspire many different mental reactions. In my example above I have the smell of the car reminding the heroine of her father but that same detail could have inspired many different mental reactions.
You want to maintain your focus…remember that your character’s mental reactions need to keep the reader focused on important aspects of the story. Is there a reason you want her to remember her father? Is he important to the story? If not you might want to rethink having the smell of the carburetor remind her of her father. Instead have it remind her of her ex-boyfriend if he’s more a part of the story.
WORK IN SMALL PIECES: One of the common problems that authors have when working with mental and emotional aspects of their character’s lives is that they tend to write lots and lots of physical detail followed by a glob of mental detail followed by a glob of emotional detail…then back to more physical detail.
In general, it’s a good idea to have a mixture of types of experience within each paragraph. You might occasionally have a paragraph that is mostly the character’s physical experience but most of the time the reason for physical experience is to use it to draw in the mental and emotional aspects of the character’s experience. If you have paragraphs in which there are no mental reactions and no emotional reactions then that is problematic. Try color coding your work. Color all of the physical details red and color all of the mental reactions blue. You should see red and blue right next to each other within the same paragraph the majority of the time. You should see small bits of red and blue intermingling happily together.
CONSIDER THIS DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MEMORY AND A FLASHBACK: A memory is generally more thought based…more mental. When a character goes back in memory their mental capacities shift backward in time. She remembered her father. He would have been able to fix the car. Not much emotion there.
Flashbacks by contrast take the character back to a previous time…not just their mental faculties…but their emotional ones too. For the character a flash back is like being back in the previous time…experiencing all the physical things…experiencing all the mental things…experiencing all the emotional things. Flashbacks are much more emotional. Memory alone is much more mental experience based.
Which experience (mental or emotional) you want your character and your reader to have can go a long way in determining whether you should use a full blown flashback or a simple memory.
I think that’s about all I have for this time. Are there any questions?
(This blog post is an approximate transcription from the Friday night chat held on 6-15-2012. Chats are held most Friday nights during the year in the Black Velvet Seductions Chat Room at http://blackvelvetseductions.com/our-chat-room/ . Casual chat begins at 9 PM Eastern Time with the lesson portion of the chat beginning at 10:30 PM Eastern Time. Chats are open to writers at all levels.)
Last time we met we talked about using specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Tonight we’re going to build on that lesson and talk about the importance of creating very specific physical experiences for our characters.
When we talk about physical experiences we are talking about those things our characters experience physically. This includes anything that they see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. It includes physical sensations that might be connected to an emotion. It includes where they are in physical space. It includes spoken words of dialogue that they either speak or hear. It doesn’t include what they think or feel as reactions to the spoken dialogue.
There is a good reason why I’m choosing to start with the physical experience as we delve into the whole arena of getting specific in writing. Though most people start with the physical aspects when writing a scene that isn’t why I’m beginning with the physical part of a character’s experience tonight.
I’m beginning with the physical part of the character’s experience because physical experiences are most tangible and the most relatable for most readers. Most of us relate most readily to things in the physical world around us. We relate to the sounds of the birds in the trees, the feel of a cool afternoon breeze on our faces, the splash of cold water from a swimming pool or a sprinkler, the smell of watermelon.
Let’s stop for a minute and consider what happened as I mentioned the sound of the birds, the feeling of a cool afternoon breeze, the splash of cold water, the smell of watermelon? Did your mind conjure a scene? Did you see yourself or someone else somewhere where there were birds, a cool breeze, a swimming pool or sprinkler, watermelon?
Did your experience of the scene grow as I added additional elements? For example, did your image change when I added the cool afternoon breeze to the sound of the birds? Did it change again when I added a splash of cold water? Again when I introduced watermelon?
If your mind began conjuring up a scene that included the elements I mentioned you’re not alone. Readers do that when we present them with our books. If we say stone cottage in a shady glen where the birds chirped and the soft scent of pine was carried on gentle breezes they imagine that scene in their minds.
In building that image and incorporating the specific sights and sounds we are giving them they are engaging with us. They are INVESTING something of themselves into our stories. They are willingly transitioning from their own worldly concerns…putting those aside…and choosing to instead focus on the make believe elements of the scene that we’ve planted in their heads.
That’s pretty powerful stuff when you stop to think about it. Yet it’s what happens every time we pick up a book and immerse ourselves in it.
But why start with physical experience? Because physical experience is primal. It’s concrete. It creates the space where everything else lives. Specific thoughts are important in stories as are specific emotions. However, emotions and thoughts both require physical surroundings in which to dwell.
Stories are not ABOUT feelings or thoughts. Stories are about people (physical beings) who have thoughts and feelings (which are in some ways kind of abstract things.) It is creating the physical people, their physical surroundings, their physical space, their sensual experiences that gives space for thoughts and emotions to flourish.
Out of the void we must first create form…a physical world with sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes that are experienced by the physical beings we create…the characters.
If you try to create emotion first, in absence of a physical world or characters who are experiencing the emotion you simply have a description of an emotion…but there is no scene supporting it.
A specific scene with specific sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and tastes gives rise to thoughts as the character mentally responds to the physical things in his or her world.
A specific scene with specific sights, sounds, smells, sensations and tastes gives rise to emotions as the character responds emotionally to the physical things in his or her world.
Creating a scene with specific sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings is like rolling out the welcome carpet and inviting our readers in to sit a spell.
Inviting our readers in and inviting them to sit a spell sounds kind of calm and peaceful and relaxed…and not at all like the hook them with action and drag them into the story kicking and screaming advice we’ve been given.
I want to be clear. I’m saying that the ROLE of creating a physical experience for your reader is to invite the reader into the story it’s to make them invest a small part of themselves into the story by mentally creating the physical world your character inhabits.
I AM NOT saying that you should write a scene that is calming and inviting that invites your reader in and lulls them to sleep. Far from it! The old advice start with action or a crisis and force your character to sink or swim still holds true.
What I am saying is realize that when you create a scene you will need to give the reader specific details so that they can build the scene in their own mind. This is where using specific words comes into play.
We talked last time about using specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Creating specific physical experiences for our characters utilizes specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives but in the words of Emeril Lagasse we’re kicking it up a notch.
Creating experiences goes beyond just specific words…it gets down to the nitty gritty of what the experience is LIKE at a base level.
If we’re talking about an experience…the police raiding an apartment…there are many details that could be used to describe this experience. Which experience you will show will depend on the viewpoint character…where that character is…what his or her experience is. The little girl hidden under her bed in her bedroom has a much different experience than the policeman knocking down the door or the drug dealer fleeing out the back window.
The thing that is similar among all the points of view is that regardless of the experience or the viewpoint character experiencing it physical experiences are had through the five senses. It is our five senses that provide all of the knowledge and experience relative to our physical experience.
For any of the characters who could be our viewpoint character above there are things they:
Feel physically somewhere in their body or touch
To go from simply describing a scene to creating an experience for a character requires delving into the experience…describing it from inside the viewpoint character…weaving in as many senses as possible.
For example let’s think about the little girl, let’s call her Molly, in the scene above. Let’s think about her experiences…and let’s make them specific.
What might she see? At the chat we came up with feet, dustbunnies, dirty blankets, stray socks, a dirty diaper, an ash tray, empty booze bottles.
What might she hear? At the chat we came up with, voices, her mother crying, her baby brother crying, a gun shot
What might she feel physically? At the chat we came up with, the rough wood floor as she slides back under the bed, nauseated, pain when she gets a splinter from the rough wood floor.
What might she taste? At the chat we came up with, blood from biting her lip, tears from crying, the dust that clings to her mouth or dirt from her dirty thumb when she sucks it.
What might she smell? At the chat we came up with, dirty diaper, stale booze, pot, cigarettes, body odor.
We’ve taken an inventory of the things in her scene…now let’s get specific. We took the feet that she saw from under the bed and made them very specific. Instead of her just seeing very bland feet we made one pair of feet her mother’s feet. She recognized those feet because they had chipped pink polish, an ankle bracelet, and a tattoo.
We took the random sounds of chaos and made them specific. We had Molly hear the thunk as the cop threw her “father” onto the floor to handcuff him. We had her see his scrunched face against the floor.
Do you see how we take the basic…and we take it another step further, give it a twist, make it something specific?
That’s really what being specific in terms of physical experiences is all about.
The bad men arrived in a cloud of dust is rather cliché.
A gritty yellow haze rose under the pounding hooves of the bandits’ horses is less cliché. J
It becomes even less cliché when the sandy yellow grit clings to your heroine’s sweaty face and she tastes it on her tongue.
It’s one thing to look at being specific just in terms of the words we choose and using the five senses to describe physical experiences. The more difficult part of being specific in our writing is in being specific when it comes to which experiences our characters have.
Often the reader is presented with kind of a blank slate character who emerges on the scene the way he or she is…with feelings that were pre-installed in the creation lab…but which don’t relate to anything that the reader can see played out in front of them on the page.
Instead the reader is asked to accept on face value that the character is a rough edged alpha with a soft spot for small things. It is okay that he is like this. It is even okay not to go into his formative years to explain why.
However, for your reader to believe that he IS a rough edged alpha with a soft spot for small things he needs to have specific thoughts, feelings, and experiences when he sees something small and in need of help.
His reaction needs to be believable. To be believable it needs to be SPECIFIC.
First it is in the way that he PERCEIVES the person who is small, fragile and in need of help. The SPECIFIC way that he sees this person gives rise to the mental and emotional parts of his reaction.
Often in the manuscripts that MM and I see the perception is not specific enough to make who the character is (hard-edged alpha with a soft spot for weak things) believable. If you have him look at her and he sees she is small, shapely, with blonde hair and an oval face with soft lips, then you have not given him specific experience of her. You need to have him SEE fragility in the bone structure of her face, weakness and a need for help in the shadows beneath her eyes. When he sees her he SEES fragility. When he sees the gray circles under her eyes he doesn’t just see gray circles, he sees a need for help…or something that makes him want to protect her. In these instances it is the SPECIFIC PERCEPTION which is important.
It is often what he perceives and his reaction (mental and emotional) which provides the specificity that allows us to believe the character IS who you told us he was.
Next time we will delve more into how to go from specific perception to emotional and mental reactions.
Please leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments section. I will respond to them there. J
(This lesson is from the Friday Night Chat held at 9:00 PM on Friday June 1)
As is often the case, tonight’s lesson comes right out of manuscripts I’ve been reading (and rejecting) and manuscripts I’ve been editing. I’ve done a lot of editing in the past few weeks so there are several projects involved. I’m not calling anyone out…this is a broad issue seen in MANY manuscripts. One of the reasons I have these chats is to cover the things that cause rejections or that cost a lot of time in editing/revision so that manuscripts 1.) come in cleaner and can be accepted and 2.) so that pieces that are accepted can be edited and released more quickly.
We’ll cover the first easy bits first. You’ve probably heard this advice, but it is one of those things that bears repeating, not because we don’t know that we should do these things but because when we are writing fast or are trying to get the main ideas down on paper before they disappear into the ethos we aren’t thinking about being specific. When we write fast we tend to fall into a certain author shorthand wherein we don’t think about the specifics…we are sketching then…in big, broad, bold strokes.
Specifics come later…or SHOULD come later. Though often what seems to happen is we lose perspective. We KNEW what was in our heads when we wrote in big, bold, broad strokes. The pictures were there in our minds in full Technicolor and Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Surely we conveyed that clarity?
Well…no…not really. In our minds we conveyed it. The problem is…we didn’t convey it. We were writing fast. We were using author shorthand. We were sketching. The detail didn’t come fully to fruition.
Here are some tips for making your writing more specific in the broadest sense.
Use specific nouns.
Think about the words that follow and notice how the picture changes when you make the noun more specific.
House vs. Treehouse
House vs. Cottage
Tree vs. Maple
Swing vs Tire Swing
Camper vs. Windstream
Flower vs. Daisy
Storm vs. Blizzard
Storm vs. Tornado
Car vs. Porsche
Do you see how choosing a specific noun – just one word – changes the whole picture in your mind?
It is the same for your readers. When you write fast, it is okay to use blah, bland, run of the mill words to capture the basic idea. But know that when you come back through later you’re going to be looking for those bland, blah, nouns and changing them to the most specific nouns you can. Car will become Porsche. House will become cabin. Tree will become maple. These kinds of changes give you a big impact for little or no word count.
Next step – Use Specific Adjectives.
Remember adjectives describe nouns. So…when your specific noun doesn’t go quite far enough to capture what your noun is like add a very specific adjective to do some of the heavy lifting.
Notice how the image in your mind changes when you pair a specific noun with a very specific adjective?
Cottage becomes Victorian Cottage – or brick cottage – or stone cottage – or A-frame cottage. Each adjective completely changes the picture in your head. You won’t use an adjective every time you describe the cottage…but the first time the heroine sees the cottage…you want to describe it specifically.
Cabin becomes log cabin or roughhewn cabin or brick cabin or stone cabin.
Porsche becomes black Porsche or candy-apple red Porsche.
Notice how adding some strong adjectives changes the image created by a strong noun, defining it even more? You want to do this not every time you describe something…but enough that the overall experience for the reader is one of clarity…so that they can see the scene that your character is experiencing.
Which would you rather read about? A candy-apple red Porsche or a car? Which can you see more clearly, more accurately in your mind’s eye?
Another area where authors could use some specificity is in the selection of verbs.
We tend to use some very blasé verbs when we are writing fast. We just want to get the characters from one place to another so that they can perform the next action to move the story forward. And that’s okay in a rough draft. It is NOT okay in a submission or in a published book where we want the reader to be able to experience things along with the character.
Vague verbs like went can be replaced by more specific ones like – shuffled, trudged, limped, leapt, sprinted, crawled.
Notice how changing the verb changes the picture in your mind. When I replace went in the sentence – He went to the door – I change much more than how he got to the door. If he shuffled I see an old man with a cane shuffling slowly to the door…and that creates a different feeling in me the reader than the child I see sprinting to the door.
Avoid using weak verbs. It doesn’t take any more words to use a strong verb in place of a weak one – and sometimes it allows you to decrease word count because a strong verb often negates the need for an adverb to describe the verb. I can replace she walked slowly to the door with she trudged to the door.
The way that I think of word count is that words which do not do any work – do not create a picture – a feeling – an atmosphere are dead weight that the rest of the words have to support. Use strong, specific words and trim out the dead weight words and the experience for the reader gets sharper. The pace seems faster.
It’s one thing to look at being specific just in terms of the words we choose. The more difficult part of being specific in our writing is in being specific when it comes to which thoughts, feelings, and experiences our characters have and CONVEYING these thoughts, feelings, and experiences to our readers. Choosing specific words as I mentioned above helps us to convey the specific thoughts, feelings, and experiences our characters have, but before we can describe these thoughts, feelings, and experiences we need to know what they are.
Characters perceive. All through the book, on every page, in every paragraph, and in every sentence that is from a character’s point of view the character is perceiving the world around him or her.
Giving the characters very specific perceptions is very important to being able to go further into the realm of specificity to give the character specific thoughts and feelings.
Next time we will cover how to give your character specific perceptions. We will at least touch on how to go a step further and tie the specific perceptions to specific emotional and mental experiences.
I’ll also point out for those who may not have noticed – that this is following a line parallel to what we’ve talked about in lessons on deep point of view. Remember the three-legged stool – physical, mental, emotional parts of the character’s experiences making up the legs of the stool? Perceptions are things from the physical realm…perceiving = seeing…hearing…tasting…touching…smelling. This comes from the character’s physical reality. So…next week we will talk about being specific with the character’s physical reality. We’ll at least touch on tying the physical to the mental and emotional, though I expect those aspects to be lessons of their own.
If you have questions about this lesson please leave them in the comments section and I will respond.
I decided to address internal conflict as the topic of tonight’s the May 25th Friday night chat because shallow, undeveloped, or non-existent internal conflict is one of the more common reasons that Mary Margaret and I reject manuscripts at Black Velvet Seductions.
Often we see stories that have a conflict like one of the following:
*The characters live in geographically distant locations
*The heroine saw something she shouldn’t have and is the target of a killer
*The hero and the heroine both want the same retired steamship
On the surface you would look at these conflicts and say, okay, there is a conflict. And there is. But the conflict is external. That is, it exists outside of the characters. Though the external conflicts will have to be addressed in order for the hero and heroine to attain their happy ever after these conflicts are about things OUTSIDE the characters. They do not make the characters seem organically ill-suited to each other…which means that the solutions to these conflicts are easy to solve and are not alone enough to support an entire novel, or even short story.
Readers of romance want a story about how the hero and heroine grow, change, forgive, learn to trust, and eventually fall in love. Purely external conflicts do not alone depict the internal journey that characters in romance take when they fall in love.
A reader reading a cover blurb about characters living in geographically distant locations knows at the outset that one or both of the characters will have to move in order for the relationship to survive. Since the reader can easily see how to solve the problem there isn’t much to this story if the ONLY conflict is the external one. The reader knows they will have to move closer together geographically…problem solved…no reason to read the whole story.
If the heroine saw something she shouldn’t and is a target of the killer that is an adequate conflict for a suspense novel in which the primary reader question is does the heroine outrun the killer. But romance, and romantic suspense are about more than whether the heroine survives. Romance is also about whether the heroine survives to enjoy a happily ever after with the hero. Readers of romantic suspense want to read about two things…what thwarts the heroine’s survival…and what prevents the happily ever after the reader wants for the hero and heroine. If the ONLY conflict is the external one about whether the heroine survives then there is no romance arc for the reader looking for romantic suspense to dig her claws into.
The romance journey IS in essence about how the hero and heroine overcome their internal conflicts. It is about how they grow, change, forgive, learn to trust, learn to give and get affection, share power, and how through doing these things they are able to forge a happy relationship.
The hero and heroine both wanting the same retired steamship presents the same kind of external conflict that the story with the hero and heroine living in geographically distant locations presents. The reader can read the blurb about both parties wanting the steamship and can easily deduce that in order for the relationship to work one party will have to give in to the other or the two will have to come together and share the steamship…perhaps her with her diner at one end and he with his bait shop at the other end.
External conflicts are about things OUTSIDE the characters.
Internal conflicts are emotional or mental in nature and as such they reside INSIDE the characters.
Most of the time a non-existent or shallow and underdeveloped internal conflict is a symptom of shallow point of view and most of the time one of the key ingredients involved in developing the internal conflict is to delve into the parts of the character that are most often forgotten when the point of view is shallow – the emotion and the mental aspects of the character.
Often the external conflict gives rise to the internal conflict(s)…or illuminates them in some way.
For example, in the story with the characters who live geographically distant, the distance can serve to illuminate emotional or mental weaknesses in the hero and heroine themselves. The geographical distance could be used to illuminate the difficulty the heroine has in trusting the hero – especially when he is geographically far away. You can give her a backstory to build on this. What if she was engaged to her high school sweetheart, discovered herself pregnant and drove to his college campus to tell him the news and instead of finding her committed boyfriend studying for finals she found him in the bed of a co-ed. This heroine would have some issues which would be deepened by the situation that the external conflict (the geographic distance) brings to bear.
By giving her a past and an internal conflict (difficulty trusting) now she has something that she must overcome during the course of the story. Though the geographical distance in the story illuminates her difficulty she will have to learn to trust the hero before she gets her happy ending. In this way the story isn’t just about whether the characters move closer together…it’s about whether she can learn to trust and that’s a more exciting journey because we don’t know what will happen on her journey to trusting the hero or how that will shake out.
In the example with the heroine who saw something she shouldn’t have…the situation she is in might bring her into contact with the hero. Perhaps he rescues her from the killer’s clutches…or perhaps the hero is her ex-husband. The external conflict (killer after the heroine) in some way brings the hero and heroine together and serves to keep them together in close proximity. When two characters are confined together in close proximity the proximity illuminates areas of tension and conflict. It is here that you build in your internal conflict.
What if your independent, tough as nails heroine hates tough as nails, bossy, opinionated, alpha men with a passion? What if you give her a past in which some of the things the hero does remind her of someone she didn’t like much – her always too busy for her, alpha, bossy father maybe?
Do you see how I am digging down to what makes the heroine tick? You would do the same thing for the hero. What you are looking for is what makes him who he is…what makes her who she is…and where the two conflict.
Generally speaking the internal conflict is going to be in this place where who they are conflicts. In order to have a happy ever after relationship the hero will probably need to learn to temper his bossiness a bit and the heroine will probably have to accept his alpha nature to a degree. She will have to realize that he isn’t her father. But since this is growth that happens inside them…and internal growth happens differently for each of us, the path is undefined…and therefore interesting to read about.
Developing the internal conflict is about building the case for why the characters think and feel in ways that make them ill-suited. You show the characters thinking and feeling in ways that are ill-suited, supported by backstory, shown through deep point of view. Then you tear it all down…as the characters grow, mature, learn to trust, forgive, and share power in an effort to attain the happy ever after ending they want.
In the example where the hero and heroine both want the same steamship the steamship will need to serve an important role for each character. If one character only wants the ship to add to a collection of expensive steamships and there are ten others on the market and the other character wants it because it was the ship his grandfather served on and he wants to preserve the family history then it’s pretty clear that one character’s reasons are more important than the other and the reader will probably side with that character, expecting the character with less emotional stake to give in to the one with more emotional stake. You want both characters to have an EMOTIONAL stake. You want the reader to want BOTH characters to get the steamship to about the same degree so that they can’t easily see how to divide it or who should get it. If it is easy for the reader to see the outcome, to divide the ship or decide who “should” get it, then the reader will be easily able to solve the problem, glimpse the path to the happy ending and won’t be interested in reading about the journey.
Internal conflict makes the conflict emotional and mental.
As I said above, it’s about using the external conflict to illuminate the internal conflict…which means the emotional and mental aspects.
We can generally get to internal conflicts by asking the right questions and then building the answers into the story.
1.) Why is the (fill in the blank or use the external conflict) important to each character?
2.) What emotional importance does the (fill in the blank or use the external conflict) have to each character?
3.) What feelings does the external conflict give rise to or illuminate?
4.) Why can’t the characters just agree to disagree, move closer together, give up the thing they want, etc? In other words, why is the easy solution not workable?
5.) What internal weaknesses does the internal conflict illuminate in each character that will have to be overcome before the characters can attain their happy ever after?
6.) What elements of backstory fuel the strength of the characters thoughts, feelings, or beliefs relative to the external conflict or other conflict?
7.) What does each character think would happen if they did the thing that seems most logical or easiest in the face of the external conflict?
You will notice that in my questions above I have focused a lot on thoughts and feelings. That’s not an accident. It is by design. Internal conflict is by its nature about the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of the characters.
Internal conflicts can be either within one character as in she faces an internal conflict in that she has mixed feelings about whether she can be a feminist and still enjoy submitting to her lover. Here her feelings are inside her – they are a conflict between two parts of herself – the part that identifies herself as a feminist and the part that still wants to engage in a power exchange in which she submits to her lover.
Internal conflicts can also be an overlap of conflicting internal feelings between characters. She has mixed feelings about whether she can be a real feminist and still submit to her lover. He doesn’t care how she identifies herself…he sees it as a pointless question. He knows she wants to submit and pushes her in that direction. This makes her feel as if she is being pushed along and as if the decision is being taken away from her – this makes her pull back – perhaps even leaving him.
Any questions about internal conflict?
Over the years, I’ve taught many workshops, written numerous blog posts and articles, and conducted numerous lessons on writing romance and romance focused erotica (which are the genres that Black Velvet Seductions publishes).
There are those topics which are always popular. Craft basics like character, point of view, dialogue basics, conflict, and sexual tension remain some of the more popular topics that I’ve covered. However, within each workshop I’ve taught, within each blog post I’ve written, and each lesson I’ve taught, there have been topics that whether because of import, or because they don’t sound important and therefore get glossed over, are worthy of repeating.
Many of these things link directly back to the reasons manuscripts are rejected. Today I want to start by covering three of the top things that bear repeating. The first is:
Romance is about the developing relationship between characters.
It sounds simple doesn’t it? And when I say it, everyone will nod their heads and agree with me that, yes, of course, romance is about the developing relationship between characters.
But the submissions that fill my inbox seem to indicate that somehow this nugget of understanding was lost somewhere between the point at which we all agreed that romance is about the developing relationship and the point at which the author wrote the end, attached the file, and clicked send.
It remains true that one of the key reasons that both myself and my co-editor MM reject manuscripts is that the manuscripts we receive try to be about the developing relationship…but somewhere between the beginning and the end the focus on the developing relationship either never takes shape or is lost in favor of chasing vampires or hunting down serial killers.
The bottom line is if you are writing a romance then the focus of the story needs to be the relationship. You can have your characters chase vampires and hunt down serial killers, but even whilst they are doing these things they need to be about the business of falling in love, because if they are not about that business the manuscript will lack the focus and clarity to succeed as a romance novel.
I’ve been asked before about story arcs in a romance novel and also about the story arcs in some of the blended genre novels (like romantic suspense and paranormal romance.) In a pure romance the focus is squarely on the romance. There should be no distractions. Every scene in the story should play a role in the developing relationship either in terms of making the character:
- Want the relationship
- Not want the relationship
- Respect, admire, like, love their love interest more
- Doubt, dislike, distrust, their love interest
- Help the character see a way forward to happy ever after with their love interest
- Cloud the way forward making it impossible for the character to see the happy ever after possibility
- Cause more conflicts by adding to original conflict(s)
- Soothe conflicts by providing solution or understanding of original conflict(s)
- Provide experiences that allow the character to overcome their internal conflicts
- Provide experiences that allow the character to try to overcome their internal conflicts and fail
The point is…in a straight romance (without blended genre elements) every scene relates in some way to the relationship allowing the characters to move toward each other and the happy ever after ending or causing them to move away from each other and away from the happy ever after ending.
In blended genre romances what often happens is that scenes of suspense or other-worldly activity steal the focus from the romance. It doesn’t seem credible after-all, that someone being chased by zombies or a serial killer would stop to think about being attracted to the hero…or would stop to think about the problems facing a relationship with the hero. Yet, for the novel to work as a romance it must do those things. Even in blended genre romance the focus must remain on the romance…the developing relationship between hero and heroine. Without that the novel becomes a mainstream paranormal novel or a thriller which happens to have romance elements…but not a paranormal romance or a romantic suspense or romantic thriller.
Given this, my advice is divide and conquer. A blended genre romance will have two parts. It will have the romance (developing relationship) and the secondary aspect. For purposes here we will use the suspense element as the secondary element.
You have a beginning point for the relationship aspect and an ending point for that aspect. The characters start out disliking or distrusting or not knowing each other. They end up in love, committing to a life together. There will be some turning points along the path from the beginning to the ending point…some things that one or both characters have to learn, some ways that they have to grow in order to be worthy of their happy ever after ending. Define these either mentally or on paper. In this way you know where your character is and where he/she has to go.
You also have a beginning point and an ending point for your suspense or other secondary element. There will be a beginning point…the first murder that your heroine becomes involved with if you’re writing a suspense novel where your heroine is the target of a serial killer might be the beginning point. By the end your character will have solved the mystery of who the serial killer is and will have dispensed justice in some way so that the serial killer is no longer a threat. Between the beginning and the end you have to craft scenes which allow the danger to escalate. You also have to create scenes which allow her to find the clues that lead to uncovering who the culprit is. Within this framework you also need to craft scenes which allow the romance to develop between the hero and heroine.
If you could envision your romance arc and your suspense arc as separate arcs which overlap each other, then you could see the relative points when things need to change between the characters in their romantic relationship and where that coincides in the suspense arc. If the heroine doesn’t begin to trust the hero till after the second victim is found you know that the scenes leading up to that point will need to show them being aloof with each other. That means that scenes written when he questions her about her role in finding the first victim will be used to SHOW the distrust between them. Scenes after that point will focus more on building trust between them.
As you look at the scenes you need to build the relationship and the scenes you need to solve the mystery and save the heroine you will be able to see that most scenes can do double duty…both building the relationship and leading toward the eventual conclusion of the suspense element. Some scenes might focus more on the suspense element and some might focus more on the romantic element but by and large the romance and the suspense (or other secondary element) must go through the romance hand in hand, entwined for the story to work as a romance. If the focus shifts too much from the romance and focuses on the mystery then readers of romance will be disappointed in the romance aspect and at some point the story will not work as a romantic suspense, crossing the invisible line into suspense as opposed to romantic suspense.
In a similar vein, it bears repeating that fiction needs to maintain a tight focus.
One of the common problems that I see in romance novels, erotic short stories, and blended genre novels is a lack of focus.
Readers need one or two big things to worry about. They can handle two big things…will the hero and heroine fall in love and live happily ever after – and who is the serial killer targeting the heroine’s friends?
If you add in additional things…Will the hero and heroine fall in love and live happily ever after, who is the serial killer targeting the heroine’s friends, will the heroine make up with her estranged brother, and will the hero make up with his estranged mother, and will their friends Jed and Jake fall in love and live happily ever after is just plain too much. Your reader will go crazy with this lack of focus.
Narrow it down. Know what your main story is about. Subplots are fine. But they should be that…subplots. Subplots should relate in some way to the main plot. Will the heroine make up with her estranged brother might be germane if the heroine’s brother is somehow connected to the heroine’s lack of trust in men or if he is connected to the serial killer in some way. It is not germane if the heroine just happens to be estranged from him. Ditto the hero’s mother. To be Germane the answer to the question “will the heroine make up with her estranged brother” must be one that requires an answer for the rest of the story to work. If she can go happily along, either making up or not making up then whether she makes up or not really doesn’t matter. It is filler.
Stay focused. Keep your reader focused. Connect your sub-plots to something in the main plot. Make something in the main plot hinge on their solution. Readers need to know what to worry about. If they can’t see how the pieces of your sub-plots relate to your main plots they lose that focus.
It also bears repeating that conflict fuels story.
By and large conflict is that element in a story that provides the reader their focus. Everything in the story relates to the conflict as the conflict is that thing that stands between the character and what he or she wants. When a reader engages with a book he or she is essentially engaging with the character’s journey to achieve that thing he or she wants. To work well a story needs a conflict worthy of the character’s (and therefore the reader’s) attention. If the conflict is too easy (communicate to solve a misunderstanding for example) then the conflict is too easily resolved and isn’t really worthy of the character or reader’s attention. Readers of romance like stories in which there is a deep conflict which they can’t readily see the solution for.
I receive a ton of submissions which are built almost totally on external conflict which pits the hero and heroine on the same side against some external crisis. It is FINE to have the hero and heroine EVENTUALLY on the same side against the external crisis. But whether the hero and heroine team up together against the external conflict or not the hero and heroine need to have conflict that relates to their relationship and why they can’t be happy together. It needs to be more than just bullets are flying. It needs to be something that would still stand in the way if bullets weren’t flying. Something inside the characters themselves needs to keep them from committing until the end of the story. It might be fear of falling in love, fear of commitment, trust issues, a former betrayal, any number of things. But the bottom line is that it must be between the hero and heroine…not be entirely external to the hero and heroine.
This is a common reason that manuscripts are rejected at Black Velvet Seductions.
So there you have it…three of the top things that bear repeating.