Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Your Story’s Emotional Landscape - Keeping the reader’s experience authentic

Great stories take us through the peaks and valleys of emotion, capturing our hearts along the way. Unfortunately, I come across promising stories all the time that cram too many emotions in one scene. As a reader I feel whipsawed, and it’s impossible for me to care about a character during such scenes. In fact, I may put down the work and find something else to read.

I suspect this comes from the moment-to-moment experiences of writers identifying with their characters. My first clue on this, oddly enough, was when I read a friend’s work. In one scene, just 1,500 words, he had a character smoke eight cigarettes. He had identified so closely with his hero that he had him light up every time he did. Since he wrote the scene over several days and he was a chain smoker, the results were unintentionally hilarious.

Since writers can explode with ideas for a scene, a lot can happen. There may be a dozen inputs for a character to respond to emotionally. Having a lot of ideas is good. Knowing how your character will respond or feeling it yourself is also good. Tossing everything at the character in a short number of words will confuse and dismay readers. It is as impossible to flip though diverse emotions in a few paragraphs as it is to comfortably suck down a bunch of cigarettes in a few minutes. Choking is not a welcome experience.

Unity is an important value in storytelling, and it is essential to the creation of an emotional landscape. As a rule of thumb, look toward no more than two big emotions in a scene. There can be movement between these (corresponding to three to five beats in a typical scene), but it needs to be measured. Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions provides a good guide to smooth transitions. (I actually have found Kaitlin Robbs’s wheel and this one from Christine Winston of more practical value.)

The smooth movement through emotions that link allows you to cross an emotional landscape without jumps that loose readers. You can twist and turn and climb up and down hills without jumping (or teleporting). This does not mean you can’t fall off a cliff with a sudden disappointment or pleasant surprise. It does not mean readers can’t be distracted with comic relief — reducing defenses against fully feeling something crushing or elevating. One of the great tricks of architecture is designing landscape so the journey’s path produces unexpected reveals.

As an exercise, it might be valuable to chart the intensities of negative and positive feelings in a scene that moves you. Go sentence by sentence and plot up to +10 (good feelings) and down to -10 (bad feelings) as the story progresses. You’ll produce a two-dimensional landscape that will provide a sense of how the writer paces changes in feelings. As you get more sophisticated, you may be able to see a more complex emotional landscape in work by writers you love and for your own work. This can help you develop a facility for pacing and transitions in emotions.

As a simpler guide, you might just focus on the three Ts of the emotional landscape — tangible, turns, and transitions.

Tangibles are objective elements that contribute to emotion. Setting (a dark and stormy night), images (a bloody knife), actions (a punch), and sensory experiences (the smell of gunpowder). Or, setting (a field of flowers), images (a Christmas tree), actions (a hug), and sensory experiences (the smell of cookies in the oven). Tangibles can be ironic. The field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz is a trap set by the Wicked Witch of the West.

Turns are usually power shifts. With every beat in a scene, a character gains or loses power (and often another character has the reverse fate). If your reader identifies with the character, success or failure will create feelings. Again, this can be ironic if the reader has knowledge that undercuts the character’s view.

Transitions usually show the character’s emotional responses shifting or getting more or less intense. There is a carefully wrought scene in Lord of the Rings where the hobbits are distressed and talking out their concerns with Gandalf calms them bit by bit until they mention something that jolts Gandalf. They (and readers) don’t even understand why he’s unsettled, but it creates an amazing sense of dread. If it shakes Gandalf, with all his power, what does it mean for a hobbit?

Of course, careful presentation of emotions is not enough. Readers must empathize with (if not like) the protagonist. For many writers, creating such characters comes naturally. Others need to do deep dives into descriptions (for themselves, with sampling for readers) and design scenes that signal readers (such as save-the-cat episodes).

And it is important throughout that attention is paid to clarity. As much as the literati love ambiguity, most readers need to quickly apprehend what’s going on, intentions, choices made, action taken, and consequences.

If the situation is unclear, it’s impossible to explore options for the character. If the intentions aren’t clear, readers can’t align themselves with character hopes and concerns (and occasionally think “oh, no!” as a character leans toward a decision that cannot turn out well).

Specific, well-understood character choices allow readers to anticipate what might happen, often looking forward to results or worrying about what might happen (two of the great experiences for readers). And readers should always be able to follow action without reading it twice so they can shadow the character moment by moment. The consequences, of course, provide both the story payoff and a powerful emotional moment.

One more thing. Pacing emotions is not the same for every audience. In general, love scenes are gradual and smooth. Moments are lingered on. On the other hand, a fight scene in a thriller tends to be fast-paces pivoting repeatedly between victory and failure. The emotional landscape for a drama like Ordinary People or Agnes of God will slip into deeper and deeper valleys. The effects linger. Guardians of the Galaxy never pierces the heart with low points, but it provides a fast-paced rollercoaster ride without losing emotional engagement. We need lots of different stories that give us  powerful experiences. When you write yours, deliberately craft emotional landscapes that fit your intentions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Killing Your Characters - What's YOUR motivation?

Mortality is something we all share, so it’s not surprising deaths show up in our stories. Whether it’s a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades (Act of Valor) or the killer dying in flames (White Heat), you have the attention of readers and audience members when a character dies.

But remember, “with great power comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker (Spider-Man), not long before he dies. Before you kill off a character, ask this question: Does the death serve a purpose in the story?

Spectacle. In war stories, the mass deaths in battle may be part of the show. Often you don’t even know who just got run through with a sword. The same thing is true for a lot of monster movies. For horror stories, death often follow a plan that combines escalating gruesome wit (how the characters suffer and die makes a difference). In addition, the order of death is predetermined by impact on the audience and shrinking odds of survivors.

Commentary. In Catch-22, the soldier in white dies without meaning or mourning. It sets up the bleak world of this comedy.

Survival. Especially when Nature is involved deaths of some characters may change the chances for other characters. Cannibalism could become a factor. Or the ability to man a rowboat’s oars. Titanic became a zero-sum game as lifeboats filled up or sank.

Story set up. This is almost every murder mystery. Sadly, we won’t get to know Sir Reginald very well, but his homicide will lead to a splendid evening of suspicion, culprits, and clues.

Characterization. When and how and why a character kills another (including accidentally) leads to revealing moments that help us to know Darth Vader isn’t someone you want on your bowling team.

Character motivation. You killed my father and I want revenge. (My name is Inigo Montoya.) Or I need to get out of here before you kill me.

Loss of protection. Sometimes a character needs to die so another character won’t lean on him or her. If Gandalf hadn’t been lost, the rest of the Fellowship would have depended on him too much.

Demonstration of stakes. In Die Hard, when Mr. Takagi does not supply the combination for the vault, we know Hans Gruber is willing to kill to succeed.

Justice. This is classic, with bad guys getting theirs at the end. It could be Montoya stabbing the six-fingered man or the Death Star blowing up or Warden Norton killing himself in The Shawshank Redemption.

Values. When characters sacrifice themselves, you know what they stand for. Spartacus died for freedom, as did William Wallace (Braveheart).

This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help you to see WHY you are killing off a character (and YOU are doing it, even if you subcontract the work to a villain). If you know why, there is a better chance the death will be clear and meaningful to the readers and audience members.

Understanding why the character must die can help you in a number of ways:

Clarity - How and why the character dies need to be established right away in many cases. For a mystery or a thriller, the questions must be raised and carefully answered at the best times for dramatic effect.

Tone - If this story has life and death stakes, it better feel like that throughout, with plenty of indication early on that characters could die.

Preparation - Guns can’t appear out of nowhere. If the character will die of disease, he/she better cough early on. And preparation should include pacing so the most is gotten out of the death. This may require comic relief (since we guard ourselves against strong emotions). In a mystery, there may need to be clues planted.

There are also key decisions to make in terms of who witnesses the death. This includes decisions to have deaths off stage (or off camera).

I’m a big believer in pushing to extremes in drafts. Making deaths as painful and disastrous as possible. You can always pull back, and I’ve had to do that with some of the deaths in my stories that were too real, too gross, or too sudden. Also, never ever kill a dog. You will not be forgiven.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

In a Perfect World - Removing obstacles to find your story

Want to ruin a story? Make it too easy for the protagonist to succeed. Want to make a better story? Play with the idea of making the story world ideal, just, or coddling. If Mother Nature had been a spoiling Grandmother Nature, we’d all be pampered nematodes. So don’t actually write your story without obstacles, just explore it.

What’s the “perfect world”? One where the protagonist isn’t forced to change. I looked through some of the movies in my post Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1, to see what well-known movies might teach me.

It may be that everything falls into place according to plan. In Singin’ in the Rain, I made The Jazz Singer a failure, as expected by Hollywood execs. That means Don Lockwood can get away with “show” and never has to become a "real" actor.

Or adversity doesn’t show up. In The Godfather, Don Corleone isn’t shot and Michael slides into a political career without getting his hands dirty. In Ghost, Sam never gets murdered.

Or justice is served. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy is found innocent of his wife’s murder.

If you take a look at your story and can’t imagine how things might have gone well, it may be that things don’t go badly enough to get the story going. Beware of vague longings that move the protagonist to sacrifice and change.

The world can be a lot less interesting even when things go badly, but not badly enough. In Star Wars, Luke can’t go to the Academy, but he still resists the call to become a Jedi. Until his aunt and uncle are murdered. It’s the final kick in the pants he needs to begin his journey. Consider, with your story, if this sort of one-two punch will be needed. (Note: Flaws may provide a clue. Luke is coming of age, so he has to grow up some for his flaw to lock into place. But one story incident works with Michael because he’s deeply cynical. Similarly, Don is hampered by his craving for dignity, which keeps self-criticism at bay, so a single talkie humiliation resets his life.)

Even “fixing” the story world so the protagonist carries on with a career or dodges adversity or gets justice is likely not to be enough when you explore favorite stories more deeply. Obstacles, ignorance, and villains show up and are clarified in this perfect world. If they don’t stop the hero as surely as the first body blow, they do create problems. So, once you create a perfect world, probe it for its imperfections.

After you do this for the great movies you’ve selected, try the same with your own story. If obstacles, ignorance, and villains don’t show up in sharp relief, you have some work to do. You may find the answers in the newly envisioned classics you’ve been exploring. Or they may be there already, just waiting for you to polish them up so they become visible (and disturbing) to your readers.