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Juicing Emotion

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichĂ©s that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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  1. Dina Santorelli’s avatar

    Great advice. It reminds me of one of my favorite books on writing, WRITING DOWN THE BONES. I always tell writers they should write with their heart and edit with their head. When you’re drafting, just get it down. Go there, as you say. No worries. I tell them, if it helps, that they can always delete the scene in editing, but find that they usually never do. :)

  2. B.D. Knight’s avatar

    I really liked the Hunger Games – both the book and movie. But was somewhat disappointed when the announcement came that if 2 from a district survived, they could win. It seemed to take away a lot of the suspense. What if that hadn’t happened? They could have done the suicide thing at the end to even more tension. Now obviously Collins wrote a tremendous book but do you have any thoughts on that?

  3. Linda W’s avatar

    I needed this post. And I admit that I haven’t “gone there” the way I need to do. Self-preservation I guess. But I’m not doing myself or my readers a favor. So, I’m going to go there.

  4. Alexa Y.’s avatar

    I hopped on over from Diana Peterfreund’s website, and I’m so happy to read your post! It’s always been an interesting quirk of mine to have difficulty “going there”. I like keeping my characters happy and making sure they’re safe and healthy and unharmed (just like children). I’ve realized early this year though that that actually makes my story less compelling and more hollow than I want it to be – and so, I’m learning to fight against my natural instinct!

  5. sabrina’s avatar

    Thanks for a great post, Mary. I particularly liked the ‘Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!. It reminded me that even in a dark (not necessarily dystopian) manuscript, it’s good to bring some light in, so the contrast would be even stronger afterwards.

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