Posts Tagged prose
I’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.
Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.
Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.
So how do we communicate these emotions?
Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.
I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.
But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.
Emotion in descriptions
Let’s examine a common maxim – write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.
Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.
To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.
How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)
This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.
But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’
Stronger doses – handle with care
A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.
Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.
So … to sum up
1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’
2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’
3 Use internal dialogue
4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile
There’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.
I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos
My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.
But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.
Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.
It comes in two ways:
- how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
- why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’
For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.
Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.
Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.
And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.
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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments
What makes good writing? Victoria Mixon and I are fearlessly grappling with this question in this week’s editor chat, over at her wood-panelled lacy writing nest. Highlight? Victoria threatens to shave her head and move to Tibet Om your way over and see if you can stop her…