Robyn Hoode has been my faithful follower for a very long time. It was only recently, however, that she made herself a blog, so I could give her publicity via a guest post. Give her post a read, then follow her blog. It’s worth it. Enjoy the post.
(Thank you for this guest post, Liam. This is awesome!)
One of the things I have been working on is the emotions of scenes. This is a concept that I’ve had some trouble in understanding and it’s kind of difficult to work on a specific concept if you don’t understand it.
When it comes to writing emotions, ideally, the reader should be feeling the same thing as the POV character or some sort of sympathy or something like that. Unless there are scenes where the reader just wants to keep reading and doesn’t necessarily feel anything. However, the character should still have emotions and those emotions should still be in the scenes.
This is where I struggled. What if the character doesn’t have a specific feeling? What if they’re almost indifferent, just like the reader who wants to keep reading? Because humans don’t necessarily have constant emotion all the time, either. What about when you’re watching a movie that you’ve seen a thousand times before? What about when you’re just making dinner? Unless you actually are sad about the onion you’re chopping, those tears aren’t emotional. And what about when you’re sick? I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick, I don’t want to do anything except curl up on the couch, drink hot tea (which I do not normally drink at all), and watch My Little Pony.
But wait a minute. I do have emotions during all that. When I’m watching that movie I’ve already seen a thousand times, it’s because I want to and it’s probably a favorite (unless it’s something my siblings picked and then I might ignore it to write). There’s emotion there, right? It’s how I feel. When I’m cooking dinner, I’m usually thinking about something or I’m hurrying to get done with the hands-on work so I can read or write or just do something else. And when I’m sick, I’m often too emotional and am thoroughly convinced that everything I write is awful.
People don’t ever stop thinking. They might be concentrating on something, but that is a form of thought, right? When you’re writing first person or third person limited point of view, you are showing the world through one specific person’s eyes. You are showing us how they feel about things through what they notice and how they describe it. Action sometimes tells us how a person feels. If they fidget, they’re nervous. If they rebel against authority, they probably think that the authority in question is wrong.
But here’s the other half of the problem I faced: What if the POV character is happy?
Of course, your POV character can be happy. However, there are a couple of things that you need to balance with that happiness to keep the readers from putting down the book. Timing is extremely important. Happiness right before the final battle is not a good idea. Determination, sure. Hope, absolutely. A small smile because the plan is so clever? I think that’s mostly pride or joy that they might have finally figured out a way to defeat the villain. But your characters shouldn’t be having a tea party and laughing without a care right before the final battle.
Another thing that happiness should be balanced with is tension and stakes. If your character’s mom has been kidnapped and the villain announces that he has plans to make MC’s mom into a mindless zombie in just a few days, it’s better if MC doesn’t go to that concert (even if he’s been counting down the seconds until the show). In fact, most good offspring would probably go and rescue Mom instead of going to the concert. Tension: a time limit. MC only has a few days. Stakes: Mom being turned into a zombie. And if you wanted to really up the tension, you could make it so not going to that concert had some pretty serious stakes, too.
I’m not saying that the POV character should never be happy. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to have a very happy scene right before a tragedy so that the tragedy hits harder. But you need to keep the reader reading. So happiness at the end of a chapter is not necessarily a good idea. Most chapters should end with a plot twist of some sort. If there’s a plot twist, chances are good that the character is not happy about it. Many things factor into the emotion of a scene. Characters thoughts and circumstances do. If something bad has happened, they’re either angry or sad about it. That’ll affect the way they see things and how they act and it’ll put emotion into the scene.
The other day, I had just read through notes from a beta-reader and was talking to her about them. I was telling her how my favorite part of any feedback notes is seeing where my readers laughed, were shocked, scared, sad, etc. I realized then that I’ve been trying to evoke reader emotion for a long time. I love shocking readers. I want to make a reader cry one day. Some of my favorite feedback from any story ever was hearing how I scared a reader in a short horror story. I just haven’t been trying to evoke emotion for more than a scene or two. I need to evoke emotion for the whole book.
That means that before I write each scene, I need to decide what my POV character is feeling and what I want the reader to feel at the end of the scene. Because writing a scene without emotion isn’t an option. It feels very dry. Stale bread dry. If my character isn’t feeling anything, she’s too comfortable. If my character is too comfortable where she is, I need to raise the stakes or add a plot twist. And I need to look at the book as a whole as well so I can foreshadow properly. When something tragic happens, my readers will feel the sadness my character feels if I set things up correctly.
This topic interweaves with promises and foreshadowing and other techniques of writing that I don’t have the space to talk about here (this post is over 1k words as it is). I wish I did, but this is only a guest post. Thanks again, Liam.
All right, I’m curious… if you were writing the story with my zombie-Mom example, how would you raise the stakes in the other direction? What terrible thing will happen if MC doesn’t go to the concert? I think that it’s possible MC is a band member. If he doesn’t go to the concert, he’ll be fired. There are numerous variations and you certainly can make the stakes higher than that. Go for it.