Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emotion in The Three Acts

I was just doing a workshop about emotion, and we were talking about how to convey emotion in characters who aren't openly emotional, about making an emotional journey for them in the plot. That is, story emotion isn't just the immediate outburst following an event within a scene, but it can be a book-length exploration and dynamic, changing as the plot changes.

So let's think of the Three Acts of the story, and this is just the simple Aristotelian plot structure:

Act 1: Set up
Act 2: Rising conflict
Act 3: Climax and resolution

When I think of "book-length," I think in terms of "three" like above. How does this journey break into three parts? (My article about the book theme developed through the three parts, as an example of "the three.") So here's an "emotion journey" in three acts:

Act 1: Repression. (Protagonist starts out repressing an emotion like grief.)
Act 2: Suppression. (The rising conflict of the plot forces the protagonist to start feeling that emotion, and pro must actively suppress what previously could just be repressed.)
Act 3: Expression. (Finally, the climactic events in the end-- the crisis, the dark moment, the climax-- lead tha protagonist into accepting the need for that emotion, and expressing it.)

1. Willa had a complex relationship with her father, and the day after they have a big argument, he suddenly dies. Willa represses her grief, "surfacely" or ostensibly because she is involved with something important in the plot (solving a murder, finding a cure for this killer virus, run for election whatever) and grieving will interfere with her goal. But subconsciously, she repressed grief because grieving would reveal and force her to feel the guilt that she might have caused her father's death, or was never a good daughter.
    How to show? Well, start at the funeral. She wears sunglasses ostensibly to hide her red-rimmed eyes, but in fact to hide that they are NOT red-rimmed (she hasn't cried). What else?

2. In pursuit of the goal, she gets right back to work, but every now and again, the "need for grief" arises in some "reminder" about her father, like a friend calls to ask how she's doing, or a sibling calls for a consult on the gravestone, or.... Just repressing isn't enough now. She has to actively suppress the emotion, focusing on work, refusing to answer the phone when sib calls. 
      But there are repercussions to suppression-- she gets blocked in her work. She drinks too much. Her sister is furious with her. The voters think she's cold and the polls show she's going to lose the election.

3. Something forces her into confrontation with the suppressed emotion. (A misdirected letter from Dad arrives a couple weeks late?)  (And of course all the important stuff about her goal-getting external plot is coming to a head here.) She lets herself express the grief, or rather, lets down the suppression barriers, and grieves. Something in this grief, or the catalytic event-- the letter from Dad, whatever-- gives her the key or the will or the motivation to solve that external problem.  Now that she is expressing rather than repressing or suppressing emotion, she can solve that murder or cure that virus or find an emotional connection to voters.

Okay, that's pretty simplistic, but you can see how "emotion" can be turned into a journey over the course of the story, so that the character's experience of emotion develops along with and braided into the plot. What do you think? The journey of course might be a different set of three parts than this (it might be Involuntary Expression, Resistance, Understanding, for example), but RSE is an example of one way to create an emotion journey in the story.

Have you tried showing emotional change in the story acts, and having the change affect the plot? Examples?


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Something in the air

First, I read this HuffPo essay about historical fiction and accuracy online. Then I ran across a debate on Facebook about an historical novel which substituted a fictional character for a somewhat prominent public figure of the time. Now I just received an email from an author questioning just how historically accurate we must be in our fiction. Something in the air right now, people are thinking about this issue.

My take on this issue is somewhat fluid. I answer any questions about historical accuracy on a question-by-question basis. Some details are so important that they must be portrayed in accordance with the historical record, or people will become understandably upset, as they did when a blue-eyed actress was chosen to play Anne Boleyn. Anyone familiar with her story knows that she was famous for her flashing dark eyes, and for these people, choosing a light-eyed actress is something like choosing a brunette to play Farrah Fawcett. It just rings false.

But, by the same measure, as the HuffPo essayist notes, sometimes it's possible to err on the side of historical accuracy. Some things from the past are simply disgusting to modern tastes. We don't want to read about oozing flea bites and halitosis and whatever passed for medicine in the old days. We don't like to think about how they ate old meat dredged in cinnamon and black pepper to disguise the rancid taste. People died from splinters, and the streets were paved with feces. But do we want to fill our books with this stuff? Heck, no, because it's just not entertaining.

Exhibit A: The Libertine, a movie that could have been entertaining, but fell short. Between the "natural" lighting and the insistence on portraying every bit of squalor in London, the film's visuals were so distracting that people found it alienating. That wasn't the only problem with the film, but the selection of which historical details to include, which to leave out, and how to display them was a big set of bad decisions. 

So this is how I evaluate historical information. It has to ring true, it has to appeal to modern readers, and it has to avoid distracting us from more important things. How do you evaluate historical information in novels?


Friday, October 12, 2012

An ongoing discussion

Okay, so, here's the background on this post. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I'm detail-oriented. (I prefer "detail-oriented" to "OCD about everything inside the four corners," thank you very much.) Some time ago, in response to a post of mine about how to manipulate details within settings, another editor challenged me (privately, and no, I won't tell you which editor) by claiming that none of that kind of detail matters. Only the plot matters. If the plot works, the book works.

This has led to an ongoing, behind the scenes debate about whether a book with a good plot and bad mechanics can still be deemed good. Obviously, I disagree with her position. I believe that plot is just one of many story and narrative elements that must work in order for the book as a whole will work.

And I think I have found the book that will allow me to declare permanent victory in this debate. I'm not going to humiliate the author here, because I'm not into that sort of thing. But here's the short rundown on the good aspects of this book --

-- I cannot fault the plot. If I were editing this book, I would have only one plot note to make, and that has to do with a secret that should be revealed a bit earlier. You know the old saying -- if a conflict can be resolved with an honest conversation, it's not a real conflict. This book has one of those, but it is not the only conflict, so resolving it early would free up the plot to focus on the real conflicts. This is a fairly minor plot note, and fairly routine. The fact that it is the only plot note speaks pretty well of the plot.

-- In fact, the other aspects of the plot are sort of fascinating. The amazon comments that give the book 4 and 5 stars all focus on these aspects of the book, these plot aspects and the mystery angle. It works, and it works well. The book has sold semi-decent numbers, and I suspect it's on the strength of this aspect of the story alone.

Those are the pros. Here are the cons.

-- The pov fluctuates wildly. It took me about 30 pages before I knew who the heroine was, mainly because of the way the pov bounced around secondary characters at the beginning of the book. The character I assumed was the heroine died in the second chapter. Some of the 1 and 2 star reviews on amazon complain about their inability to connect to the characters, and I blame the pov for this. It's hard to cheer for a protagonist you can't even identify, and it's hard to relate to characters who keep bouncing in and out of the text and dying off.

-- Each page contains at least one, and usually several, strikingly difficult and awkward sentences. Nobody line edited this thing, I promise you. It's a mess. Again, the weak amazon reviews sometimes refer to this by talking about how they had to re-read passages to understand them. "Confusing" is a word that comes up over and over again in the bad reviews.

-- There are far, far too many characters, and at least half of them don't matter at all. One amazon reviewer spent a very long paragraph trying to explain the relationships between all these secondary characters, complete with lots of ??? and !!!. It's too much, and it's confusing. (This is aggravated by the fact that so many of these secondaries have pov sequences.)

-- The description was almost comically bad. Several poor reviews note the clumsy handling of setting descriptions and the strange fascination with describing body parts that aren't usually described at all, let alone in such detail and with such frequency.

-- Typos and mechanical errors abound, and the reviewers mock many of them. With good reason. Some of the homonym errors, in particular, are laughably bad. I can guarantee that this book was not edited properly.

-- The pacing was disastrous. I lost count of the number of reviews that said they'd skipped over major chunks of text or had read only dialogue or only the first line of each paragraph. Even some of these complainants mentioned that they enjoyed the plot, but found it took too long to unfold.

-- The major characters were a bit wobbly. Most readers approved of the heroine (once we all knew who she was), and most of them found the villain to be cartoonish and clumsy. I didn't see any criticism of the hero, not even in the good reviews, but I also didn't see any praise for him. He read like a placeholder to me, a character with a clear plot function but not much else. Both the hero and the villain needed revision.

Several of the reviews noted that they had received the book for free but would never download anything else by this author. Several of them noted that they had been unable to finish the book. I could go on, but will spare you. My point is mainly to show that I am not the only one reacting to the book this way. It doesn't take an educated reader to spot the flaws and still see that the plot is good. The bottom line? I win the debate. A good plot cannot save an otherwise bad book. So this is the part where I throw down the mic, yo.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Multiple adjectives

Help! What's your suggestion here?

The research topic has to allow you to find academic, scholarly, and professional source.

Okay, what I mean is-- academic sources. Scholarly sources. Professional sources. 

I don't mean every source has to be all of those, but rather each source has to be one of those. 

How would you make it clear?


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Horrible thoughts

I'm just going to jot down some thoughts coming out of a discussion over lunch with my son about Stephen King and horror fiction and stuff. Other thoughts or speculations?

1) Horror is not just a genre. Like "romance" and "mystery" and "suspense," it's an emotion that can be generated within a book about something else. Why would we want to have a scene or passage or more of horror in a non-horror-genre book? To deepen the darkness of the book? To heighten the relief of a happy ending? I do think that horror would provide contrast (in the color sense) to the rest of the book, as long as it doesn't overwhelm with darkness.

2) Horror is not about the dreadful event... it's about the dread of the event. As with suspense, the buildup becomes all-important, to create that sense of dread within the character and the reader. Scene design, word choice, pacing-- these must combine. Pacing will slow down, sentences will lengthen, so the scene can lovingly, almost lubriciously, develop the creepy horror-ness. Presentation (the development) will be more important than plot (the event).

3) Horror is created by -knowing-. You have to know what's coming to be horrified by it. (Looking back on a horrible event works too, because you -know- it can happen now.) Notice how in "The Lottery" Shirley Jackson builds the dread by making it clear that everyone in the village knows what's going to happen (even if the reader doesn't). Go ahead, read the story (it's only eight pages), and see how the relatively bright tone in opening paragraph becomes progressively darker as the festive mood gives way to anxiety. The villagers all know what's coming.

4) Horror is inspired by the writer taking access to his/her deepest fears. But the event doesn't have to be all that dramatic. What's important is that either it's a common fear, or the writer describes the feeling well to make the reader "know" it.

Stephen King, I remember, was asked what in his life prepared him to write horror, and he spoke of two very common, nearly universal events. Once, when he was a child, he had an ear infection, and (presumably this was before antibiotics were used routinely) the doctor was going to lance the eardrum to release the pus. The boy (King) knew what was going to happen and that it was going to be terrible, and ran and hid in a closet. And his mother and the doctor had to come and drag him out and perform the procedure. Maybe few of us get our eardrums lanced, but we all got shots (I have to inject myself with medicine, and no matter how often I have done it, every single time there's a moment of horror involved in the breaking of the skin).
(I'm writing from memory here, so tell me if I have the details wrong.)

Then the other incident was watching one of his children run into danger (collision with a snow plow? I forget) while King was too far away to rescue the child, and had to watch in dread (there's that word again).  (Nothing happened, but every parent has memories like this.)

Just take it slow. Read King's horror scenes, or Dean Koontz's, and see how slooooow the scenes develop. You can't shorthand horror. Dread has to build, through gradually darkening events and prose. That takes time and probably several revisions. It's not adventure. It's slow-paced, not fast-paced. There really aren't any shortcuts to horrifying readers.

5) To get in touch with what will horrify, remember your nightmares, and study the most common nightmare types. If you can invent scenes that include some common nightmare element, you'll be making a direct connection to our subconscious, and to the collective unconscious.

For example, one of my recurrent nightmares is seeing a plane on fire in the night sky, and it sails over a ridge, and then I hear an explosion and see a fireburst on the ridge. I suspect most people have a nightmare where (as with King's example above) they know something terrible is about to happen and can't stop it. That would make a great horror scene (especially if at that moment, the character had a friend or loved one taking a flight). 

Another recurrent nightmare I have-- and you probably do too-- is being chased. But with mine, there's an added terror. I run through a shadowy street to get to my own front door. I fall into my house, slam the door closed, stand there panting but relieved. And then, slowly, I become aware that whatever was chasing me is in the house. And I'm locked in with this evil.

Now if that sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen it in a few horror movies.

6) Horror elements, as a conduit to the subconscious, can trigger strong emotion even in other types of scenes. An example is the famous burlesque scene "Slowly I Turn," which uses the slow, mechanical, and repetitive language of a horror film to comic effect.
(Here's Lucille Ball: Slowly I Turn, Step by Step.)

That horror scene of the chase through a shadowy street? Watch the end of Gone with the Wind. It's a romantic "horror"-- the terror that is "chasing" her is her fear of abandonment, and she gets home, and there is Rhett, and she sighs in relief-- she's home. She's safe. But then the terror is right there with her, in  her own home: Rhett announces he's leaving.

If  you want strong emotion, whether it's comedy or romance, try using the horror tropes in some way.

7) Horror is, at essence, about a fear of loss. Just as Scarlett feared losing love, a horror story character might fear losing control, or losing face, or losing trust, or losing some power. You know what's a great horror story? Flowers for Algernon. In that story, researchers manage to increase the IQ of a white rat (Algernon), and then try the technique on a man of low IQ (Charlie). Rapidly, he becomes a genius, and for the first time feels the great pleasure of learning and inventing and understanding. (And he falls in love.) But then Algernon begins to fade and lose his genius at running mazes. Charlie, witnessing this, realizes that he too will shortly be losing all the intellectual gains he made. This is the horror. He knows what is coming. He dreads the loss. He can't stop it.

That is how we create horror. Establish something of value, and then predict its loss.

What else? What do you think? Help?


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More sentence stuff

 Nothing deep here. I was just trying to create a handout out for conclusions in literature reviews (and you thought my life was dreary, huh?) and had this lumpen-prol sentence:

While the current research is comprehensive when describing the technical and technological processes involved here, 

Got that far and realized that was going to be a "Dolly Parton sentence"-- top-heavy. And what was coming next was going to be the end, the big conclusion (we need more discussion of XYZ before we proceed). And the big zinger should generally be in a sentence of its own, as it will "sound" more final then. So I went instead with two sentences:

The current research is comprehensive when describing the technical and technological processes involved in digital manipulation. However, before we proceed further into this venture, we should discuss the philosophical issue of how we can determine reality once seeing is no longer believing.

Actually, I think there needs (for rhythm and finality) to be a couple more syllables around "reality". Will fiddle. 

Anyway, this is an example of why, when a sentence becomes long and complex, we should always consider breaking it into two sentences. We might not want to, but there are often good "sound" reasons to make the big point its own sentence.