Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Emotion postponement

Emotion scenes are not action scene-- the pacing is usually slow so that the emotion can build up. But also, the emotional arc will benefit from an incident that really poses the emotional question.

For example, one of my favorite themes is the discovery of the reality of heroism (in a jaded world). I know I'm remembering this episode of House wrong-- I tend to mentally rewrite stories to fit my conception of how they ought to work. So I'm going to present it generically, but feel free as you visualize the doctor to install Hugh Laurie in the role:

Doctor is all curmudgeonly, but not in a nice way. He is a cynic and doesn't believe in much of anything. And he's long since given up on love, thinking that it is pretty much only an exercise of selfishness-- "I love you-- what's that get me?"

So he has the case of a pre-teen girl who has been very ill, went into remission, and has come back with renewed symptoms. She is very brave and strong, and he doubts this -- no one, particularly a child, can be so heroic, so she must be pretending or deluding herself. He doesn't of course-- being a good doctor-- try to undermine her strength, but at every point he has to give her bad news, he's watching carefully to see if she finally breaks. But she's sunny and positive, and so is her mother, both of them reacting to every setback with forceful optimism.

Let's stop here and think. He is the protagonist, not the little girl. So when I say, "What's the emotional question?" it's not HER question. It's his. What's his emotional question? Yes, he's wondering if she's real, if this is honest, but beneath that is the question, "Is there strength? Is there courage? And if so, what creates it? And why don't I have it?" What he's really wondering, I think, is how this little girl can be so strong and positive, when he, a big grownup, doubts that he is. (His cynicism, of course, is just a mask for his fear and uncertainty and self-doubt.)

Okay, back to emotion. Truly, we're all going to be sad about a little girl dying of cancer. We're all going to be even sadder when she's so brave and strong and it doesn't save her. But...

Do you REALLY want to wring your readers and leave them in a sobbing mess on the floor? Yes, I know you do.

Don't just have her then die. That's sad. But you can do more. Go back to that emotional question. It's not "Can courage surmount cancer?" That's really an external question. What's the internal, emotional question? "What makes this little girl so much braver than I am?"

What event can really, really force this question? It's not some external thing of "shall we try this treatment that might save her?" That's really just a repeat of what's already happened-- we've already seen her being brave and treatments that might save her. Her bravery isn't the issue. So the event has to be something different, something that doesn't pose that simple survival issue, but a more complex one.

Again, what's the real question-- "What does she have that I don't?" -- to oversimplify. So what DOES she have?

And what can bring that out, make it manifest?

There's no hope. She's dying. But there's a treatment that could give her another few months, though it's a painful prospect-- she'll live longer but in pain. That's bad enough, isn't it? The girl has to decide whether she wants a few more months of life... in pain.

But-- but the real wrenching choice-- and remember, this is HIS story-- should answer that emotional question. So first-- put him there and make him important. He's the one who tells her and her mother that they have only these two options, let her go, or let her live a few more months in pain. (That is, put him right there in the dilemma.) Put in a time deadline to increase the tension-- they have to decide by morning whether to start the treatment.

Now it's time to take time. Don't go right to the morning decision. If the point is to get the protagonist in there to see this happening, to have his question answered, he should be within this terrible choice-- not the one who makes the choice, but at least a witness to it.

So take your time. Don't rush it. Remember the question, and who can provide the answer-- the two of them, the doctor (the question) and the child (the answer) have to be together for the greatest drama.
The girl (not the mother, who is of course brave too, but we've set up the girl, the child, the innocent, as the bravery emblem) comes to him and asks him to help her decide.

Zowie. There you have him drawn in-- not just the witness, but now a participant. (Good plotting. :) So he might go over the options with her, careful not to influence her to his own view that she is just going to die anyway, so why not avoid the pain.

But then she interrupts him. "You're not understanding me. I don't mean what's best for me. What's best for my mother? Would it be better for her to let me go now, or to have me a few more months but have to watch me be in pain? What would be best for Mommy?"

And then, as he stammers, unable really to answer-- well, there's the answer. Yes, she really is brave and strong (it wasn't just self-delusion), and what makes her so, what she has that he doesn't, is love. And it's not just being loved that gives her strength, it's loving. And that's despite the terrible conflict, that loving her mother makes this descent to death twice as hard-- she's not just losing her life, she's knowing how much the death will hurt her mother. So the love is both the answer-- why she's so brave-- and the conflict-- why it's so painful-- and also the tragedy-- why this is heroism, and why it's so tragic.

And whatever is decided in the external plot (if she chooses treatment or a swift death), the real question has been answered: It's love.

Just a couple thoughts:

1) Take your time! Emotion doesn't usually happen if you rush it. Take your time and develop the mood, the issues, the intensity. This might require more scenes than you initially planned.

2) Know your protagonist and put him/her in the emotion scenes. The emotion happens to the protagonist too.

3) Think about what the subtextual emotional question is for the protagonist. When he looks at this situation, what is he asking, deep in his soul? Make sure that you have an event that answers that question.

4) If it's possible, make the protagonist part of the answer-event, as the little girl above asks him for advice.

5) Take your time! Postpone the "punch line" in a plausible way-- like the doctor assuming the girl is asking for herself and presenting his advice with her in mind. That forces the little girl to state straight out what she really means (and not a dry eye in the house), and provides finally an answer to that emotional question. Take this scene slowly. Have some stops and restarts. His scene goal is giving the girl the right advice, right? (YOUR scene goal is to reveal the answer to the emotional question, but his is to do his duty as a doctor and give the right advice.) There should always be conflict in a scene to keep him from getting the goal in line 4. The conflict here is that he's not sure what the right advice is, AND that it turns out he's wrong about what advice she needs (it's not about her, but about her mom). Take your time! This is not the scene to worry about quickening the pace.

Emotion takes time. In fact, a scene like this is actually the culmination of emotional build-up through the whole story, so milk it for maximum enjoyment. Okay, that might not be the right word, enjoyment.



Anonymous said...

Tears are the cleansing rain of the psyche. I am strange - I like them. I've seen what happens to people who refuse to shed them. ;) Enjoyment is a good word.

Edittorrent said...

I am reminded of Aristotle, who made the point that literature and drama let us cleanse by evoking emotion that we won't let ourselves feel in our own lives.


Merc said...

Wonderful post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Call me a bit of a sap, but that one got me. Just the brief summary here was enough to clench my gut. The analysis was excellent, good lady.

It's what I strive for in my own fiction: the slow reveal. Don't get to the emotional climax until it's as tightly strung as possible.

Thanks for the refresher on how to delay effectively.

Edittorrent said...

Slow reveal-- great way to put it, Simon!

Eva Gale said...

How are we supposed to pick posts for the contest is you keep writing more awesome ones?

MrsMusic said...

It's funny - I had always tried to be concise in writing, not to wobble around, and to keep the action going. But guess what happened: When I started to revise my first draft, I found many places where I was rushing too much, and made notes like "take your time for the emotions here". I couldn't have explained what it was exactly - but now you did! Thanks a lot!

Leona said...

I'm with Eva! I had a hard time choosing them. I don't think all would have been an appropriate answer LOL

That was well done. I like how you put things.

Patience-please said...

This post is a 15. (On a scale of 1 to 10.)
Thank you.

J.B. Chicoine said...

This comes at a perfect time for me--trying to get that emotional twist in my final chapter--thanks!

Riley Murphy said...


This one's a keeper!