Thursday, July 14, 2011

Making the Moment

Emotion, like humor, benefits from being drawn out. This is especially true if it's some long-sought moment. You'll wring more emotion if you take a bit of time to set up the moment, and then find a subtle way to postpone it JUST FOR A BIT. (Multiple postponements could lead to melodrama, about which read Theresa's great Cheating Melodrama post.)

An example of postponing the emotional payoff moment is early in Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad has just been paroled from prison and has walked and hitchhiked home. There's a long set-up of Tom and his friend Casy finding that his home area has been devastated, with evil bankers foreclosing on farms and bulldozing homes. He gets the low-down from Muley, an old man driven into hiding by the bankers. Tom understandably starts to worry that his own family has been affected, and Muley warns him that the Joads are heading to California to find work. So Tom approaches the home in anxiety, and is beyond relieved to see his father (who, fatherlike, quickly assumes he's busted out of jail and is ready to be upset). Tom, above all, wants to see his beloved mother, and has to be warned off running into the house and startling her.

So it's established that he's anxious about their fate, and that they were about to leave for CA and he was lucky to find them. And he's seen his father. So already, expectation is high, and the suspense is like a knot in our throats.

But Steinbeck doesn't give us a quick emotional jolt of Ma seeing him and shouting with joy. No, Pa calls out to her that there are two hobos here, and can they stay for supper. Easily she says yes, as she brings the food out to set on the table. NOT LOOKING UP. Tom can barely restrain himself as his father calls him "Mister" rather than his name, and Steinbeck even draws it out a bit more, having Tom stand in such a way that his mother can't see him against the sun. Tom's mental description of her stretches the suspense out for another paragraph or two.

Finally, though, Tom steps forward and Ma sees him and cries out, and their embrace is that much more powerfully emotional because of the suspended set-up.

Notice that done poorly, this can dissolve into sentimentality or frustration or melodrama. Effects like this are all in the execution. If you do it well, you've given the reader an intense experience. If you do it poorly, you can annoy or amuse the reader. What Theresa and I are saying is-- it's not the event that makes a scene melodramatic or irritating. It's how it's DONE that makes the difference.

And good writers can learn how to design a scene where the event becomes important and meaningful because of how it's presented. Never settle for just putting the event (Tom's return to Ma) there and thinking that's enough, or, conversely, shoving in more emotion than is there naturally.

So what's a scene you've been working on? And how have you designed the scene so that it's more powerful but not too over-the-top?



John H said...

I love the concept here, and need to think how I can use this in my own writing, but the examlpe you have given, it all seems fake and well, stupid. Why would the father draw it out like that? it feels like fake tension to me because it doesn't make sense?

One example in my own writing I can think of is a space pirate captain has boarded and commandered a luxury liner. He takes over, forces the liner capctain to take to hte lockup to where his father is beind held. (there was a interstellar war, the father was a POW and being returned as partr of the armistice, the liner was sort of haranged into the transfer) So the liner captain stalls and tries to trick him but we get closer and closer to finding the father, then the liner captain opens the last door and the pirate captain senses the room is too still, 'a cloak of death hanging over it'. He steps through the door, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He sees structural members against the far wall, some drums stacked in a corner and a winch protruding throuh the other wall, and then he sees the set of coffins, arranged in a perfect grid, the flag draped across each. The father wasn't actually POW, he was KIA, whoops. easy mistake to make though, esp when you don't pay people enough for stealing information for you.

So I try and draw out that moment a little, but no where to the level you have described. I'll have to think about what else I can do.

Thanks again for the great post.

Edittorrent said...

John, well, of course I had to compress the example. (Grapes of Wrath is a very leisurely book. :) And in the book, the father makes the point that if Tom just appeared, Ma would have a heart attack from shock, so the drawing out makes more sense within the scene. In fact, it's a powerful scene, and the whole episode after he leaves prison uses postponement and preparation to heighten the emotional release when Ma sees him. But you don't have to go with my summary. You can read it in Google books and you can decide if in fact it seems "fake and stupid," or if my account just makes it so.

(And also, families do this. It's called "teasing". Think of your brother holding something behind his back. "Oh, Johnny, looks like you got a letter. Wonder if it's from a girl. Envelope is pink!" -sniffs the air-- "Perfume too? Wonder who it's from?" And then, when you tried to snatch it, he laughed and ran away, and you had to chase him four times around the house before you caught him and grabbed the envelope to find out which of the three girls you met at summer camp had written to you. Romance is dead now-- they'd all just post on your Facebook wall. But your brother knew... all the fun is in postponing. Most, anyway.)

If you think a postponement is in order for your own example, and I agree, the discovery that the father is dead is a great opportunity for that-- Think about the captain's hemming and hawing, glancing over at the door. But what would prepare more for the emotion would be your guy getting impatient, thinking of how happy his father is going to be, etc. Then that moment he sees all the coffins and realizes will be really intense. I suspect you have all of that in there. So just read it over and see if you want to heighten it more, if it needs that.

This postponement technique, I think, is how you get readers to laugh and cry. It's all in the presentation.

Emotion really does benefit from drawing it out. Hmm. Maybe this is a gender thing. Foreplay, gentlemen, works wonders with the female persuasion. :) I bet Steinbeck was great in bed.


linda said...

Great post! Love what you say about foreplay. ;)

I think postponement can be awesome for surprise, too. If it's more drawn-out, there's more space for red herrings and reader anticipation. Then when the outcome is not as the reader expected, it's so much more shocking than if it came out of nowhere, because the reader already formed an idea of what will happen. Love when that happens. It's so frustrating when I call all the reveals ahead of time!