Write Diamonds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We are, of course, flooded with books these days. The Forbidden City still puts out product. The indie output is a veritable tsunami that swells ever larger each day. While most of it is bad (per Sturgeon’s Law), there is also a sizable chunk that is competent, even good.

Which is not enough to make it in this game. You’ve got to strive for unforgettable. You’ve got to write diamonds that sparkle through the rock piles and gravel pits of content.

Emotional intensity is one ingredient that will help get you there.

There’s an axiom attributed to Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. That is another way of saying you must feel deeply as you write your story, and transfer that feeling to the readers.

Let me offer some tips.

1. Feel it

In my theater days I learned a technique handed down from legendary acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky. It’s called “emotion memory.” You think back to a time when you felt the emotion you want to convey in a scene. Get in a quiet place and recreate the memory with all its sensory data. That means what you saw, smelled, touched, heard and tasted.

As you recall these sensations you will discover that the emotion wells up afresh within you. The sense memories are causing you to experience the emotion as if it were happening in the present.

With a little practice you’ll be able to call up emotions as you need them when you’re about to write a scene.

2. Improvise

Invite your characters to play around. Take a seat in the movie theater of your mind and watch what happens.

Close your eyes and conjure up a character. Set the scene, whatever pops into your head.

Follow the character. How does she move? What is she wearing? How does she react to the setting?

Now give her a reason for being in the scene. Where is she going? Why? Have her turn to the “audience” and say exactly what she’s after. Make that hugely important to her.

[Note: this is not an actual scene for your novel (unless you choose to use it). This is a scene to get to know your character more deeply. Let it surprise you.]

With your character on the way toward a goal, introduce another character into your scene, someone who will be the opposition.

Watch the scene unfold. Don’t try to control it. Let emotions run rampant. Have the characters struggle and fight. Where’s the passion?

The late Stephen J. Cannell, author of the Shane Scully series, said, “I’m a visceral writer. I do improvs through the books. I become the characters. I’ll say something as Shane, then I’ll say something as [his wife] Alexa. And it’ll tick me off. And I’ll react to that. I have to know what my characters want and I have to feel things. That’s part of the fun of it for me.”

Stay attuned also to images that will begin to arise in your imagination at odd times. E. L. Doctorow said he was feeing a “heightened sense of emotion” when visiting the Adirondacks after many years. He saw a sign that read Loon Lake. He liked the sound of the words together, and then a flood of images washed over him—a private train at night going through the Adirondacks; gangsters onboard; a beautiful girl holding a white dress in front of a mirror. He had no idea what the images meant, but started writing about them anyway.

Improvisational images will lead to story material pulsating with emotion.

3. Plan

Let your left brain pitch in and help. Ask some key questions before you write a scene:

– Who is the viewpoint character in this scene?

– What does he want?

– Why can’t he have it? Who or what is opposing him?

– What obstacles are placed in his way?

– What strategy will he use to get what he wants?

– What surprises can happen that will lead to emotional turmoil and the necessity for new plans?

4. Write

Write your scenes as fast as you comfortably can. This is not the time for editorial decisions. Get the words down and overwrite the emotional moments. Let yourself go! Get inside that character. Now, come back to this scene the next day and edit things down to where they feel right. You might only retain a line or two, but because you found them in the overwriting they’ll be choice.

5. Finish, Cut, and Polish

Write on. Keep the momentum. Finish the dang novel!

If you’ve written with emotion your draft will be a raw gem of great value. Now finish the job like an expert diamond cutter. This is the editing process, which I cover in some detail here. Another book I recommend is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

My final step is always a polish—I look one more time at scene openings and endings, and long dialogue exchanges (where a trim here and there makes a big difference).

Diamonds are formed by heat. So is great fiction. Feel your characters and plots intensely to produce a precious stone. Then cut and polish. That’s how your fiction will stand out from the pile of the merely competent.

What are some of the ways you bring emotion to your pages?

I’ll have what she’s having

Emotion: How to Get it Working for You

by Steve Hooley

We all learned how to “set off” friends or siblings as a child. If we were the eldest sibling, we quickly learned how to manipulate younger siblings to flare their temper, get them in trouble, then watch in amusement as they became truly infuriated for the injustice of being blamed for something we engineered.

If we were the youngest, we instinctively learned how to get an older sibling to hit us. We then shouted to a parent with exaggerated pain, and watched with glee as the older sibling received their just rewards.

And then, we grew up and learned to behave as adults…until we joined the work force and saw the office curmudgeon blame everyone else for mistakes, or the ladder-climber take credit for everyone’s successes.

Now, as writers, we need to take those lessons from childhood and the office drama, dust them off, and add them to our arsenal or toolbox of skills for controlling emotions – in our characters and, even more importantly, in our readers.

Why? Because we are told that emotion is the glue that connects our readers to our books.

Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain, p. 41: “How do you make readers care about what happens in your story? They must care, you know. Otherwise they won’t read!…A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”

So, what are the techniques used to create emotion in our readers? That’s a big question and a big topic. As I reviewed multiple books, I found multiple opinions. Broadly, I found two basic approaches taught:

  1. Creating emotion in the characters with which the reader can identify.
  2. Creating “big emotional experiences (for the reader), engineered by circumstances.” Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, 132.

Maass divides #1 (above) into two subcategories: showing and telling. Telling, where the writer goes “inside the mind and heart of a character to observe and feel story events just as that character does.” And showing, where the writer “puts the reader through a character’s experience, provoking emotions in the readers; don’t spoon-feed them emotions.” pp. 1,2.

So, actually, we have three basic approaches.

Maass goes on to explain category #2 (above) by writing, “Fiction writers are asking the wrong question. Showing and telling are fine as far as they go, but the emotional experience of readers has little to do with that. The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” pp. 2

In reality, hopefully, we can learn from all three approaches, find what works for us, and blend them into our own unique brew to get readers drunk on our book.

Under category #1 above, James Scott Bell discusses ways to create an emotional bond between our reader and our lead character using “four dynamics—identification, sympathy, likability, and inner conflict.” (Read more in Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell, pp. 64 – 68.)

  • Identification: “…the more the reader can identify with the lead, the greater the intensity of the plot experience…”
  • Sympathy: “In contrast to mere empathy, sympathy intensifies the reader’s emotional investment in the Lead.”
  • Likability: “…someone who does likable things…not selfish…people we like to be around.”
  • Inner Conflict: “Bringing your Lead’s doubts to the surface in your plot pulls the reader deeper into the story.”

Under category #1 (telling), Jodie Renner discusses getting it right, in Chapter 4, “Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions,” Fire Up Your Fiction. “Readers want to escape into your story world…and vicariously experience what your protagonist is experiencing…If your character’s reactions feel natural and believable to the reader, they will quickly suspend disbelief and become emotionally invested.”

Jodie quotes Jack Bickham and reviews the “stages of response.” (pp. 18 – 22, Fire Up Your Fiction) First show the stimulus, then show the reactions in their natural order:

  • Visceral response
  • Unconscious knee-jerk physical action
  • Thought process
  • Conscious action

It’s not necessary to show all the reactions, but get them in the right order.

 

Okay, there’s the outline of three approaches. Now it’s your turn. I did this mini-study because there is so much I need to learn. I hope you will share what you have learned and fill in the specifics.

  1. What other approaches should we add to the outline?
  2. What works for you?
  3. What techniques have you discovered to turn up the volume and intensity of the emotional response of your readers?

 We all want to use our books to control the hearts and minds of our readers, to stir their emotions, and to keep them reading into the wee hours of the morning?

 Please share your knowledge!

Guest Post by Agatha-Winner Leslie Budewitz

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

Today, I’m pleased to host Leslie Budewitz for this guest post. Leslie is an attorney, mystery author of two cozy series, and triple Agatha Award winner. For more than 20 years, she and I have been trusted critique partners and good friends.

Leslie offers insightful techniques to deepen emotion in our writing. Welcome, Leslie!

Emotional Research

by Leslie Budewitz

No matter what genre we write, readers come to our books in part for an emotional connection with our characters and the story. One way to give them that is to draw on our own experiences. We’ve all felt deep emotion—rage, betrayal, jealousy—that if pushed to extremes could lead us to do terrible things, planned or unplanned. I’m betting most of you have drawn on your own emotional experiences in your fiction, exploring your personal emotions, perhaps through a free-write, then giving that, or pieces of it, to your characters.

But sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. This is when need to call on our research and observational skills, as well as our empathy, to better understand a character’s emotional experiences, what motivates them, and how they will respond in a particular story crisis.

I first delved into this when writing my first published mystery, Death al Dente. When the series began, my main character, Erin Murphy, was a 32-year-old who had lost her father to a hit-and-run accident when she was 17; the crime was unsolved and I planned to solve it over the course of the first three books.

My father died when I was 30. That’s a very different experience. I’d worked on countless personal injury cases as a lawyer, including wrongful death cases, and knew some of what survivors went through. But I needed to know more about the emotion and how it might continue to influence this particular woman

I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew—well or not well—who’d lost a parent when they were young. Some of my observations were decades old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I remembered talking on the phone for an hour, back when daytime long distance was expensive, when my best friend from college lost her father at 21. I thought about some of the ways that loss at that age affected her—she’s still my BFF—and gave her a different experience than her older siblings got.

I remembered a conversation with a 35-year-old colleague whose father died when he was 18. “But you were grown,” a friend said, implying that that lessened the impact; “not really,” he replied, and his sadness told me how much he felt had been unjustly taken from him.

I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving her—and me—a dual perspective. I let my focus drift and I wrote about my reaction and that of my high school classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident junior year. Later that same week, a girl a year behind us in our small school lost her mother to wintry roads; the family lived near us and went to the same church. I thought about the baby, not a year old, who never knew his mother, and some poor decisions the oldest girl made that might have turned out differently if not for that tragedy.

Other options: Talk to people who’ve had your character’s experience, if they’re willing, or to people involved with it in other ways. I talked to my husband, who’s a doctor of natural medicine with a general practice and has treated many patients rocked by grief. Talk to your friend who teaches high school or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.

I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.

And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded; how the death affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship now. Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead Francesca to do—and say—when she sees her daughter investigating murder? Erin was on stage in the local theater rehearsing for the school play when the accident happened; fifteen years later, she still thinks about that every time she walks in the building. And the guilt she feels over having argued with him the last time she saw him doesn’t resolve until she solves the crime. It was just a teenager’s pique, but the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the emotions and the bigger the potential story impact.

Of course, all losses have ripple effects. In college, Erin was aloof, focused on school and her own grief. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her friendship with her childhood best pal is a big driver of the story as well, because of what the other girl thought she knew and how she responded—and because she’s now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.

For Erin, I did the emotional research during the first draft. For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut coming out later this month, I did the digging during revision, in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, appeared to be driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and blog posts by psychologists. Tip: This is one time when you want to read the comments! People will say the most amazing things when given the freedom.

All that helped me develop what I knew, and gave me specifics on how such a person views the world and the language they use. I was able to imagine more fully what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.

I said write by hand when you mine your memories and connections, and I mean it. Research shows that writing by hand bypasses our internal editors and judges, and gives us more direct access to our feelings.

You know how to research dates and car models and the color of prison jumpsuits. Turn those skills to your characters’ inner lives and you—and your readers—will connect with them more deeply, more fully.

~~~

Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.

More about Bitterroot Lake, including an excerpt and buy links here: https://www.lesliebudewitz.com/bitterroot-lake/

 

 

A big thank you to Leslie for sharing her wisdom! 

TKZers: Do you have favorite techniques to portray emotions about experiences you haven’t experienced yourself? Please share in the comments section. 

Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

James Scott Bell

Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God’s light table.

She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.

Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, “I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!”

When it happens to us at eight years old, we don’t exactly have a metaphor for it, but that’s what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!

I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.

Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?

I’d seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian’s balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.

I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer(I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.

There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.

What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan’s heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.

And every now and then we’d make eye contact. That’s when I’d kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.

Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse’s office is really something, isn’t it?

Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her.  She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.

I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.

Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.

School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, “Hi.” I don’t recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.

I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as “Mr. McMonster.”)

Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.

All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!

And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:

“Just because I’m walking with you doesn’t mean you’re my boyfriend.”

It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.

This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.

Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life’s moments in such a way as to let others experience them?

Even if it’s “only entertainment,” the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. “In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty,” writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.” And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering.

The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past andtranslate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we’ve felt and put them into the characters we create on the page.

Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.

So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn’t your boyfriend, but you taught me what it’s like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!

I hope you’re well. I hope you’ve found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.

But always remember this: I’m still the best kickball player you ever saw.

How To Get Emotional About Your Novel

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I don’t think you can write a great novel, even with a high concept and cool characters, unless you, the author, are emotional about it. If the story doesn’t grip your own heart and soul, how will it grab the readers? Without some emotional connection, the writing will too easily become paint-by-the-numbers.
Emotion in the author is literary electricity. It’s the X Factor, the game changer, the “second level of sell.” Readers sense it.
So how do you find the emotions?  One method I suggest comes from my days as an actor. We used to do “sense memory” exercises in class. This involves going back to your past, finding an emotional moment, and reliving it by recalling all the senses of the scene. You re-experience the moment. You feel it happening all over again. You then transfer that into your role.
There’s a similar method for fiction. I used it to launch into writing my newly released thriller, DON’T LEAVE ME

Here’s how it happened. I wanted to write a thriller about a good man who gets caught up in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances (a Hitchcock staple). I wanted a plot that makes readers go What? then Oh no! then Look out! and I didn’t see that coming!
I fleshed out a possible lead character and opening. A former Navy chaplain, Chuck Samson, is back from Afghanistan with a rare form of PTSD, and needs time to heal. He has an innocuous rear end accident one morning. But the guy he hits pulls a knife and threatens to kill him. A good Samaritan stops to help. The knife guy rolls away. And thirty seconds later Chuck gets a phone call warning him not say anything about what just happened or he’ll die. Just like his wife . . .
I liked it. But I knew I needed to feelthe material before I started investing more time. So I started to think about something I teach in my workshops: the “care package.” Who could Chuck be caring about before the story begins? I went through several possibilities, and then one day I went into my local Ralphs market and was met at the door by a friendly, developmentally challenged man whose job it was to greet customers and hand them an ad sheet with the daily specials. And immediately I thought, What if this was Chuck’s brother?
And so the character of Stan Samson was born. An adult with autism, friendly and funny. What if the bad guys after Chuck go after his brother, too?
The emotional pull started to hit me, because I went back to my own childhood, and the time my big brother saved me from a couple of bullies.
I was playing on a hill near our house when two “big kids” caught me and sat me down in front of some kind of big, block battery. They said if I tried to get away, they’d electrocute me to death. I was maybe six or seven, and I was scared out of my mind. They started talking about the things they were going to do to me. Making me squirm. When the terror got to be too great I made a break for it. I jumped up and ran faster than I ever had in my life. I did not look back. I ran the half mile back to my house, burst through the door, and almost knocked over my big brother, Bob.
He knew something was wrong. Between sobs and catching my breath, I told him what happened. He got this look in his eyes. He said, “You wait here.” And he went out the front door.
I never saw those kids in our neighborhood again.
And I remember the security I felt whenever Bob and my other big brother, Tim, were around.
I transferred that feeling to Stan. How it made him feel when Chuck was around to protect him. Which is why, when the bullies came for him as a kid, Stan told Chuck, “Don’t leave me!” And why, when the bad guys come in this story, he says the same thing.
Thus came the title, and the emotion for my novel. And a tag line:
When they came for him it was time to run. When they came for his brother it was time to fight.
I hope you’ll give DON’T LEAVE ME a read. It’s available here:
So what about you? Do you connect to your stories emotionally? How do you do it?

Making an emotional connection

By Joe Moore

While reading the news recently, a story caught my attention: At least 25 dead in Hong Kong ferry collision. Apparently, two vessels collided, killing 25. More than a dozen others were missing. It’s being called one of Hong Kong’s worst maritime accidents.

plugAlmost every day we read or hear about tragedies in the news: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, mass killings. As human beings, even the most distant, obscure news of fellow humans losing their lives or encountering other tragedies usually draws some emotion, even if it’s fleeting. But unless we’re directly connected with the people in those news stories, our emotional reaction and interest is often shallow at best. The reason is that we know virtually nothing about them. They are just numbers and statistics. If we take the time to read the article, we may see some additional details that make the people involved a little more real. There may be a human interest angle that grabs our attention for a moment or two before we turn the newspaper page or click on the next link. But basically, we don’t care deeply because we have no emotional connection with them.

As writers, when it comes to our readers, if they have little or no emotional connection with the characters in our books, they won’t care what happens to them. And if they don’t care, we’re in trouble.

An emotional connection is created when a reader formulates conclusions about our characters’ personalities based on what we show the characters doing and saying. It’s not good enough for the narrator to “tell” the reader what a brave and generous guy our protagonist is or that our antagonist is a heinous villain. We have to show the reader through the characters’ actions, dialogue, interior thoughts and reasoning, and the way they treat others and their life choices from one situation to the next. Then a connection can start to form.

A solid approach to establishing each of these is to ask: what would you do? How would you react to a situation that you’ve created in your story? It doesn’t matter whether you’re assuming the persona of the protagonist, antagonist, secondary character or a mere walk-on. You are a human and so are they. They should act and react like humans, think like humans, and reason like humans. Only when they do will the reader form the critical bond or connection. Otherwise, all you have is two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts lacking depth and dimension.

Some helpful techniques include using universal experiences. Who has not told a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Who hasn’t been faced with deciding between what’s right and what’s easy? Who hasn’t felt animosity or even hate for someone who has wronged you? When your character is in a similar situation, examine how you would react?

If you want your reader to like your character, analyze what it is that makes you like or love someone in real life. Use those emotional traits to build your character. And the opposite is also true. To create a character you want the reader to hate or despise, look for someone you dislike and figure out why. Are they egotistical, self-centered, mettlesome, cold, cruel, or mean? Utilize those universal feelings to build a strong antagonist. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with humans. Even Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader had strong human characteristics, good and bad.

One universal element that we all can relate to is pain—both physical and mental. Don’t be afraid to dish out the pain when it comes to developing your characters. It’s okay to put pain in their path because it gives them an opportunity to overcome something and by doing so become stronger or wiser or both. Pain, like any other obstacle, is an opportunity for character growth.

The more human you can make your characters, the better chance you’ll have of your readers forming a connection with them. Always consider how you would react, then have your characters act in a similar, logical manner. And throw in a shot of pain once in a while to keep things interesting.

What about you? Think of your most memorable characters, as a writer and/or reader. What made the two of you connect?