Sweet Emotion

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other morning, as is my wont (and I want what I wont when I want it) I took a fresh cup of joe and my AlphaSmart to the backyard for some thinking, pondering, and writing time. The joe was brewed in my moka pot, a gift to mankind from the Italian inventor Alfonso Bialetti. Usually I take it black, but we happened to have some Coffeemate Sweet Italian Cream in the fridge. I thought the key word was Italian, but as it turns out the emphasis should be on sweet. This stuff is a sugar bomb. You need less than a dollop of regular cream. My hand trembled, and I poured in a touch too much.

Which almost ruined the coffee. I soldiered on, but the enjoyment of the brew was lessened considerably.

Which naturally got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.

Emotion in our fiction is a sweetener. In the right amount it makes the story beautiful and tasty. Too much can ruin it.

So the trick is putting in just the right amount. But how do we measure?

Start with genre. On one end of the scale is hardboiled. At the other end is romance. In between is everything else. The mistake of the hardboiled school is avoiding emotion. The mistake of the romantics is larding it on.

There are ways around both these mistakes.

Scene and Sequel

Let’s begin with the basic premise that what’s going on inside your Lead is of abiding interest to your readers. They want to know about the emotions, not just the actions.

The latter component, action, is what the great writing teacher Dwight Swain called scene. The former he called sequel. There’s a definite structure to both.

A scene is made up of Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome.

A sequel is Emotion, Analysis, and Decision…the Decision leading to the next action scene.

Jim Butcher has said that the key to the popularity of his Dresden Files is sequel:

This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes–but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.

For more on this, see the definitive text on scene and sequel by Swain disciple Jack Bickham.

Showing and Telling

There are times when telling the emotion is fine. I have a little “intensity scale” in my brain which measures the intensity of a moment. When it’s relatively low, I tell. When high, I show. Here’s what I mean.

A woman is slightly worried when her husband hasn’t called for a couple of hours. You might tell it like this: A trickle of worry hit Pam. Usually Steve would let her know if he was going to be late. There is no need to go into the physiological effects of worry on her body. The moment isn’t intense enough.

But what if she doesn’t hear from him that night? Or the following day? Now it’s intense, so you show: Hands trembling, she punched the number for his office. When the receptionist answered Pam’s throat clenched like a fist clutching her vocal cords.

Overwrite and Edit

Now, when you got to those big emotions, I have a suggestion. This can be done as you write, or you can do it when you edit your draft.

Open a new document and do some focused freewriting on the emotion. This means you don’t stop and edit, you just let it flow. Write in the POV of the character. Let the character tell you how she’s feeling. Let her go on and on, giving you the color of it, the taste of it, the metaphors of it. Do the most obvious feeling first, but then go on to another emotion, one you didn’t anticipate at first. Maybe even the opposite emotion. We’re a tangle of complexities, and that’s what makes for compelling characters, too.

Set that document aside for fifteen minutes. Come back to it and pull out the best parts, the parts that are most gripping and original. Put them in the book.

Example

From the hardest of the hardboileds, Mickey Spillane, comes his PI Mike Hammer in One Lonely Night. Hammer’s backstory includes heavy combat in WWII, lots of kills, and what we would today call PTSD. He deals with his ghosts by shooting bad guys and boozing. So when a judge rakes him over the coals in front of a crowded courtroom, calling him a lowlife killer who doesn’t belong in a civilized world, Hammer can’t forget it. As he’s driving he gets a look at himself in the rear view mirror, and hates what he sees.

I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.

I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?

That’s why I parked the car and started walking in the rain. I didn’t want to look in that damn mirror any more.

Go thou and do likewise.

Your Guide to a Weekly Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If I may riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent post, I think there are generally two types of writers. There are “natural” storytellers. John is one of them. I think he’s shared this here on TKZ, but I remember him telling me about getting virtually the entire story for Nathan’s Run while on a long drive. How’s that for nice?

Other writers have to dig in hard ground to find, stimulate, and coax ideas. Then take the good ones to the workshop and figure out the best way to develop them into stories. That would be me. When I started out on this writing journey I dove into study of the craft. I devoured writing books and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I read popular fiction analytically to unpack how successful writers did things. I studied movies with an eye toward learning structure.

And when it came to finding ideas worth turning into full-length fiction, I found I couldn’t sit there waiting for one to show up. I had to follow Jack London’s advice: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club.”

Early on I read How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. He has a section in there on finding story ideas. Among his suggestions:

Read widely. Newspaper stories can present the germ of an idea. Nonfiction on various subjects, too.

Write narrative hooks. Just sit at the keyboard and type hooks (first lines) until “you find one that is so intriguing that you simply must find out what happens next.” One day Koontz wrote:

“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.

He had no idea who Roy was or what he meant. But he sat there looking at it and it came to him (“out of my subconscious mind”) that Roy should be a boy of fourteen. From there his imagination started chugging and he wrote two pages of a conversation between Roy and a boy he named Colin. When he was finished he knew the book was going to be about the duality of human nature (good and evil), that Roy was the villain, and that the book would be fast-paced and suspenseful. Indeed it was, and became an early bestseller called The Voice of the Night.

Titles. Write out titles by the bunch until one of them tickles your fancy.

Characters. Start writing about an intriguing character and pile on backstory details. When one starts to take on life, ask:

  • What does the character fear more than anything else in the world?
  • What would be the very worst thing that could happen to him?
  • What event would throw his life into complete turmoil?

So I scheduled a weekly creativity time. A half hour to an hour sitting in a local coffee joint doing these exercises, just letting the ideas flow. After a few weeks I noticed that my creativity muscle was growing stronger. Indeed, it began working “on its own.” I’d be driving down the street and see a billboard and suddenly I’d be asking What if? What if that happy couple clinking champagne glasses is about to be blown up by a bomb?

I kept all my ideas in a file. When one of them cried out for further attention I put into “development.”

My first step in the development process is what I call a “white hot document.” This idea comes from Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer. You start a document that is an exercise in “focused free association.” You just start writing what comes to mind, go off on tangents, explore rabbit trails. Ideas for scenes, themes, characters, plot developments—write them all down without any intrusion from your inner editor.

You put this aside and come back the next day to edit and annotate. You take what’s most emotional and exciting for you and develop it further with more free association. Do this for several days and you’ll have a solid foundation for a plot. Swain wrote: “The important thing, always, is not to sit idly waiting for the feathers to grow. Don’t just hope for ideas. Hunt them down! Find a springboard! Develop a plan of action!”

So unless you are a natural storyteller, make it a point to exercise your imagination on a regular basis. Play games. Go wild. You’ll find good ideas soon enough and your creativity synapses will grow stronger.

Then all you have to do is write the novel. And the one after that. And the one…

What kind of storyteller are you—natural or a digger in hard ground? Where do your ideas come from? Do you wait for them to show up or do you light out after them with a club?