Monday, 17 October 2016

The Problem with Conveying Emotion

It’s an element that all writers need, but they are not always good at showing the reader. The problem with emotion is that sometimes, it’s just difficult and awkward to get right.

The aim for any writer is to move the reader, so that they read a particularly moving scene and feel the emotion behind it and they may feel a tug at the heart, or even feel like crying. Perhaps they read a terrifying scene and it affects them with fear or apprehension. Or there might be a heart-warming, happy scene that simply makes the reader smile.

Getting the reader to react to what the main character is feeling is no mean feat.

The most common problem with trying to convey emotion occurs when writers sometimes make the mistake of telling the reader the emotion they should feel, for example ‘John was sad’ or ‘John was angry.’ While this may seem logical to write, it doesn’t convey any feeling; it doesn’t mean anything to the reader. For emotion to work, the reader has to feel it or be affected by it.

As an example, compare these two scenes. The first one has little emotional depth, while the other does:

His heartbeat grew loud in his ears. The sounds of desperate men floundering against barbed wire and bullets soaked his senses.

He hid among tangled arms and legs and sand-smeared entrails, stooped to the knees in a pool of a dozen soldiers’ sacrificial blood.  There could be no surrender, no glory in death.

Something trickled down his face.  He couldn’t stop the tears...

This example doesn’t even try to show much emotion. The narrative simply tells the reader what the emotion is and doesn’t describe anything in detail. It fails to engage. Compare the same scene with more emotional depth:

His heartbeat unfolded like a flower. It grew loud in his ears, louder than the blasts that shredded the ground, louder than the voices in the middle of a blood-raked beach.  The sounds of desperate men floundering against barbed wire and bullets soaked his ragged senses and made him shudder.

Purple scars stretched across a blackened sky.

Fox in the hole; he hid among tangled arms and legs and sand-smeared entrails, stooped to the knees in a pool of a dozen soldiers’ sacrificial blood. There could be no surrender, no glory in death.

He thought about his family then; their memory burned to his mind and the new born child he would never see. Something trickled down his face then, and he couldn’t stop the tears...

This is the same narrative, but with the added emotion and sentiment. This one is much better; it engages the reader and it shows the emotion through description and the ‘showing’ technique and highlighting the emotive themes of loss (he thinks about the child he will never see), and cold acceptance of his fate.

The more you can give to the reader, the more they can feel.

The way around the problem of conveying emotion is to describe a character’s physical responses rather than telling the reader about them, for example the mention of tears, the twitching of the bottom lip, the colour of someone’s face as frustration gets the better of them, their reactions with objects, such as door-slamming, pushing things over, even hitting someone. All are reactions to and because of emotion.

If you can convey emotions well, you have a chance of affecting the reader in the same way. They will feel sad, happy or relieved, or angry at something.  Remember that not only do your characters need to feel; your readers do, too.

In a nutshell, emotion is about responses; it’s a reactive feeling to something or someone. There are other devices to use:

  • Physicality to highlight emotions
  • Use thoughts or dialogue to show emotion or sentiment
  • Subtext can be used to show emotion
  • Use imagery to suggest emotion
While it may seem daunting trying to encapsulate the sentiment of a situation, emotion helps the reader connect with the character. The reader can identify with the character’s risky predicament or perilous journey, or the ultimate goal they’re trying to achieve. And because of this connection, they can sympathise with or feel for the character when things go wrong or the character is in danger. Simply telling the reader how a character feels just doesn’t work. There is no emotion involved.
Conflict creates an endless list of emotions. Be ruthless with your main character. Put them in mortal danger, take away the things they love most, kill off their nearest and dearest and create all manner of trauma. All these create reactions and in turn they generate emotions. Don’t be afraid to push your characters, torment them or be mean to them. Physical and psychological pain creates emotion, too, and none more so when we sympathise or empathise with what the character is going through, because certain situations will be all too familiar to us.
Something else that packs the emotional punch is the descriptions you create. Manipulate them to emphasise the emotion and make them believe the feeling is all too real. Remember:

  • Excellent characterisation is essential – create immediacy and a connection to the reader.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Emotive themes always make for emotional writing – loss of something or someone, grief etc.
  • Create empathy and sympathy with familiar themes.
  • Conflict & overcoming obstacles provides emotion.
  • Quality of writing counts.
  • Look inward for own experiences to convey them to the reader, however hard or painful.

The thing about emotion is that it’s something everyone feels, even to those who pretend otherwise. It’s inescapable because we all feel pain, joy, despair, sadness, anger, grief, love...all the things that can and do take place within stories.

Conveying emotions doesn’t have to be hard. It just takes a bit of thought to understand why these emotions are important and how they should be shown.

Allwrite is taking a well-earned break and will return in two weeks.


Saturday, 8 October 2016

Character or Plot-driven Stories?

Many writers may not be aware that there are choices when it comes to how they approach their stories, and not many writers stop to think what kind of story they’re telling. There are, however, two types of story that are often referred to: Plot-driven and Character-driven, and they each serve the story differently.
Most commercial fiction is plot-driven. In other words, the plot and the unfolding events linked to it drive the story forward. The characters revolve around that plot, rather than a secondary plot revolving around the characters.
In character-driven stories, the opposite is true. The unfolding story revolves entirely around the characters and the plot takes a back seat in terms of importance.
But which one should you use?
That depends entirely what you want from your story and the genre you choose. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, so it’s important to not only choose the right one for your story, but to know it’s the right one and that it will fit with the type of story you’re telling.
So what are the differences between them?
Character-driven Stories
In these types of stories, the plot tends to be less developed than the characters. That’s because the emphasis is placed on the personal growth, development and inner turmoil of the main characters, and therefore the plotline is seen as less important.
Character-driven stories are noticeably less action-driven and tend to concentrate on the emotions, sentiment and conflicts and motivations of the main character(s) in relation to the story. They concentrate on internal conflicts and relationships more so than the external conflicts that can be found in plot-driven stories. They tend to use the emotional development and growth of characters to drive the story forward, rather than use a plot to move things along.
These kinds of stories suit certain genres, which is why you will find that romance, fantasy and literary novels are almost certainly character-driven, since there is a heavy emphasis and influence of the character’s inner feelings and emotions that are developed as the story unfolds. Novels such as The Girl on the Train, The Catcher in the Rye, The Kite Runner and Sense and Sensibility are great examples of character-driven stories.
The style and language, in literary fiction in particular, also lends itself to focus completely on the character rather than the crux of the story, simply because there is less need for explosions and guns and all manner of action. The usual fare of commercial fiction is less significant.
The advantages of these stories is that it allows the writer to indulge in their characters; they dictate the story, so the emotional depth and feeling is very well explored, but the downside is that the heart of story – the plot – suffers and doesn’t have as much detail as it should.
Plot-driven Stories
Unlike the sedate charm of character-driven stories, plot-driven stories are focused on the nitty-gritty of the story; the action, the multiple events, incidents and turning points and how they affect the characters, particularly the varied external conflicts and the turmoil they create.
The plot is the focus – it’s about how the story evolves, how sub plots are part of the main story arc and how plot twists help drive the story forward. Whereas the character-driven stories are heavily influenced by emotional development, in plot-driven stories, the action takes centre stage. While characters may be well drawn, these types of stories rely more on the swiftly evolving inner mechanics of the story rather than the characters.
The likes of action thrillers, crime novels, horror, psychological thriller, science-fiction and urban fantasy tend to be plot-driven, such as the Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code or the Maze Runner.
The advantages of plot-driven stories are that the heart of the story is fully developed, as are the sub-plots and relevant plot twists. This makes for an engaging read. The drawback is that characters may not be as fully realised, certainly not to the thoughtful detail of character-driven stories.
If you want to tell a story from beginning to end in a way that involves the reader with the events, turning points, plot developments, tension, atmosphere and action, then a plot-driven story will be the best choice.
If, however, you want your story to focus on the inner feelings, conflicts, aspirations, goals and tensions as the character progresses on their journey of discovery, then a character-driven story is the best choice.
But isn’t it possible you have a mix of both? 
In truth, many novels do achieve this. They tend to be neither one nor the other and are often balanced with some thoughtful plotting and deep character analysis, but on the whole, most novels fall into either category in the way they are written.
The genre and type of novel you want to write tends to dictate the style of the plot, so it’s wise to think about what exactly you want from your story. If you really want to focus of your characters, then it will be character drive. If you’re a plotter, then it’s very likely you’ll create a plot-driven novel. The choice is yours, but choose carefully.

Next week: The Problem with Emotion

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Importance of Motivation – What drives your characters? Part 2

Part 1 looked at some of the reasons that might motivate our characters, things like backstory and emotional responses like revenge, resentment or love etc. But it’s not all down to those common emotional catalysts.
There are other factors that help create motivation for your characters, for instance:
Basic Need
This isn’t an emotion, but rather a human requirement, but it’s still a driving force for motivation. It’s the need to do something, to find something or to achieve something. It could be a need to get to the bottom of something, the need to find ourselves, the need to feel happy, the need to settle down and have a family...all these needs are motivation markers that are inherent in all characters.
It’s the simple things that writers miss, and basic needs are often overlooked.
Past Incidents & Events
The things that happen in our lives can have a positive or negative affect on us. Some incidents can scar us not just physically, but psychologically. They stay with us for a long time and can affect us in so many ways, even when we think they don’t affect us. Sometimes these events are traumatic or highly emotional for very different reasons. Everyone responds in different ways, we all react slightly differently.
Imagine what your characters might feel if something traumatic or damaging happened to them. Negative childhood memories continually reinforce behaviour in adulthood and so it provides motivation for them act in a certain way.
We all harbour some of these incidental memories. If we look closely to why we act and react to certain things, the reason often lies in some event from our childhood.
The Present
It’s not just that past that can create motivation. Incidents and events happen in the present, too, like something that happened hours or moments ago in your character’s world, something that kickstarted their actions and set them to behave in a certain way.
Just as past incidents leave their mark, present ones do, too.
While emotions provide characters with reasons to act the way they do in any given situation, there are also other factors that provide motivation. One of them is the antagonist.
The Antagonist
The antagonist – the bad guy – is normally the lynchpin to your main character’s reasons for acting the way they do, and will almost certainly involve the range of emotions already described in Part 1.
The antagonist is behind most of the conflict that occurs in a novel, so he or she will have done something to your main character – either in the past or the present - to motivate the protagonist into embarking on their journey. In that sense, the antagonist is almost like a lure to the protagonist; they are drawn to each other.
The quest for the truth is one of the strongest motivational factors in fiction writing. The need to find the truth of something or someone can make us very determined to find it, whatever the consequences. Truth and knowledge are often driving factors behind main characters finding a long lost loved one, or a valuable heirloom, or even treasure. In real life, we all strive for truth and knowledge, and it’s no different for fictional characters.
Giving your characters motivation is way of laying concrete foundations for your story. Motivation is all about knowing the following:-

  • What your character wants to achieve, or what their ultimate goal is (truth, knowledge or a basic need?)
  • Why your character wants to achieve this (emotions, a past incident, an antagonist?)
  • What might the consequences be if they do?
All these aspects provide motivation, emotion and ultimately conflict. This is why motivation plays such an important role in fiction. Writers may not realise this, but every important character in your story has motivation, they all have their reasons to be part of the story, therefore they all drive the story forward.

To summarise - what motivates characters?

  • Emotions – resentment, hate, love, revenge etc
  • Past incidents
  • Childhood events
  • Present incidents
  • Need – what does the character want and why? How will the character achieve it?
  • Antagonists
  • Truth and knowledge
At the root of motivation is a primal need. Emotional reasons, such as revenge, resentment or love are prime catalysts for motivation. Past incidents or events are catalysts. Things in the past can greatly affect what we do in the present.

Motivation is so important – without it there won’t be a character in your story for your reader to care about. That’s because most emotional aspects of motivation are shared by just about everyone on the planet – we want truth, a sense of justice, a sense of life balance, we want to get the girl or guy or our dreams, to live happily ever after, we want to exercise those demons and negative emotions or put the past to rest. We want to achieve our goals. All these things motivate us.

Make sure your characters have plenty of reason to be in your story.

Next week: Character or plot driven stories – which is best?