Emotional Extremes & You (Us, actually. All of us.)

Happy Friday, writers! As the Christmas season rolls in, time seems to creep along in preparation for what’s just over the horizon. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you have my sincerest wishes that it went well–if you met your word count, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Speaking of overused phrases used to address emotions, that’s what this week’s post is about; I’d like to briefly discuss the fine line between truly conveying the subtle way any specific emotion overtakes a character, and the flipside, what happens when you smear it on thick as molasses in winter. (Forgive me, I just finished reading Saving Wonder by Mary Knight and the beautiful idioms are feeding my chicken-fried heart. The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead. Brilliant.)

For my own NaNoWriMo novel, the interpersonal and internal conflict for the protagonist is very emotion-heavy, and the story is told in first-person present tense–a self-imposed reckoning of my own abilities, since evidently I hate myself. We’re talking long-term conflict that’s carried with the MC over the course of the novel, issues that are looming and essential to the story. No one tells you exactly how hard it is to write present tense emotions like that without sounding like you’re giving stage notes for an actor:

Anger boils inside of me. I dig my nails into my palms, biting back the things I want to say, but shouldn’t.

Chills run up my back and arms. The unknown is what frightens me–too easily can I envision those beady eyes in the darkness, watching my every move.

Moments like these… aren’t very good. Or, at least, they translate from the page weaker than we’d like them to, and I’m not happy with the way these moments continually unfold in my first draft. Not for a narrative running over 50k words. It’s undeniably difficult to restrain from using phrases that we tend to see assigned in third person stories–it makes my hair stand on end–but no one, realistically, speaks like that. Given, it would sound more casual if it were owned by the narrator, for example that gives me chills, but even then, the sentiment is tired by stating the emotion in first-person.

After taking reading and writing seriously over the past few years–as a craft to be consumed and regurgitated–I’ve found a pattern in first-person books that handle emotion really well. My favorite example of how sustained extreme emotional turmoil can see a story through from beginning to end is, without contest, Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It’s a nightmare-come-true story about a young man named Carver Briggs who loses all three of his best friends due to a car accident he may have inadvertently caused via texting.

(If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s my favorite YA novel and offers a visceral, cathartic experience. But I’m easy to make cry, so take that last bit with a grain of salt.)

In a flashback scene, Carver relives the moment in middle school when he met one of his now-deceased friends, Blake. As the heartfelt dip into the past ends, Zentner gives us this:

We go and eat lunch. He shows me his YouTube page. I tell him about my stories. We laugh.
We laugh a lot, actually.

And that, right there, is just one minuscule example of how Zentner manages to show Carver’s mourning, regret, longing, indescribable grief–deftly, through a freaking flashback. The accident has already happened, his friends are already dead, yet he’s remembering their good times through the lens of someone who already knows how that story ends. It’s brilliant, and seems effortless when read, but is difficult (for myself, at least) to put into practice.

That’s part of why Goodbye Days so successfully manages to marry the emotions of the story’s events to the character: being human isn’t an experience that happens to you, it is you. When you feel mad, or guilty, or happy, it affects every other part of your life–you take on life as a series of reactions, viewing everything that happens to you through that lens. Overwhelming emotions aren’t typically something you slip into for one scene, and then from which you become a blank slate the next minute.

I’m guilty of this. It’s hard to remedy, easier to take those throes in the moment and let it fluctuate like a roller coaster. But if we can keep that tapestry woven–let every. single. action. of our characters reflect their headspace and serve as gentle reminders of where they came from, and where they’re going…? Well. I find it hard to believe our stories wouldn’t be stronger.

I worked one of Zentner’s signings for the release of this book, before I even read it. Was just then trying to become a writer. He signed, Tell a good story.

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