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.

Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER PASSIONATE AND NITPICKY POST?

This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.

“Yeah, that’s what [INSERT AUTHOR] said, too.”

I have a fine arts degree in communication design. I fought tooth and nail in a class of 40 to win one of 15 spots for it. I’d fall asleep studying in the library. I managed to scrape by my final semester in the worst throes of depression that I’ve experienced in my life. This is to say, I didn’t take my college grades lightly.

Even though my education was deathly serious to me and I sat through enough philosophy lectures for a small mammal to die of old age, ultimately I realized I didn’t want to use my degree. As you might have guessed, creative writing is not something I ever took higher education courses in—I wrote when I was a child, I wrote throughout grade school, and then I studied the structure of visual storytelling and tone for four years in university.

As someone who lived their life missing what some people might consider a necessary fundament in the creative writing process (and as someone who felt deathly dependent on knowing all of “the answers”), this realization left me feeling dangerously unprepared once I decided I wanted to write books. A lot of these insecurities I still grapple with: how am I ever going to land an agent, what if I can’t afford to attend writers’ workshops, my writing is likely terrible in comparison to others’, will anyone in this industry even take me seriously if I don’t have a masters degree in writing? That’s a lot of “what if’s” to entertain on top of the stress of writing, but that’s where I started–back before I’d drafted my kids series, back before I had any picture books written, way back before I even realized my first picture book about a caterpillar was essentially garbage.

So, what do you do? If you’re anything like I was, you assume everyone else who’s “made it,” who seems even remotely approachable has the answers for you. You keep your eyes peeled for Q&As on Goodreads and Reddit, you occasionally tweet at them in the hopes that your question is interesting enough to grab their attention, and if you’re really lucky, you attend author signings and ask them in person when the floor opens up to questions. After all, whatever they did worked, thus inherently they have some insight into what might work for you, too.

adult alone black and white blur
“I just want my first draft of my first book to be flawless.”

And this is true… to an extent. I was fortunate enough to work specifically on author signings at my local bookstore for a year, and I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of authors coming through as I helped host their events: Crystal Wilkinson, Isaac Marion, Jan Brett, John Scalzi, Greg Iles, Jeff Zentner, Kevin Sherry. Not only did I ask them if they had any tips for writers trying to get published, but without fail, whenever it was Q&A time some hopefuls in the audience would as well. And that’s great! If you love an author, you probably want to know how they got to where they stand now.

But I’m gonna let you in on a secret, friends: I didn’t love all of those authors. I loved a few of them (omg Marion), but most were just people promoting their careers, and we only saw each other as polite faces in a work setting. The benefit of talking to lots of authors about their “secrets” indiscriminately—even ones I felt no butterflies over—is that I can deliver this kernel of truth that I learned to others, this granule of experience.

They all said the exact same thing, once boiled down.

Thus, I have created an untouchable formula for how to be a Successful Writer:

 

Success = finding what works for you + lots of effort + reading + creative partnership

 

That’s it. No tricks, no big secret. Just finding your own rhythm, sticking with it, consuming other stories, and getting feedback on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot of patience; the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace in itself, but all of these things are going to take time from you, as well. A metric fuck-ton of it.

The point of this post is to say that if you’re anything like I was when I started writing, you might be inadvertently wasting time by collecting knowledge from those who came before you instead of actually applying yourself. Don’t get bogged down in the preparation stages. As my own CP and co-contributor Herb might agree, preparation is a slippery slope—it’s easy to find yourself feeling endlessly shorthanded, when in reality your toolbox has been full for months. So next time you feel like you need answers from someone more experienced, pause–open a word processor–and try writing instead. You’re good to go, friends.

Dialogue Part 1: Well That Escalated Quickly

Soap Opera Syndrome. It’s a totally real term that I did not make up just now. It refers to drama for the sake of drama, but, more than that, it’s dialogue escalation due to a lack of something better to do. You know the type of dialogue that goes something like,

“Why’d you do that?”

“Chill out. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“WELL IT IS TO ME.”

You stumble backwards, tripping on the previous paragraph to see if you were skimming and somehow missed the build-up to this explosion. Most of the time, of course, it’s not quite that dramatic of a tone switch, but there is still such a thing as escalating a dialogue too quickly.

In my highly dubious opinion, it’s not actually rapid escalation that’s the problem, but a lack of good reason for it. So let’s look at a couple of bad reasons to take it up a notch.

    1. The plot was getting boring. I’ve done this before. You’re writing, it begins to feel stale, alarms start going off and your first instinct is, NEED CONFLICT. Quick, throw in an argument! Create some dramaaaa. The problem is, the staleness was probably not due to the fact that your characters weren’t fighting, it’s that you’ve lost sight of the true conflict and need to work your way back to that.
    2. I wanted to shock the audience. A well-done unexpected outburst is very satisfying. But you have to explain it after. You have to make sure the audience realizes that it was not, in fact, unexpected, but rather they were looking at it from the perspective that wouldn’t have seen it coming, i.e., from a third person narrator who doesn’t have access to that character’s feelings, or a first person narrator who is not the person who had the outburst. Additionally, there has to be damage control afterwards. That can be in the form of quickly sweeping the drama under the rug if your character(s) are the avoidant type, or having them talk about “hey, what the fuck was that?” There’s nothing more jarring than a character suddenly exploding, and then watching literally everyone move on like nothing happened. It’s the same technique as when creators kill off a character for shock: the writer wants the reader to experience a jolt of surprise, but they don’t want to deal with the fallout of that surprise.
    3. My character is a hot-head. Okay. I really dread social situations, but that doesn’t mean I always hate talking to people. People have certain character traits due to their environment, not because they are given them by, say, some all-powerful writer who has breathed life into them and their world. And while quick-tempered people are certainly more likely to be snappy and or have a sudden onslaught of anger, over-use can be annoying, or more oft than not, mess with the tone of the scene. Were things tense to begin with? Are they in a stressful situation? Even a hot-head isn’t going to blow up if they’re lying in bed and watching ASMR videos when someone knocks on their door to ask them if they’ll come help with dinner.


So, solutions? Well, that’s a little trickier. Despite the ease with which I can describe the problem, actually knowing when it’s an issue verses when it’s appropriate is far more difficult. The simplest advice I can give is just to look at every argument (quickly escalated or otherwise) and ask yourself,

  1. why your characters are fighting,
  2. how it moves along the plot, and
  3. if you’ve properly set up the conflict.

So like… the same questions you ask yourself with pretty much any problem you’re having in your narrative.

Thanks for joining me for part one of my dialogue series, join me in two weeks for tips on awkward dialogue!