Saturday, August 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Getting Emotional

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Revised snippet at the end of the post.

This week’s question:
I really want the reader to feel the hopelessness in this passage, to get the emotions really across. Does this convey that feeling successfully?
On to the diagnosis…

Original Text
Something like smoke--wispy, obscuring, mystifying--travels up my arms. Everywhere it touches, the trembling suddenly stops. It’s like water dripping off a counter top. The water will keep dripping, but if you put a towel to it and dab dry the majority of it, it will stop splattering like raindrops onto the ground. The smoke reaches my shoulders. It has a cool, calming feel, as if numbing all of my emotions except for that one last spark of tranquility. It slithers down my body and up towards my face. Before it reaches my eyes, I notice that Ata is shrouded by this strange smoke, too.

I stop moving completely. Frozen. My whole body goes rigid and my heart, which was pounding furiously a few seconds ago, is now silent. I don’t hear the thundering pulse. My eyes dart furtively around and land on Ata. She looks at me, terror written across her face, and her lips are covered in icy sheets.

I gag. Suddenly heat comes rushing back into my body and then I am in the middle of a hurricane of destruction. I gasp repetitively. I fall onto the ground and rock again, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t open my eyes, I don’t even want to see. I hear Ata repeating a mantra in the distance: Oh Founders, oh the Founders, oh. Wave after wave of ire and torment bury me, until I am drowning in an ocean of despair and panic. I can’t even think. I just try to swallow and keep gagging.

My Thoughts in Purple 
Something like smoke--wispy, obscuring, [mystifying] this suggests the narrator finds what’s happening puzzling or even interesting in some way--travels up my arms. Everywhere it touches, the [trembling suddenly stops] trembling suggests fear, and stopping suggests what’s happening is no longer frightening. [It’s like water dripping off a counter top. The water will keep dripping, but if you put a towel to it and dab dry the majority of it, it will stop splattering like raindrops onto the ground. ] I like the image, but this seemed a mundane simile for the emotion wanted. Stopping the water easily doesn’t suggest hopelessness The smoke reaches my shoulders. It has a cool, [calming feel, as if numbing all of my emotions except for that one last spark of tranquility. ] This suggest calm and peace It slithers down my body and up towards my face. Before it reaches my eyes, [I notice that Ata is shrouded by this strange smoke, too.] The calm way the narrator is describing this makes it seem like nothing is out of the ordinary here. They’re more curious and accepting than anything else.

[I stop moving completely. Frozen.] The tone changes here, from almost languid to choppy, which fits the sense of fear of this para. My whole body goes rigid and my heart, [which was pounding furiously a few seconds ago] we don’t actually see this last para, is now silent. I don’t hear the thundering pulse. My eyes [dart furtively] this suggests fear and a need to find something around and land on Ata. She looks at me, [terror written across her face, and her lips are covered in icy sheets.] more fear here

[I gag.] This suggests nausea or a bad smell, but there’s no mention of it earlier Suddenly heat comes rushing back into my body and then I am in the [middle of a hurricane of destruction.] I don’t know what this means from an emotional standpoint, but I suspect it means something [I gasp repetitively.] This suggest the narrator in unable to catch their breath, which is coming across more as physical distress here than emotional to me [I fall onto the ground and rock again, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t open my eyes, I don’t even want to see. ] This suggests fear I hear Ata repeating a mantra in the distance: Oh Founders, oh the Founders, oh. Wave after wave of [ire] this suggests anger and [torment bury me] This suggests overwhelming emotional distress, until I am [drowning in an ocean of despair and panic.] I’m getting the despair, but not the panic as much, because there's no sense of trying to run or hide or get away at all I can’t even think. I just try to swallow and keep gagging.

This week’s question:
Does this convey hopelessness successfully? 

I’m seeing a lot of emotion in this passage, but not hopelessness. For me, hopelessness is the sense of trying to do something and failing, then realizing you can’t succeed. Or feeling even trying to win is pointless. The struggling to fight is here, but not that sense of giving up. Or having given up before it started.

Since you’re aiming for hopelessness, try looking for details and feelings that suggest the steps that lead up to feeling hopeless. Is the POV is struggling, then giving in? Have they abandoned hope before this starts? Did they resign themselves to this, but in the middle decide it was worth fighting, then realize it was no use?

How do people feel when they give up or give in? When they realize nothing they do matters? How does your POV handle this? How does Ata? Is one more of a fighter than the other? Maybe the POV can see Ata giving up (or not giving up) and that contrasts to what they’re feeling.

I’d suggest adding in feelings of giving up or the realization that nothing they do is helping. Perhaps use internalization to show how they feel versus just straight description of the emotions. For example:

I stop moving completely. Frozen. This is a good spot for some internalization about why the narrator has stopped moving. It is because something is restraining them or because they realize there’s point in struggling?

My whole body goes rigid and my heart, which was pounding furiously a few seconds ago, is now silent. I don’t hear the thundering pulse. There’s a detachment here that steals some of the emotion, so it reads as outside looking in. If they don’t hear their pulse thundering, they wouldn’t remark on it. You might try showing the pounding and the thundering, then having it all go rigid and silent. You might even follow it with a reason why to reinforce the hopeless feeling of slowly giving up.

My eyes dart furtively around and land on Ata. Why do the narrator’s eye dart? How do they feel about Ata and what’s happening? Is she giving up? Does the narrator see her losing and that affects how they feel? Maybe they tell her not to give up, even if it’s just silently.

She looks at me, terror written across her face, and her lips are covered in icy sheets. Telling a bit here, which steals the fear. What does that terror across her face look like? How does the narrator feel about it? Perhaps flip the icy sheets so it reads more active: “Icy sheets cover her lips.”

Getting across emotions works well when you combine the descriptions with the internalization. Show the physical aspects (the icy lips, the burning flesh, the pounding heart, etc) and then mix in how those physical sensations make the POV feel (from an emotional standpoint not a physical detail one) and what those feelings make them think. It’s the reaction that usually conveys how the POV is really feeling. For example:

The needle pricked my arm. I winced, drawing away. Just a shot, no big deal even if it did hurt.

The needle pricked my arm. I winced, drawing away. The straps held me fast, hard and uncaring as the men dripping poison into my veins.

The needle pricked my arm. I winced, drawing away. Warmth spread from the sting, soothing, peaceful. I sighed. Worth every prick, every time.

Same details, but how the POV reacts shows you how different being stuck with a needle can be. Reacts convey emotions specific to the POV, so think about how that POV is feeling and what they do and think about it. If they feel pain, how do they react to that pain? What happens to trigger their hopelessness?

Revised Snippet:

Something like smoke--mystifying--travels up my arms. Everywhere it touches, the trembling suddenly stops. [The smoke reaches my shoulders. It has a cold, icy feel, like mist crowding in and constricting me. It slithers down my body and up towards my face. I squirm, but it wraps around me, tighter and tighter, until I can no longer breathe. ] I like the details here, but they sound like someone outside describe them, not someone who’s experience this feeling it. Something loud pounds against my chest, harder than a drum. My heart. I squint through the mist, scanning for Ata. I see her, and I smash my shoulder against the mist--stronger than concrete—[because] I’d cut she is enclosed by this strange smoke, too. Her arms thrash vigorously, clawing at the mist, but it's [as useless as kicking in quicksand.] nice

I stop moving completely. Frozen. [It must not be] must not be or wasn’t? enough. A sharp wind pierces through me, congealing every vein. My whole body turns rigid and my heart falls silent. No more thundering pulse. My eyes dart [furtively] I’d cut around--there has to be a way out, there has to be--and land on Ata. Glossy eyes glance at me for a second, and I spot icy sheets covering her lips. [I beg her with my eyes to look at me.] A good spot for some internalization. Look at me! Please look at me! I stare and stare, but she doesn't look back. She stares at the ground.

I breathe in sharply; I can breathe again! Suddenly heat [comes rushing] perhaps “rushes” to feel more active back into my body, and it burns through me,[ as if I wasn't immune to it.] this struck me odd, because it suggests the narrator is immune to burning [It burns] could cut since you just said it burns like needles driving their points into my arms, into my cells. Into me. I tremble, staggering. This could be a good spot for some internalization about how the narrator feels I fall onto the ground and rock again, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t open my eyes; I know what I will see. Ata, lost to the smoke and the mist. Oh Founders, oh the Founders, oh. Wave after wave of ire and torment crash on me, until I am drowning in an ocean of despair and panic. I can't think, not anymore. I want this to stop. [If I just stop trying, stop fighting, will it stop?] nice Is it worth it to keep persisting, after Ata has lost? I had promised myself to never let her get hurt; how will I live with this? I slip away, a little bit at a time. My defense crumbles. I eye Ata--last chance. She doesn't meet my eyes. I loosen my wrists, and the fire swallows me.

Nice revisions. I get a much better sense of hopeless now. I like how the narrator feels that they have no chance if Ata gave in, as this suggests Ata is the stronger one. It has a touching feeling of sadness to it.

I’d suggest a little more internalization in the heavy descriptive parts so it doesn’t have a list-feel of details. You have some great imagery here, but some of it feels a little distant as if the narrator is watching, not experiencing. However, the way it’s set up now, you could have that watching feeling be how narrator watching Ata go through this first, seeing it and seeing her struggle, then it hits the narrator and you get a more personal look at how this feels on the inside.
Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. One thing I had to learn was to keep the suspense going, and that is done by letting the question linger, or the mood, or the felling or whatever it is you are trying to dangle in front of the reader.

    And don’t over detail. i.e. wispy, obscuring, mystifying… ext. ext.
    If you use focused word, with the appropriate feeling, along with quick clean lines, we as readers will feel the tension rather than read it.

    Plus, by over stating you promise the reader more than you can deliver. I’ll do a rewrite of the first paragraph so you might see it from a different point of view… I know that can help.

    Something like smoke (like smoke conveys all the words you used previously) travels up my arms. (As a reader I don’t care about the water, this just blocks my interest in what you have written before this… stick with the subject THE SMOKE) Everywhere it touches, the trembling suddenly stops (the trembling still losses me, but I assume it has something to do with the story, so I left it in). The smoke reaches my shoulders. It has a cool, calming feel, as if numbing all of my emotions except for that one last spark of terror (I used terror, because tranquility makes me think of peace, harmony ext…). It slithers down my body and up towards my face. Before it reaches my eyes, I notice that Ata is shrouded by this strange smoke, too.

    Without comments:

    Something like smoke travels up my arms. Everywhere it touches, the trembling suddenly stops. The smoke reaches my shoulders. It has a cool, calming feel, as if numbing all of my emotions except for that one last spark of terror. It slithers down my body and up towards my face. Before it reaches my eyes, I notice that Ata is shrouded by this strange smoke, too.

    I hope that helps… best of luck and thx for submitting you work. I found it very interesting and unique, I sure know how it feels to struggle with you WIP, but this site has helped me more than any other.

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  2. I really like the needle example too.
    To me, the beginning seemed like a slow build-up, but it didn't match the bit where she was gagging and fighting for breath. I sort of felt like I missed the connection.
    I was really intriged by her friend calling on the founders over and over. That made me feel like there was this whole background legendary world, just being hinted at.

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  3. I can see the potential in this. My first thought is that you're trying too hard to inject emotion. While adjectives and description are a good way to 'show' rather than 'tell', overdong it can strip your writing of all meaning. I'd suggest focusing on what's actually happening, and stick to describing that. Trust your readers to be clever enough to understand the emotional response to things like being covered in smoke, being unable to move, and being unable to break free.

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