Friday, December 21, 2018

Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Infusing Emotion into Fiction

By Charissa Weaks,@charissaweaks

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Emotion helps readers connect to characters, and in some genre, it's a key component of the novel. Charissa Weaks visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on how to add emotion to your fiction.

Charissa Weaks is an author of historical fantasy and speculative fiction. She crafts stories with magic, time travel, romance, and history, and the occasional apocalyptic quest. When she’s not writing, you can find Charissa digging through four-hundred-year-old texts for research or cuddled with her pups.

Charissa lives just south of Nashville with her husband and children. She is active in the Historical Novel Society, has been named President and PRO-Liason for her local Romance Writers of America chapter, and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Association. She’s also the creator and editor of Once Upon Anthologies.

To keep up with her writing endeavors, join her newsletter, The Monthly Courant.

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Take it away Charissa...

Emotional depth. That elusive element of fiction that—when appropriately crafted—can make a work resonate with readers long after they’ve finished the book, or—when neglected—can cause a story and its characters to fall flat. But what exactly is meant by emotional depth? How do writers see where to infuse more emotion into their work? How do they learn to peel back the layers until they reach the heart of the matter?

First of all, I’ll tell you this: Writers avoiding emotion is normal and common. Most writers I’ve worked with avoid what I call ‘the tough stuff’ in the first draft and often the second draft, too. Some continue avoiding until they accept they’ve abandoned too much opportunity to connect with readers. Some never stop avoiding. Encouraging writers to go deeper is the most common advice I give.But why?

Why is uncovering the emotional depth of a story such an issue?

1. Because the tough stuff often hurts. 

As writers, we slip into our characters’ skin. We inhabit their worlds and lives. We feel what they feel, and we often have to draw on our own experiences to accurately write emotions like loss, betrayal, despair, fear, grief, guilt, hate, jealousy, loneliness, terror, shame, and panic. To be a conduit for those darker emotions, thoughts, and feelings is hard and draining, as is crafting all the happy moments when you’re not particularly in the mood.

For some writers, certain emotional territories are filled with memory landmines and ‘going there’ is painful or uncomfortable. But once a writer armors up and delves into their inner resources for emotionally resonating work, everything changes.A work that might have felt superficial before will take on new layers. Romance becomes less about the sex act and more about love, sacrifice, and connection. Thrillers still thrill, but we grasp the fear or panic the characters are experiencing. A dystopian novel becomes less about the gray world that’s left behind and more about the people inhabiting said world, how they cope with the cards they’ve been dealt.

2. Because writing the tough stuff means work. 

We write a draft and are so excited to have birthed a book baby, then someone says: I don’t care about these characters. Or they say: Dig deeper. Make me feel. When writers see those kinds of critique or edit notes after months or years of working on a story, it’s common for them to either get defensive or get frustrated and want to give up, because often, their book needs revision. Again—totally normal. But the thought of re-writing an entire book or even several chapters can be a daunting task. It means carving out focused time. It means rethinking your story—which means more time. It means excavating this little world you’ve built, turning it upside down, and digging into the meat of the inner conflict, where the heart lives. This, however, is how emotional magic is made. This is how a story that could just as easily be passed over becomes a tale readers have to talk to a friend about because they have so many feels. This is the writer’s goal.

So how do we make emotional magic?

1. Showing.

I know. We’ve all been preached to about showing versus telling, yet it’s so often skipped in the most needed moments.The most helpful writing advice I ever came across, absorbed, and still cling to is this: Seeing is believing. You can tell a reader a thousand times that your character is sad, suffering, disturbed, worried—take your pick. But chances are, readers won’t become invested until they witness the character experiencing these emotions and see the fallout or effect. Here are a few ways to find moments that might be lacking:

a. Examine turning points: If you’re not familiar with plot points, this post by Janice provides an excellent overview. Turning points provide built-in conflict. Your character might feel shock, anger, or confusion at the inciting incident. They might be nervous, scared, or excited during the first act turn. They might be stunned or disbelieving at the midpoint. Terrified, devastated, or without hope at the black moment. Dig into all those scenes and see if you showed your character’s emotion. Work to determine if those moments have been crafted in a way that resonates with readers.

b. Look for telling/filtering/emotive words and phrases:
These words often act as stand-ins for emotionally resonating moments. Visit this post by Janice about eliminating filter words.

He felt angry. He was disturbed. She was happy. She heard a scream. When you find instances like this, think about what incited them, then think about what the effect would be on your character.

Example: What made him feel angry? Seeing his mother struck by his father. What effect did that have on his body and mind? ==>For a long moment, he stood still as a stopped clock, frozen in time, but then the fire came, hot fury coursing through his veins. He stalked closer to his father, until they were chest to chest, nose to nose. His knuckles cracked under the strain of his clenched fists. “We’re leaving,” he said.“She’s leaving. I dare you. Try to stop us.”
What do we learn here about this character? We see his shock. His anger and temper. We also see his courage and love for his mother. We see it, and we believe it. Seeing is believing.

2. Xenia.

In September, I had the privilege of attending an event put on by my local Romance Writers of America. The speaker for the day was Damon Suede, who contains all the energy of the sun and is a fount of knowledge. Damon touched on a topic I’d never heard—Xenia. Here’s the down low: Xenia is the Greek word for hospitality.

From Damon’s article over on Romance University (which I recommend):
“Xenia is so hardwired into our worldview that it dictates all of our stories and our preconceptions about people and their just desserts. How do we know that tormented ugly ducklings in a comedy will get a makeover and a mate? Why does an audience cheer when misers are bankrupted and gold-hearted hookers get justice? Xenia is our most ancient character metric, telegraphing who’s going to win and who’s going to go down in flames. We love seeing underdogs prevail and bullies beaten to a pulp.In other words: instant audience empathy, just add xenia and stir.”
What does this mean for writers? You control the Xenia in your story. Want readers to feel a positive connection to your character? Show your character honoring Xenia. Damon uses the example of Robinhood, a thief with a heart of gold. We don’t care that he steals, because his motives are bound in goodness—he’s a keeper of Xenia. On the other hand, if you want us to loathe a character, have them violate Xenia like the dad in the example I used above.

3. Stakes.

Give us something to care about and hope for. Not just personal stakes, though. Take matters a layer deeper if you can. Think about moral stakes. What can your character’s actions cost him on a moral level? How can they change him? Can you wedge your character between two terrible choices? Choices that they don’t want to make but have no other option? That’s a situation to which most people can relate. That difficult place of existence between bad and worse, when who you are as a human being is on the line.

4. Setting.

You can use setting to not only convey tone but to evoke emotions in your readers. Look how differently walking up a set of stairs can be:
1. She walked up the stairs, candle in hand.

2. She crept up the stairs, her guttering candle emitting the barest light.

3. She stormed up the stairs, her candle’s too-high wick crackling, the flame blazing.
Setting creates atmosphere. Atmosphere creates mood. Mood sets the stage for a scene. Don’t miss out on the opportunities and tools readily at your disposal.

For more on crafting emotion in fiction, I recommend the following books:

About One Upon the Longest Night

The winter solstice, a time of birth and rebirth, life and death, waning light and rising darkness. A time when those who flee the sun and crave the taste of blood find their greatest solace.

But one never knows what the longest night might hold.

Once Upon the Longest Night, a collection of adult paranormal romances, features eight novelettes of lovers and their battles against one of the greatest legends of our time: the vampire. A 15th-century seaman and the love of his life come face to face with a vengeful manjasang. In ancient Rome, a hunted priestess captured by a loyal centurion offers her aid to the enemy. With the help of a handsome Royal courier, a reluctant Romanian princess braves the curse flowing within her noble blood. Danger awaits when a vampire in the far reaches of North Dakota must endure the lethal cold to protect the woman she loves. And in a future New York, a broken general returns home for the Longest Night Ball where he meets a young male witch who might change his life forever.

This anthology combines vampire mythos and affairs of the heart with the sacred symbolism and magic of the winter season.

Sit back and let us tell you a tale. Welcome to the Longest Night.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I have been struggling with this issue. I'd never heard of Xenia either, but it's so logical. It also explains why I don't want to be mean to my characters.