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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Making Readers Cry (SIWC 2014 Notes)

Three types of editing rule my life. The first involves my day job. The second, my freelance work. More on that later (at this rate, probably after this year's SIWC, which happens next week; watch me play catch up again!) In the meantime, have some notes from last October that slipped through the cracks, most likely due to the third type of editing (and one of the main reasons I've been busy lately): my own revisions.

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Making Readers Cry
(or, How to Elicit Emotions in Fiction)
Robert J. Wiersma

Making readers cry is a specific example of what we’re all looking for: a chance to connect. If you’re writing a funny book, you want the reader to laugh. Polemical, to think/come around to your pov. Sad, you want them to cry. You want the reader to react.

Buzzword: Elicit
-          As writers, we have to depict events, emotions, situations. Paint the characters. But it’s possible to go too far, to forget that we want to connect. And in order to connect, we have to elicit emotions.
-          Showing a character laugh isn’t that funny. You need the reader to laugh.
-          It's not enough to depict the character having a sad moment. You need the reader to feel that gut punch.
-          In life it’s awful to be called a manipulative person. Everybody does it slightly, it’s a part of life. But if you get a reputation as a manipulative person, then no one wants you around.
-          But as writers it’s our job to manipulate.
-          Fiction is a byproduct of the imagination. But through  fiction it’s our job to reveal deeper truths by manipulating the reader. If you are bad at it, then you’re as shamelessly manipulative as a long distance commercial. But if you’re good at it, then it will elicit exactly what you need without seeming manipulative.
-          When someone picks up your story, they expect to be manipulated, so they want this.
-          Writing is a curatorial process. It’s important not to put everything on the page. Important to hold back. But if you don’t hold back, how does the reader know what’s important?
-          Decide what’s important, what you include, to guide the reader though the experience of the story or book in order to reach the effect you want.
-          Only include detail if it contributes to your manipulation of the reader. If you don’t, you institute a degree of cognitive dissonance in the reader’s mind. If the appearance is important, include it. If it’s not important enough to include, don’t. It may even be damaging.
-          Curate and manipulate.

When have you as a reader or television viewer been manipulated to tears? (Examples from audience)
-          The Notebook
-          Paul Potts
-          Funeral, when small children are saluted
-          Little Women
-          The opening sequence to Up

Now think about real life.
-          Example: A gunned down RCMP officer – where officers from across the country converged to honour that – all of these strong men and women were not in tears, being silently respectful
-          Our collective subconscious gets affected very deeply by events such as this.
-          We’re prewired to feel these feelings.
-          News stories are as curated as fiction if not more so. Details are left out, events are shaped into a narrative to create the effect they want it to have. Part of that which works (in real life and fiction) is mirroring. We see emotions, and as naturally empathic people, we react to them. When someone cries, we get sniffly. The trouble with that is that we end up with the possibility of sentimentality. And when you’re trying to elicit genuine emotion, it’s easy to do it wrong.
-          Sentimentality is cheap, crass, lowbrow, and effective. It taps into our pre-existing collective emotional touchpoints. Marketers know these very well, and it works.
-          In a book, it’s cheap. We can do better.
-          Sentimentality is unplanned. Like Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society’ speech in the  iPad commercial. Very effective. And then he died, and Apple didn’t pull the commercial. Because the message was Carpe Diem.
-          But the crassness of them not removing the commercial is a hazard of sentimentality.
-          You don’t want sentimentality. But you should not be afraid of sentiment. It’s genuine, it grows out of character.
-          Everything in writing comes out of two things: story and character.
-          Story is in opposition to plot.
-          Plot is an arbitrary construct imposed from the outside by an author in the position of god.
-          Plot-driven fiction and narrative. Harlequin is plot structure. Same structure every time. And people gravitate towards them because there’s a safety to them, like cozy mysteries. Or Law & Order (the original series). Written like clockwork. The crimes were horrendous, but the narrative was structured to the point of safety. Plot is not story.
-          Story is organic and based on the actions and reactions of characters.
-          You can’t have a story without characters.
-          Story moves organically through actions and reactions of characters.
-          Characters are revealed and developed through the movement of the story.
-          Story is character. Character is story.

Relatability of character
-          The concept that characters don’t need to be relatable – but having an unrelatable, prickly, unlikable female character is somehow seen as bizarre and undesirable
-          Some writers have gone public with the concept that likability is not essential
-          Likability is not essential for a main character, but relatability is different.
-          We don’t need to relate to characters, but it helps when you’re forging a connection.
-          We can relate to Humbert Humbert in Lolita not by the actions he takes, but as a human being. As a narrator, he’s emotionally accessible. It's an uncomfortable reading experience (for men and women in utterly different ways) – and yet somehow Nabokov affects us emotionally by the end.
-          It's essential for characters to be relatable. But how do you make your characters relatable?
-          This occurs through action. Discovers them as the reader does, by showing them in action. By showing what they do, documenting what they say, and playing with the space between those things. And then, what they do alone. How they are in the dark. What haunts them. The best way to do this is to allow characters to move. To react.
-          The point where the story starts is the inciting incident.
-          It is as close to the beginning as possible.
-          In Quantum physics, the ultiple universe theory: every action creates a multiverse. We create a universe with every choice
-          How the story moves will reveal those characters to us.
-          These are moments of emotional truth that you reveal that make the reader uncomfortable but are emotionally true enough to carry the narrative forward.
-          Let the narrative reveal the character step by step.
-          It's not our duty to redeem the characters by the end of the story; it's only our duty to remain true to the characters. If you can redeem them in an emotionally true way, then great. But you have to keep true to them as you slowly reveal them.
-          The death scene in Little Women works because you’ve spent so much time with the characters and come to know them so well. Domestic familiarity with them.
-          One of the things you want to maintain is questions. You don’t want to reveal everything at once. And one question that threads through the narrative is, “Who are these people, really? What will they do when confronted by these situations?”
-          You want to dance along the line between sentimentality and sentiment. Like a little girl saying, “My sky blue dress, mommy, because of the sky”. Be aware of using sentimentality but not surrendering to it. Use it in the service of sentiment.

Embrace the Pain
-          Underwrite. Always underwrite. You’ll be tempted when you reach a big emotional moment to use all of the tools at your disposal. But rein it in. Give the reader something to mirror from. You want the reader to know the character is in emotional distress, but you don’t want to wallow it. The key to making the reader cry is to hold off on making the character cry.
-          Alien is terrifying because it uses the fundamental truth. What you can’t see is scarier. What you imagine is more terrifying than what you see. Yes, the alien is terrible, but once you see it, the tension stops. It's no longer horror, but a thriller. And that change comes at the moment you see the creature. Yes it’s exciting and thrilling, but the tension dissipates. The same is true with emotion. You need the reader to mirror it. The longer you can hold off the climax of that visible emotion, the better. You want the reader to cry, so don’t let the character cry. The longer you put it off, the better. Plunge the reader into the emotion to such a deep degree that you make them cry.
-          Skirt sentimentality as much as you can. Walk the line.
-          Codicil: “It’s going to hurt.” It’s going to hurt you. There is no way around that. If it doesn’t have an emotional effect on you, it won’t have an effect on the reader.
-          It is perfectly human and likely human to flinch, but you can’t flinch in telling the story. It’s a betrayal of the contract you have with the reader. If you flinch, the reader will notice. Flinching makes you pull back from the path you’re on, that you and the reader are committed to. You’re no longer following the emotional truth. You can’t flinch. So, are you strong enough to break your own heart? Over and over again?
-          That’s how you measure the effectiveness of what you’re doing. If it’s not hurting you to write scenes that are hurtful, you’re not effective enough.
-          We build stories out of emotional character actions. We want readers to say “I didn’t see that coming, but I should have.” You don’t want them to say, “That was a cheat.”
-          Mirror: The reaction that when you see someone in distress, you react in distress. It’s part of our humanity. You see someone with a deeply invested emotional reaction, and you react to that.
-          Gone Girl – the fact that they ended up together. It’s a surprising ending but it couldn’t have ended any other way because they are perfect for each other.

Audience Question: How to you get off the page without revealing too much of yourself?
-          Work from within, but write from outside, too. Blur and blend those elements. That gets you the freedom. Don’t blanch at drawing too deeply from yourself, so long as you’re avoiding writing about you.

Audience Question: How do we know that the emotion will well up in someone else?
-          Don’t describe the emotion. Describe what elicits it. So long as the reader has some kind of connection with the character, they’ll feel it, too.
-          Don’t think that showing the reaction is going to elicit the emotion.
-          It's better to have details than an emotional outburst.
-          Even if you're writing someone emotionally losing it, you can underwrite it by not emotionally blurting, though that lets the reader off the hook if they can see it on the page. Like whispering a poem in a dying child’s ear (in Before I Wake)

Audience Question: How do you know you haven’t stepped over?
-          As a writer you’re never 100% sure, but editors and critique partners will let you know. And then you can improve it
-          Sentimentality may provoke resentment.

Audience Question: How do you handle emotion depending on what part of the book it is?
-          If you begin with an event, the character’s reactions to the event will reveal them.
-          Be open to surprise. You know more about the characters than you think you do.
-          Delayed reaction, pacing and tension, sentence length can also work with this.
-          Dig into the emotional scene. Let time elapse. Let things happen. Don’t just rush ahead to where you want to go; make space to allow things to occur naturally.
-          It can be okay to label the emotion.

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