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Packing Emotional Punch: Connecting with Readers

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Packing Emotional Punch Connecting with Readers Emotional Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle

Children’s Concert by George Iakovidis via Wikimedia Commons

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The stories that stick out the most in my memory tend to be stories where I related to the characters somehow, really felt for them.  Creating this feeling for your readers is not just about putting your characters through some tough times on their way to triumph (although that’s generally a key ingredient in plot).  We pack emotional punch by helping the reader to connect with what the main characters are going through.  If the reader doesn’t care a lick about what happens to the characters, your story is dead in the water.

How do we pack emotional punch?  How do we connect with readers?

Build tension bit by bit.  The main characters’ reactions to and actions within crisis situations must build up through the story.  In The Shining, wife Wendy at first treats husband Jack with kid gloves when he starts to lose his marbles.  If we didn’t have these build-up scenes of gradually growing tension, it wouldn’t be quite so scary when Jack (inevitably) starts running around the empty hotel with an ax.  Because the tension has been building, piece by piece like a little Jenga game, we’re all the more scared by the time Jack is chasing wife and kid with an ax and a look of glee.

Have a “Save the Cat” moment early in your story.  Blake Snyder’s fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat describes this more in detail, but the gist of the idea is that your main character(s) must have a moment early on in the story that gives us a reason to care about them.  They must do something that, essentially, reminds us that they are human.  In Hunger Games, Katniss volunteered to take little sister Prim’s place.  In Matilda, little Matilda has a very sweet conversation with the local librarian exposing her innocence and insatiable curiosity.

Include humanizing details.  The Save the Cat moment will go a long way to create this, as well as character tags and general details about your character.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood does a beautiful job of both creating curiosity and building a relatable character by, early on, hinting at how much the narrator is afraid to think about.  We get bare hints of the narrator’s past, and, in addition to building curiosity, it helps make the narrator more human than the robot the book’s society is trying to create.

Give the characters a clear goal (or goals).  In addition to being nearly vital to plot, this gives readers something to root for.  If the main character is working toward a clear goal, this gives the character an opportunity to grow and – you guessed it – be more relatable.  You can up the ante even further by giving a secondary character a goal in direct conflict with the main character’s goal.  Sparks fly and create more opportunities to grow and be eminently relatable.  Fun times.

Don’t be overly dramatic.  Melodrama causes us to laugh at characters rather than laugh with them.  If you want to be like Voltaire or Alexander Pope, have at it.  Otherwise, we should all try to remember to temper the dramatic scenes with action or humor scenes in between; action and humor, done properly, can tell us just as much or more about a character as dramatic bits.

Keep it moving.  Time frame (or the perception of time frame) keeps us involved in the story.  If every event is happening one after the other, it matters more than if there’s lots of lag time between important events.  Exposition creates the perception of lag time, whether time is actually lagging or not.  Relevant action keeps the story moving.  If that action is years apart, sum up the intervening years in a few sentences.  Relevant action keeps us involved in the story.

How else can we pack an emotional punch or help our characters be more relatable?  What’s a great story you’ve read that packed an emotional punch?

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Authenticity in YA Fiction

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Child Soldier Drawing - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - authenticity in writing YA fiction

Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast, Africa, by Gilbert G. Groud via Wikimedia Commons

Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward.  Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously.  Why should a child represent humanity?

In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,

Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child.  I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today.  I never felt that I spoke childishly.  I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.  And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t.  This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now.  These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such.  If we do not, we risk losing our readers.

Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues.  The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).

What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity.  This can be harder than it sounds.  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that

Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter.  So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount.  If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.

What are our takeaways?

  • Be authentic in your writing.  Write truth.
  • Treat your characters’ issues like they matter.  If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.

What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists?  Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?

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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?

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Love Triangles - Dante's Inferno - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca (Dante’s Inferno) – via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been pretty absent from the blogosphere recently as I’ve been down for the count with that cold/flu thing that’s been going around.  If you get it, hit that Vitamin C, stat!  Anyhow, in honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, we’re going to chat about some famous love triangles in literature.  What makes them so compelling?  And why do they seem to be in every other story?

If you take a little tour through past and current popular fiction, love triangles abound like wizards at Hogwarts.  Before all the tween girls this side of Friday were oohing and aahing over Jacob, Bella, and Edward (Go Team Jacob!  Yes, I confess I did read the books…), some pretty justifiably famous love triangles reigned in literature, with a few things in common.

Who can forget Darcy, Elizabeth, and Wickham?  In Pride and Prejudice, while we’re on Elizabeth’s side the whole time, we watch Darcy and Wickham alternately lose and win her favor.  In Gone with the Wind, we’re pulling for Rhett the whole time as Scarlett pines after a guy named Ashley (Scarlett, honey, you should’ve known he wasn’t the one as soon as you heard his girly name.  Sigh.).  Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gives us a heart-wrenching love triangle with a much sadder ending.  When Newland falls in love with his fiancée May’s married, scandalous cousin Ellen in the 1870s, bad times ensue.  You can go further back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and even the Arthurian legends of Guinevere and Lancelot falling in love behind Arthur’s back.

We could go on and on here, but what makes these love triangles work?  These love triangles compel us to turn page after page because the emotions feel real and immediate.  It doesn’t hurt that love triangles naturally create tension, an essential ingredient for plot.  When love triangles are done well, when the author upholds the emotional integrity of the story, we as readers can’t put the book down.

Elizabeth Bennet’s original hatred of Darcy and her infatuation with Wickham were as real to us as later her slowly dawning love for Darcy and her disgust for Wickham feel real.  We live through these events as Elizabeth does because Austen upholds the emotional integrity of the story.  She doesn’t step outside the fourth wall to preach at us or to tell us what Elizabeth or Darcy or any of the characters ought to think.  She lets the characters lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the characters.  And it doesn’t hurt that Darcy is pretty hot and pretty rich…

Which love triangles do you love?  Which love triangles stand out to you in fiction?

What Makes Characters Real?

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Anne of Green Gables Cover Art

Courtesy of bn.com

Having characters we can relate to — or at least understand — is part of what makes us want to keep reading.  If we don’t care about the main characters and what happens to them, we probably won’t turn that next page.

In my humble opinion, two very distinct things make characters real to the reader:

1.  Quirks

What does your character do that makes her unique?  What makes him stand out above the sea of words and last in your readers’ memories?  Quirks.

I clearly remember how Anne in Anne of Green Gables dyed her hair green because she hated her red hair, and it’s been maybe 15 or 20 years since I read that book.  Anne Shirley, as a character, sticks in my memory because of her quirks.  I still frequently call to mind how she compared herself to her adoptive mother, Marilla, saying that she didn’t want to just walk along in her life (like Marilla); she didn’t mind thudding into the ground every so often if it meant she was able to soar with the eagles for a while in between.  That thought has stuck with me for years because author L.M. Montgomery gave Anne memorable, believable character quirks.

2. Emotional Integrity

Characters’ reactions to situations, however far-fetched those situations may be, must retain emotional integrity in order for readers to stick with the story.  If the character’s parent dies, and the character just keeps on blithely going about his daily life, we must understand why.  Otherwise, you will alienate readers.  It’s one thing to have unsympathetic characters, but quite another to have unsympathetic characters without reasons why.

For example, Scarlett O’Hara works as an unsympathetic character because we want to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing.  However, unsympathetic characters with no reasons behind their actions (at least, no reasons apparent to the reader) will lose the reader.  I was recently reading the third book in a triology where the main character had been fairly well established, and all of a sudden, he does something crazy that is never fully explained for the entire book.  I finished the book since I was comparing notes on the book with someone else who was reading it, but I made the decision never to read any other book by that author again.  I felt cheated.

On the other hand, you can find a book with an incredible premise that wouldn’t generally happen in daily life, like Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it comes across as believable because the characters act in ways that make sense for their situation.  When the main character (whose real name we never learn) in The Handmaid’s Tale savors every detail in her room because she can’t visit many places in the outside world, it feels very real for her situation.  When she’s afraid of being discovered for her dissension, it feels very true to her character.

What makes a character feel real to you?

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