Monday 28 April 2014

Scene Simpatico
In a scene where your character gets angry, you want the reader to share that anger. If the character is scared, you want the reader to feel that fear. If a character being interviewed for a job feels nervous and his leg is bouncing up and down, it’s very rewarding to be told by a reader that their knee started sympathy-bouncing when they were reading that scene.

Putting the reader into a character's shoes by having them experience the same emotion is a powerful tool and a great way to form a connection between story and audience. But this isn’t always just a simple matter of describing what the character is experiencing and hoping the reader will be immersed into their world.

Moreover, not all states of mind are equally interesting to be immersed in. An insane character, a disoriented character, a bored character, these can all be accurately conveyed, but should they be?

It helps to keep in mind what the point of a scene is. Not the general mood you want to create but what's actually happening. If you put the mental and emotional aspects to one side and look at the scene in purely mechanical terms, is it interesting?

If it’s two people sat at a table talking, or a person alone in the woods, then simply adding a veneer of emotion won’t suddenly change it from dull to fascinating.

Let’s say my story starts with a man waking up in the trunk of a car. He doesn’t know how he got there or why. He’s confused, frightened and suffers from claustrophobia. If that’s all that happens in the opening scene I could write a fairly detailed depiction of what he’s going through, but how long before it goes from visceral to boring?

He’s trapped in the trunk, he’s tied up, the car’s on the move and he has to wait until it stops and his abductor lets him out before he can start working out what’s going on. Thirty pages and you’d really feel like you were in there with him. Too much? What about ten pages?  Still feels a little long. How about a single page?  How about one paragraph?

The thing is, when you’ve got nothing but a moment without context then the shorter the better. Once you understand the situation it doesn’t really add much to keep reinforcing the same point. Is there any advantage to having the guy in the trunk wake up with fifty miles still to travel?

While making the tone resonate with the reader can enhance a scene, the scene has to be worth enhancing. If you become too focused on the technical aspect of accurately portraying how the character is seeing things you can easily forget to make what they’re doing worth reading about, which should always be your first priority.

Back to our guy in the trunk. If he comes to, confused and disoriented, and then the car starts to be crushed in some kind of mechanical compactor, then his state of mind will become secondary to his need to get the hell out. He still doesn’t know how he got there or why someone’s trying to kill him, but that won’t stop him from taking the necessary steps to deal with the situation.

He can still be viewing it all from a particular perspective, one that you can pass on to the reader, but as soon as you give the character something to do it will quickly become clear where to focus most of the reader’s attention.

It also makes a difference where in the story the scene appears. If the reader’s had a chance to develop a relationship with the character, if they know where the story’s going, if they have some idea of what’s at stake, then they’re going to be much more tolerant of a scene where it isn’t immediately obvious what’s going on.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a scene that's more about style than content right at the start of a story—not being sure what's happening can work as a very good opening hook—but it’s worth being aware of possible drawbacks and using other techniques to keep thing moving.

Putting another character (friend or foe) in the scene can also make a difference. Characters alone with their thoughts are the hardest to keep interesting. Not impossible, but not easy, and hard to judge for a writer. Once you add a counterpoint to the main character, even if that counterpoint is only seen through the MC’s POV, it can help ground a scene.

Our guy wakes up in the trunk, bound and gagged, and as he struggles to get loose he realises he’s not alone in there. Behind him is a young woman also tied up. He has no idea who she is. He squirms around and finally manages to get the gag out of her mouth and she proceeds to call him every unkind name under the sun and then lists a number of objects she plans to insert into his rectum as soon as she’s free and able to visit the nearest hardware store. Our hero, with near superhero effort, manages to get the gag back in her mouth.

And a little humour can also help. This won’t be appropriate in all cases, but it can often help keep a reader engaged through the more challenging moments. Just because the character is in a particular state of mind doesn't mean the rest of the world will pause to let him work through his personal issues.

It's not just a matter of transferring the character's mindset to the reader, there's a number of other factors to take into consideration. How long the scene is, where in the story it appears, what’s happening to the character and what they have to do next all play a role in deciding how effective any emotional connection will be for the reader.

If a character is bored at work and writes a silly email which he accidentally sends to his boss leading to a hilarious sequence of events, then how long do you need to spend establishing the boredom at the start of this scenario? Not very long, I would suggest.

On the other hand, if a character is enraged by the murder of his wife and hunts down the killers for the whole of the book, his anger might not only be worth maintaining at quite a high level, you might also want to show different stages of that anger and how it helps/hinders his search.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Getting the reader to feel the character only works when there's something interesting happening. Otherwise we'll all be equally bored.

Unknown said...

It is action which causes me to feel emotion, but not necessarily the same emotion as the character. Example:

A male character is slapped across the face by a girlfriend in a quiet bookstore. He's obviously embarrassed because now people are looking and he's attempting to shush her, but she insists on making a scene.

I'm not feeling the same embarrassment as the guy, but I may be feeling a bit ashamed being forced to witness the girl's tirade. The shame may disappear when she turns to stomp away and the guy goes after her calling out, "Honey, sweetheart...wait!"

Now my shame has turned into disgust. :D

It's all relative to the actions for me. My emotions come from my witnessing action, then interpretation of reaction.

Missy Frye said...

Good advice. Don't drag things out.

Unknown said...

What a great article! For me, it's emotion that connects me to a character (whether that be when I'm reading a book or when I'm writing one). When I write, I try to pull from emotions that I want my characters to feel during a scene. If I want them to be scared about something, I pull from an experience in my life where I felt scared. Mirroring emotion is what works for me.

Unknown said...

I always try to keep plot and character balanced. Since I believe most people just want to know "what happens next," I often lean toward plot and my CPs have to remind me to add more inner thoughts and emotions. Great post as always! :)

Stephanie Faris said...

It is tough to do, but the emotions must come through or the reader won't be engaged.

mooderino said...

@Alex - obvious but easy to forget.

@Diane - it's up to the writer to decide what they want the reader to feel. Learning to control that is the hard part.

@Missy - brevity is the soul of wit, apparently.

@Karen - there are various techniques to get the reader to feel, sometimes they can be quite sneaky.

@Ryann - creating the emotion and making sure the scene is interesting are two different aspects that both need to be worked on, i find.

@Lexa - keeping the plot moving is good but adding an emotional element makes a big difference (a good one).

@Stephanie - emotion helps, what's happening is the foundation though.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I can feel the character's emotions only when I connect with him or her. Many times though the scenes are extremely well written I just don't feel any connection or sympathy for the characters.

dolorah said...

My problem has always been getting the reader to "like" my character. No matter what else is going on in a scene, the agents always send back "meh, your mc isn't sympathetic."

Post something to fix an unlikeable MC. and no, she's not a byronic character. boohoo.

Al Diaz said...

I was told by my readers I can make them feel what I intend them to feel but I am not aware how exactly I do that. Your tips are always useful and enlightening.

David P. King said...

This is why I often spend little time in the character's head. Actions speak louder than words, so I have the characters do or say stuff. :)

Amanda said...

Very good points to think about. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Rachna - really lyrical writing that stays distant and aloof from the characters always feels lacking to me, even when it's intentional.

@donna - likable is certainly one way to engage a reader, but it's also possible to be nice but boring. Interesting characters don't necessarily need to be likeable if what they're doing is fascinating enough.

@al - I think most writers have an instinct for emotive writing, but a little look under the hood never hurts.

@David - the advantage of novels over movies is the access to the character's inner monologue so i think it's worth investigating, but like any tool it's never easy to master.

@Amanda - cheers.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think I do this reasonably well. At least that's what my fan mail indicates.

Chemist Ken said...

Letting the reader feel the emotions of my characters is not an area I excel in. If I don't constantly go back and add interior thoughts, my crit partners tell me they don't know what my characters are feeling.

Misha Gerrick said...

Very true. Sometimes, the best thing to keep the reader rooted in the book is to get through emotional parts a bit faster. Readers are only willing to rehash certain things for so long.

mooderino said...

@Mike - Must be nice to have fan mail. Or a fan.

@Ken - having the cause of the emotion happen in front of the reader helps.

@Misha - momentum is good, but feeling the emotion as it happens is pretty engaging too.

Unknown said...

I love it when I read a book and feel what the character is feeling.

LD Masterson said...

I try to balance the character's emotions with "what's happening" and "why should I (the reader) care?".

mooderino said...

@Lilith - it is a cool thing when it happens.

@LD - good idea.

Sarah Allen said...

That's a good thing to slap a sticky note on your desk: keep the point of the scene in mind. Great advice!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Unknown said...

Great post, there's a lot to keep in mind when writing a scene. I try to at least ask myself, 'what new thing will we learn about the character today?'.

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