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Friday, 23 May 2014

Fiction, the Good Lie – No. 3: Building Emotion

by Magi Nams

"While "tone" is the writer's attitude, "mood" is the feeling the reader gets from the writing." (J. J. McConnachie, Writers Block NZ)

Last year, I attended a writing workshop on tone and mood taught by the award-winning Canadian novelist Donna Morrissey. The first question Donna asked the group was, "What do you want the reader to feel?" She went on to say that because readers can't hear inflexions in voices the way listeners can, "tone and mood add flavour to the writing." Donna told us that readers connect with characters through the emotion they feel as evoked through the writer's choice of words. She also said that readers don't have to like a character or scenario, but must understand that character or scenario. And because emotions are universal, often that understanding comes about via the reader relating to the work emotionally. That is, a reader reacts to moods an author creates within a piece of work, which all work together to set the overall tone of the piece. So, effective fiction writing means connecting with readers on a deep emotional level.

For most of the workshop, Donna challenged us to create emotion in our writing through various creative exercises. The first dealt with setting. Can you guess which emotion I tried to evoke in the following assignment about a person approaching a house?

Shadowed, the house's normally warm wood wasted dull and lifeless. Petunias bowed vivid heads in tumbling cascades of tears from planters. Windows stared blankly – so many empty eyes looking at nothing. The porch railing seemed a cage intended to stop a person from stepping off the deck into nothingness or running madly until you fell, hands grasping at grasses, at tree roots. The cold flagstone walkway epitomized broken plates of memories separated by the coarse gravel of death.

The emotion is grief, right?

Donna told us, "In order to feel something, you must believe it." In other words, we must engage readers with believable writing. "Let them judge what the emotions are, rather than telling them. Once they make that judgment, they're in."

As I've mentioned before, Donna is an amazing presenter. Her workshop had us hopping from basic description to characterization to dialogue to free association, all in pursuit of  building emotion that would trigger readers' feelings. I think I got better at 'emotion-building' as the workshop progressed, but it was hard, mind-stretching work. And wonderfully liberating. Below are two examples of what I wrote to create emotion through character, with the first assignment involving one character, and the second assignment involving two characters. No dialogue in either one.

Her fingers trembled as she tugged up black nylons and clipped the tops into black lace garters. The scarlet dress's satin fabric slid smoothly over her head, revealing her cleavage and the quick rise and fall of her chest. Then she stepped into red sandals, knowing their four-inch heels made her legs look a mile long. She took a small practice step, then a long one, straightening her shoulders and thrusting out her breasts. When she walked past a mirror, she paused to check the dress, the shoes, and her hairdo. Never once did she meet her eyes. 

An oar thuds against the gunwale, my brother fighting to control it. The dingy lurches, the horizon tilting. I huddle near the bow, spray tossed onto me dripping down my neck and seeping through my thin jacket. I stare at the young man who once raced with me laughing through meadows and who braided daisy wreaths for me to wear on my head. Eyes grey as the wind-tossed waves, he looks past me, his jaw hard like granite, the muscles in his bare forearms bulging and writhing like snakes beneath his skin. I pull my shoulders in, feel water seeping into my shoes, and stare out at the sea.

In the first example, I was aiming for a blend of nervousness and shame. In the second, anger in the brother and despair in the sister.

Next, we tackled creating emotion through dialogue, which was a whole new ball game. Again, Donna gave us some tips: "keep choreography minimal,"  "subtle is stronger," "focus on the emotion, not the facial contortions," "add small details to keep setting in mind." She said, "Dialogue is not about talking. It's about showing emotion and moving the story forward." She asked us to write a scene that was dialogue between two characters, with minimal narrative. Here's what I came up with:

Danny's mouth tightened as he looked at his seventeen-year-old daughter. "What are you going on about now, Rose?"
"It's you and Lise. You're both so scared."
"Scared of what?"
"Of losing each other."
"Losing each other? You're talking like we're married or something. We're just neighbours."
Rose rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Right. Remember telling me how she lit up like a light bulb when she got engaged in high school to that boy who died from a brain tumour?"
"Yeah. And we both know how she doesn't light up around me. So leave it be, Rose."
Rose stood. Her chin lifted. "You're right. She doesn't blaze around you. It's more like a soft glow. A blaze burns, Daddy. A glow warms."
"I'm going out to the cows."
"And she – she's so scared you're going to die like that boy did. When are the two of you going to see that you're meant for each other?"

I tried to make Rose bold, loving, and not afraid to speak her mind to her father. I wanted to portray Danny as having a close relationship with his daughter, but in total denial that his neighbour Lise might care for him.

For our last writing exercise, we did free associative thinking, which is basically writing whatever comes into your mind, although the aim was to portray emotion in a character. This was a really cool exercise that took me to where I'd never been before. I had no idea where it was going to lead me until I arrived. Here's what I wrote:

The baby socks don't pair up. Again. One's missing. My mother always said there was a laundry monster. I guess it ate that sock. Hmm… laundry monster. Piles of cloth diapers. Infant sleepers. Bibs. My husband's t-shirts. My jeans. She always laughed a girlish giggle when she talked about the laundry monster. And her eyes played happy games with me when she sang "Robin in the Rain" and "Waltzing Matilda."
She remembered those songs last time I visited her at the home. She didn't know who I was, but she knew those songs. She stared at me like I was a thief who'd stepped into her room. I told her I was the song lady and strummed my guitar and sang those old songs. Her face changed like sunrise was happening in her mind. Her wavering voice joined mine, growing stronger with each measure. At the end, she touched my arm. "Beth," she said.
"Yes, Mama. Beth."

Emotion is big stuff. For writers. For all of us.


Writing as Jenny Lee Winters, Magi is working on building lots of emotion into her first contemporary  romance A Look Across the Sand, which features a wildlife photographer heroine and rancher hero.

Magi also writes nature/travel non-fiction. Check out a red fox on the hunt at her blog www.nams.ca/MagiBlog.


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