Good Writing Patterns: Creating Emotion
Hello! Welcome. Yesterday I talked about the importance of getting cause and effect right for creating characters that feel real. In that article I broke cause and effect into: stimulus -- internalization -- response.
Today I want to focus on how to use that basic idea to sculpt a character, and to put that character in a situation, one that will create a specific emotion in your reader.
That sounds manipulative, doesn’t it? And it is! But when a reader picks up a book they want to be entertained AND maybe learn something. That would be a bonus. The image I keep coming back to is of a group of people huddled around a campfire. It is cold and dark and they will soon go back to their damp tents and try to sleep. It is the storytellers job to tell the group a story that will make the darkness less scary, the cold less miserable, and the prospect of a night in their damp tent almost bearable. At least, that’s how I think of it.
But in order to do that, we need to know how to create characters, and put these characters in particular situations, ones that will elicit certain emotions in our audience. For example, the emotion of hope. Why do you think single women (I am saying this from personal experience!) like to read romance stories? Enough said.
BTW, in what follows I’m drawing from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Motivating and Reaction Sentences
We’re going to get to the good stuff in a minute -- I don’t want this to feel like you’re back in school! -- but we need to have these concepts under our belt for the rest of what I have to say to make sense.
So, briefly, motivating and reaction sentences are cause and effect pairs. I’ll explain this in detail in a moment, but let me give you an example so it will make more sense when I do.
Motivating sentence: “The car raced down the dangerously narrow road.”
Reaction sentence: “Joe gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands, hoping he would be in time to see his daughter born.”
Here we set up the general situation, there is the event and then the character's reaction to the event.
These are their characteristics:
The motivating sentence is one sentence.
Swain believes that if you’re not familiar with writing in motivating and reaction sentences that it will work best if the motivating sentence really is just one sentence. He writes:
“Yet though extra sentences may sharpen up your copy, there still are virtues to the one-sentence rule. When you’re just learning, for example, you tend to kid yourself that you need a lot more verbiage than really is essential. Given half a chance, some of us would feel it necessary to mention that fury seethed within Brad; that his blue eyes grew bleak; that muscles knotted at the hinges of his jaws; that his nostrils flared and his fists tightened and his face flushed. As the saying goes, the kitchen sink would be there too if we could only figure out a way to get it through the door!” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)
He’s not wrong!
The motivating sentence contains no mention of the focal character.
The motivating sentence does NOT contain any mention of the focal character. For example, even this won’t work: “Kim saw the car speed away.” It would need to be, “The car sped away,” we need to keep Kim’s internal states out of it.
BTW, the focal character is usually the protagonist, but not always. The focal character is the character that the story revolves around. For example, in Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective was the focal character even if the story itself was written from Watson’s first person perspective.
This sentence describes the way the world is.
This is what my english teacher called third person, fly-on-the-wall perspective. I love the expression “fly-on-the-wall” because I ask myself: What would a fly see?
This sentence must be specific.
I’ve said this before, but I think that one of the reasons why a writer these days should never use, “It was a dark and stormy night” as an opening line is that it’s too general. Instead:
“Lightning flashed, slicing open the darkness, as rain beat a soothing staccato rhythm on the canvas tarp.”
I probably should break that into two shorter sentences, but I think it works. Again, my example isn’t meant to be great literature, I just want to illustrate the principle. The sentence expresses a much more specific picture than “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I went over this point, above.
This sentence is all about the character’s reactions.
In the motivating sentence the focal character couldn’t be mentioned, not even by pronoun! In the Reaction Sentence it is all about the focal character and how they are reacting. I’m going to talk a lot more about this either below or in a separate post.
Keep in mind that the character’s reactions should reflect who they are.
For example, let’s say a character is generally fearful (as opposed to angry, happy, clueless, observant, and so on). So, for example, if Jim is a fearful sort and he’s inside the canvas tent mentioned in my earlier example, I could write, “Shaking, Jim pressed his eyes shut -- the storm will pass in a few minutes, it will pass in a few minutes, it will … -- and inched further inside his sleeping bag.”
Include the focal character’s dominant attitude.
Swain writes that the reaction sentence should communicate your character’s state of mind. To do this you use their DOMINANT ATTITUDE.
I’ll talk about what Swain meant by the dominant attitude or feeling of a character more in another post, but I just touched on this idea when I said that a character will have one distinctive primary way of reacting to things.
For instance, in my example I gave above, Jim’s dominant attitude was “fearful.” Whenever he encounters a stormy night, an unexpected bill, someone asking him for the time, he filters what he sees/feels/smells/hears through his general attitude of fearfulness.
Using different dominant attitudes for each of your characters helps make them each unique.
The Significance of the Motivating Stimulus
Recall that the motivating stimulus can’t involve the focal character. But we want to craft the motivating sentence in such a way that it will grab the interest of the focal character.
Of course, all your characters are different, they have different interests, different capacities. For each main character, a different set of motivating stimuli will be important.
For example, if two people -- Joan and Adam -- go to a racetrack, different things are going to be significant to them based on their past history, interests and dominant attitude. Joan is a mechanic, she is egotistical (that’s her dominant attitude), and has had a lifelong interest in cars. So what does she notice first? Yes! Cars. But, specifically, she notices the fastest car driven by the best team. Joan completely ignores the drivers.
Adam, though, is a timid limousine driver who shuffles around rich clients at moderate speeds, but he has always dreamt of racing. HE notices the drivers and looks at them with envy. Adam would really like to go and talk to the drivers but he has trouble summoning up the courage.
Again, the idea of SIGNIFICANCE is that, based on a character’s interests, different characters will notice different things about the environment based upon how important -- how significant -- those features are to that character.
Creating an Environment
At this point, you might think, Well, that’s fine, but how do I create an environment that will interest a particular character? Swain has this covered, but this post is already going to run a bit long, so I’m going to go into detail about it in another post. (I think it will have a title like: bringing a character to life.) However, here's a brief overview:
Ask yourself: What is the effect you want to create by using this stimulus? For example, a car racing down a road or a thunderstorm in the dead of night. Remember you want to do two things: You want to MOTIVATE your focal character in such a way that that character will have the desired reaction. At the same time, you want to get your reader to FEEL for the focal character.
Let’s say that Jim, a timid insurance salesperson, is your focal character and you want your audience to bond with him. To do this, you need to let your audience watch Jim struggle with big challenges, and you need him to suffer big setbacks.
Let’s have Jim’s wife run off with another man. (Writers really are horrible people, the things we do to our characters!)
a. Pick something -- a person, thing, event -- to create this effect.
This is Swain’s example, more or less: Jim comes home from a hard day at the office and finds a note on the hall table. His wife has left him and he reacts to this.
So that's the idea. In what follows, I'm going to try and break sentences up into Motivating and Reaction pairs.
b. Get specific. Zoom in.
What is it about the motivating stimulus that will evoke the particular character reaction you want your character to have? Well, being specific helps.
In the following, as Jim reacts I'll try and convey the impression that Jim is timid, passive. I'm sure this could be done better, I'm just trying to illustrate the ideas I've been talking about.
There is a note on the side table. (Motivating sentence)Poor guy!
Jim sees the note soon as he walks in the door. Startled, he looks around for his wife but the house is silent and cold. Jim reaches for the note with a trembling hand. He reads: (Reaction sentences)
I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge. (Motivating sentence)
Jim slumps against the table, his mind racing. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke. (Reaction sentences)
One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly good New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks. (Motivating sentence)
John falls to the floor and sobs. (Reaction sentence)
Here, reading the note was the stimulus, we then have an internalization -- we see his pain, his puzzlement -- and finally the response, he slumps against the table. This response is a bit anemic, I could put a vase of flowers on the table that he could throw, a vase he had given her as a gift for their first anniversary. Or something. But you get the idea.
c. Trim away anything unnecessary.
Okay, you’ve written your scene. Look at it. What do you NEED to motivate your character’s reaction, his response? Got it? Okay, good. Now throw away everything else.
There is a note on the side table.I prefer the stripped down version!
Jim sees it as soon as he gets home and reaches for it with a trembling hand. He reads:
I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.
Jim slumps against the table. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke.
One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly rowdy New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks.
John falls to the floor and sobs.
d. Make your character unique.
Now take things to the next level. Describe the cause, the motivation, in a way that reflects your focal characters attitude.
There is a note on the side table. It is folded in half and has the name, "Jim," neatly written across it. Jance, Jim's wife, loved writing notes; she refused to text. She wrote notes to plumbers to tell them their work was subpar, she wrote to her only sister to tell her how she could fix her life. She had never, ever, written a note to her husband. Until now.
John sees the note as soon as he gets home ... etc etc
As you can see, I completely disregarded the one sentence rule! I tried to keep the sentences free of any mention of the focal character, Jim, and the experience demonstrated to me how much I really wanted to write the sentence: Jim saw the note on the table.
I think that trying to write in M-R units could be a very good exercise for me. I just re-read the beginning of Stephen King's The Shining, and King seems to more or less follow this. Although, that said, he doesn't begin with a motivating sentence, he begins with a reaction sentence. And that reaction sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read because it takes the reader inside the focal character's head IMMEDIATELY: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [expletive].
I'm going to rewrite a scene from my work in progress and put Dwight V. Swain's tips to work. I challenge you to do the same. I'd love to know what you think of the re-written scene. Is it better? Worse? How much of Dwight V. Swain's tips do you think you'll incorporate into your work?