An important step in my editing routine is this: rooting out repeated instances of characters' sighs, frowns, smiles, head nods, head shaking, and (yes!) long, steadying breaths before acting or speaking. Repetition is often a sign of flabby writing, and this particular kind has cropped up often enough in my own work to earn itself a nickname: the bobblehead syndrome.
Characters who are limited to just a handful of generic responses become less real and less relatable for the reader. In effect, the flabbier the writing, the flatter the characters are. Therefore, I've trained myself to think of vague emotional indicators as placeholders in a manuscript. They're acceptable in early drafts, but only until I can substitute a more detailed, more telling, and more authentic description of what the character is feeling inside, or how it appears to a point-of-view observer. Here are some examples from recent stories:
First draft: “I can see where this is going,” she said, frowning. “But I'm not going to break the law."
Edited: “I see.” Her lips and brows contracted as though pulled tight by the same string as her old-timey purse. “But don't think for one moment that I'll break the law to protect you."
(Frowns are so generic. This is a much more vivid and revealing description of her expression.)
First draft: He drew and expelled a long breath before speaking. “Well! It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
Edited: “Well!” he declared after a beat. “It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
(This character is simply buying time to process an unexpected development. Save the long breath for a high-stakes pivotal moment, such as when a character is about to commit perjury on the stand.)
First draft: She shook her head. “Absolutely not!”
Edited: "What? No! Absolutely not!"
(Unnecessary repetition here, a silent response followed by an identical verbal one. Check to see which one is more effective in the given situation, then go with it.)
Sometimes a simple frown or nod is a character's most authentic reaction. When it's not, I've found it helpful to have an "emotional thesaurus" on hand. Here's the recipe:
Collect any apt or well-worded character responses that you come across in your reading. Classify them according to the emotion being felt. Add your own original phrases to the list as well. (I've mined drafts of earlier stories for spot-on descriptions that came to me in moments of inspiration.) Then, while editing, dip into it for interesting emotional reactions that will strengthen your writing as they reveal the various dimensions of your characters. Your readers will appreciate it.
Arlene F. Marks
Arlene F. Marks took up writing at the age of 6 and is now helplessly addicted to it. Since retiring from the classroom, she has completely surrendered to her muse, authoring two multi-volume literacy programs and a writing manual, along with a great deal of imaginative fiction. Her current project is Sic Transit Terra, a series of space opera novels set at the turn of the 25th century that she describes as "Dynasty meets Star Trek with a side order of 24". Book 5, The Cockroach Crusade, will be coming out later this year from EDGE Publishing. Arlene lives and writes in the beautiful Georgian Bay area of Ontario.
Arlene's website: www.thewritersnest.ca
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One of my most favourite things to write is emotionally powerful scenes. They hit the reader square in the heart (or head), shed a tear or share a laugh, and perhaps allow them to make discoveries they hadn’t realized previously. But actually creating those moments is more than just a romantic kiss beneath a full moon or an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the little moments that build up to the climax that the reader will appreciate in the end.
If you are a writer or have ever dabbled in it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” phrase before. But for penning a scene that is supposed to drive into your reader’s heart, you can only talk about ‘the slow flow of water leaking from his eyes,’ and ‘her heart beating wildly in her chest’ so much. When I am writing out this special moment for the first time, I get everything out - all the character movements, bad jokes, small nuances and subtleties: fingertips touching, a shift in body language, batted eyelashes. When the word well runs empty, that’s when the magic begins.
While reading over the verbal vomit I’ve thrown onto your page, imagine it as a movie scene. We all have ‘that one part in that one movie’ where we were enthralled with everything that was happening: the music, the words, the setting all seemed to flow in perfect harmony. I want to have that same effect on the reader, and so I play it out as such in words. For example, if you have a pair of friends that find out they’re related to one another when they thought they had no family left, tell us about how excited they are, about the small jig they dance around each other. Show us the choked up voices, the small hope growing over the disbelief, the laughter of relief that they aren’t alone anymore. Make them more human in that window of time than they have been in the entire story, and they will breathe life into everything else that happens, regardless if it’s related or not.
On the flip side of this ‘show and tell,’ try not to use words that you’re not familiar with. If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to explain that word to them, and you’re not really sure how it might be best to leave it out or find an alternative. Googling ‘100 of the most beautiful words’ may bring about inspiration, but who would know what moiety meant without looking it up? Being poetic and having creative license as a writer allows us to literally make up things that have their own meaning, one you would presumably remember better than something you pulled off of a website. Take the time to scout inspiration, but don’t forget that this is your story, not the internet’s.
Ashley J. Gallaher-Pollard
When Ashley was in elementary school, she fell heavily in love with reading, mostly mythology and fiction. At eleven, she penned her first story about a fearless princess and a tyrant king. Now, she's writing about gifted women and the power of family. She has written numerous poems, a handful of them published through Young Writers of Canada and the contests they hold, and several flash fictions on personal characters that she has developed over the years. Her favourite things to read and write are fantasy adventure and science fiction, and sometimes she dabbles in romance. Her current project is War Wine (working title), a mature high fantasy novel that covers familial bonds, love of all kinds, and friendship.
Have you experienced goosebumps when listening to music? Noticed your body tense up watching a suspense-filled movie? Felt sympathy for a fictional character?
Emotion can make or break music, writing, visual art. It's an ingredient that we are often not taught. When we add elements of emotion and love of creating while painting, or writing, or making pottery, or whatever your passion is, the piece will turn out that much better because it was created from a place of caring, of passion, of love. Interestingly, this expressive side is not explicitly taught in art or music school. We are often told to show the emotions, but not given the tools to know how.
Composers, film producers, writers, artists and other creatives know that the most successful art forms engage the viewer to enable us to experience a connection and feel emotion. And it has to be believable to at least provide the possibility.
So how do we, as artists and writers, do this? There's no formula that I'm aware of. But we can look to what has worked for the most successful in the various art forms and decide what may work for our own creative ventures.
For example, a visual artist may suggest emotion through the use of colour, which can say a lot about the mood of a picture and how the viewer interprets it. Strong colour can add energy and emotion. Anger may be depicted through reds and blacks, happiness through sky blue or yellows, dark colours for a howling Halloween evening. Gestures, brushstrokes, rhythm and gradation are also elements that convey energetic or calm emotions.
Some will create only using positive energy and thoughts to transfer into their creations. You may have heard that food tastes better when cooked with love. Quilters who make quilts for Victoria's Quilts Canada infuse their creations with hope for physical and spiritual comfort for the recipients of the quilts who are living with cancer.
Titles are important too, whether for a written work or song, art piece or play, and are what may first attract someone to a piece of writing. The title needs to capture - or hint at - what the book is about, but also reflect whether it is a romance, fantasy, non-fiction etc. Titles can play to the emotions of the reader. Referring to the picture below, if I had named it "Clothesline," well, it's kind of dull. But change the name to "Laundry Day," and we start to tap into the senses and memories, of the viewer. What did this title conjure up for you? Clothes flapping in the wind? A summer day? The fresh scent of line-dried clothes and sheets? You get my meaning. Whatever title you choose it needs to convey the mood you have selected for your written piece.
An author at the Ottawa International Writer's Festival talked a few years ago about how he develops the characters in his books. Much like an actor getting into their role before filming or for a play, he too would step into the roles of his characters, to better understand them, their feelings and thoughts, and to help them grow in their roles. The writing was done from the perspective of the characters, rather than his own. This role-playing would last several months until the preliminary writing was done, but was very effective in helping him portray the people in his books as real and authentic to his readers. By writing in first person rather than third person, he would become the character, understanding their thought processes, could create a history for them that would support their reactions to situations, and develop the character into seemingly real, authentic people. It's important when stepping out of one character and before stepping into another that transformation steps are taken, such as "brushing off" the role, shaking the character off the body, perhaps going for a walk to step away from their thoughts. This helps prepare the writer to then move to the next character.
Music composers and performers have the added challenge of not only infusing emotion into their compositions and songs but also of getting back into the same frame of mind when performing the same piece. Not an easy challenge.
Interestingly, some of the hit songs and most popular singer/songwriters are not necessarily technically proficient at what they do - they are good, yes, but following a melody perfectly or always hitting the same notes during a chorus doesn't necessarily translate into adding the emotion needed to take a piece to the level that will draw in the listener. Instead, they find the nuances, make the slight changes necessary to imply emotion, whether in rhythm, loudness or softness, tempo or other aspect of the music. Consider the difference between long chapters with lots of descriptions and character development versus a book that moves quickly with short chapters containing lots of action. The rhythm and tempo chosen for the writing and chapters work in concert with the style of book or story being written.
It's also important to pay attention to the silent parts - the pause between words, the silence between notes, a quiet spot in a painting - to give the reader a chance to reflect and to anticipate what may be coming up next. This can be done by changing direction after a scene that builds tension or suspense or anticipation. The next scene (and often the next chapter) could move to a description or give more insight into the characters (without dialogue), move to a different scene or idea entirely. The idea is to provide something temporarily that is much quieter or muted or peaceful, giving the reader a chance to rest before continuing the previous scene. The reader knows you will come back to the theatrics and has a chance to catch their breath while for a few paragraphs or pages while preparing for what is to come.
One final thought. I came across this quote recently which I think sums up this topic quite well. Although it's about musical performances, it applies equally to writing, visual art and other art forms.
"....most operas, symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and string quartets have a definable meter and pulse, which generally corresponds to the conductor's movements; the conductor is showing the musicians where the beats are, sometimes stretching them out or compressing them for emotional communication. Real conversations between people, real pleas of forgiveness, expressions of anger, courtship, storytelling, planning, and parenting don't occur at precise clips of a machine. To the extent that music is reflecting the dynamics of our emotional lives, and our interpersonal interactions, it needs to swell and contract, to speed up and slow down, to pause and reflect." 1
1 Quote from This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
Anne Warburton is a Fibre Artist, exhibiting her work at various shows around Ottawa, and is current chair of the Navan Fine Arts Group (www.navanarts.com) She writes a blog "Musings of a Creative Journey" at https://annewarburton.blogspot.com/, and worked for many years as an events planner and facilitator. Her website is https://www.needleartsonpaper.com/
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.