Friday, November 12, 2010

Why Is Emotion So Hard When It's So Important?

by Scott Rhoades

Why is it so much easier to plot the action of your story than to write the emotional content that makes that plot matter? Every action in your plot must be motivated by emotion. The action is the plot, and the emotion is the story. No action should be there because it's convenient to the plot, without heightening the characters' emotions and thus involving the reader more in the story. If the plot is meaningless without emotion, why do so many of us have trouble including the emotional content in our drafts?

I think it's because we can write well and enjoy our own stories by focusing on plot, but we can't uncover the emotional story without revealing our inner selves. It's in the emotional content of the story that our needs and fears and issues come out, whether we've shared the characters' experiences or not. Maybe we've never explored the planet B'zerkn'd with a reptilian dog named X'x'melv'n, but we've been some place where we didn't know what we'd find, where we felt unsafe and insecure, and where we felt instinctively that we couldn't necessarily trust our companion in the adventure.

In writing about our character and his lizardy doggy thingy exploring a new world, we have to reveal the POV character's fears and insecurities, and when we do that, we reveal our own. Few of us enjoy opening our souls to our friends, much less to total strangers. We reveal only what we want to reveal in life, keeping the rest closed inside. What's more, what we show is usually a carefully crafted version of the truth that we put together in an attempt to not show too much.

I know this is likely as true for you as it is for me because so many writers are introverts. We think deeply and we feel deeply, but we're not used to letting others see what we hide in those depths. We're highly aware of our internal struggles, and we're experts at hiding them from others. We often write, whether we admit it or not, at least partly to help ourselves work through our internal issues. The problem is, as we write, we're able to feel the characters' emotions, even if we don't actually put them on the page, because we feel them as we write. We get our catharsis without necessarily letting our emotions break through the walls of our inner citadels.

And if we're just writing for our own catharsis, we can leave it at that. Unfortunately, we seek validation of the feelings we'd rather not show. We want to demonstrate our value through our stories. And we want our readers to like us, or at least to like us through our stories, which is better than letting them close enough to us to either like us or reject us as people. We're introverts, so how they feel about us personally isn't that important, we think, but how they feel about our work is a critical reflection of what we really want them to feel about us, whether we admit it or not.

And for that, we need to make them feel what we feel, even if it means revealing more than we intended about ourselves. Otherwise, our work means nothing and the reader is bored and gives up on our story, and on us. That's a double rejection. It's shattering.

If we hold back on the emotions the way we've taught ourselves to do during our lives, we have no story. We have a series of events that might be interesting on their own, but they have no meaning. Even if the reader sticks around to see what happens, the story won't stick with her, and all our hard work will be forgotten almost as soon as the book is put down.

So instead of hiding, we should let those emotions out through our characters. It's really a pretty safe way to do it. We can make our characters suffer the things we're afraid we'll suffer if we reveal too much. We can even go to extremes that will never happen to us, but that we imagine might. And if we don't, as I've said, we have no story.

Don't be afraid to show your fear through your character, to let the character deal with the griefs you lock inside, or to let your character express the joy you feel but have trouble showing. You do this by making sure every action has an emotional counterpart, and that you show both the plot and the story.

If it reveals too much, you can also keep your story to yourself. You won't, though, because it will be too good to not let loose on the world. So let it out and let us, your readers in.

1 comment:

Julie Daines said...

I feel really good about this post. It makes me happy, but at the same time question my reasoning for that happiness. How can one post fill me with so many mixed emotions?