Deep Emotion–Character Development
As authors, we bring our own emotional burdens and joys to the page. Communication with an audience is often the key compelling motivator to share our tales of human and spiritual struggles. Whether we write comedy, romance, thrillers, or literary novels, the protagonists journey is always fraught with some emotional danger, at least they are in the very best works. Our endeavor here is to highlight the missteps new authors often make when first exercising this fundamental need to explore and share these intense, human emotions.
#1First Mistake–The Emotional Punch
We’re often taught to start by showing the protagonists in their every-day world then quickly introduce an instigating event that drastically changes their lives. This every-day world is difficult to craft and yet create a compelling hook that will kidnap the reader for the duration of the story. Many times, new authors attempt this hook by delivering emotional punches within the first few pages—which can come off as gratuitous violence or shock for the sake of shock.
The problem here is the reader is not yet invested and instead, they enter a story at a time where characters are going emotionally ballistic and are not yet sympathetic, having had not time to develop a relationship with the audience, or make them care about what happens to them.
For instance, imagine how Scarlett may have appeared if we were introduced to her at the moment she steals her sister’s fiancé as the men are heading off to war. Without the every-day world–her amusing and harmless defiance, stuffing her face, flaunting her milky skin in the sunlight, flirting with all the boys, we wouldn’t know she’s simply a bit spoiled, boy-crazy, and more importantly–feels inferior to her more respectable sisters and mother. This sense of inferiority is intimated through these charming bits of rebellion.
Her betrothal is reached out of a sense of embarrassment, the total devastation of Ashley Wilkes rejecting her, and then Rhett Butler’s ridicule. Without this information, the reader could never sympathize with Scarlett when she regretfully accepts Charles’s marriage proposal. Without that opening, the entire tone of the novel would have been much different. Margaret Mitchell knew what she was doing.
When we approach our stories, it’s not the emotional punch that needs to come first, but merely the promise of an emotional punch soon to come. Intimating the underlying frailties of the protagonist, suggesting these frailties are going to be put to the test, is the purpose of the opening in any well told story. These are the introductory promises, the foundation of emotional threads that will knit together a tight and emotionally compelling tale for the reader.
Start small, work with creating questions that will take the reader to the next paragraph, the next page, and on to the height of the climatic moment. Get concrete about the climax. What are those emotions? Joy, sadness, fear? Why does the protagonist feel those emotions? The answer to those questions will tell you what questions you need to create in your opening scene.
Let’s take a look at a famous novel, “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer:
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt—sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.
Notice how her frailty is shown through her attachment to the shirt she’s wearing? How it’s implied this is a security blanket? Look at the questions created:
Why is she going to the airport?
Why is she feeling so vulnerable that she needs her favorite shirt for comfort?
Why is she saying farewell?
Is it going to be cold where she’s going?
Why is this important to the story?
What will happen when she gets where she’s going?
This book is about vampires, right—so will she meet a vampire when she gets there?
A simple paragraph, but chock full of questions that urge the reader to continue.
Can an opening begin with strong emotion? Yes, absolutely, but it should be directly related to the story and character as they appear in the time of the opening. Take Julie Garwood’s “Saving Grace” that begins with this:
The news was going to destroy her.
Kelmet, her faithful steward and senior in charge since Baron Raulf Williamson’s hasty departure from England on the king’s personal business, was given the responsibility of telling his mistress the god-awful news. The servant didn’t put off the dreaded task, for he guessed Lady Johanna would wish to question the two messengers before they returned to London, if his mistress could speak to anyone after she heard about her beloved husband.
The opening scene is abundant with unanswered questions and we can feel the dread of having to tell someone horrible news about a loved one. But take a look at how masterfully Garwood hooks the reader in by reading the way this ends:
“I must pray,” she whispered. “My husband is dead. I must pray.”
She closed her eyes, folded her hands together and finally began her prayer. It was a simple, direct litany that came from her heart.
“Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.”
By juxtaposing the opening dread and turning it instead to heartfelt relief, the reader has no choice but to read on and discover why this woman would find widowhood a blessing. Yet even in this opening, as taught and fraught with emotion as it is, the questions are what makes it successful. The question at the end makes it a page turner.
So instead of focusing on creating emotion, focus on creating questions that engage the reader’s curiosity and they won’t be able to put the book down.
Tomorrow we’ll look at #2: Why Purple Prose Won’t Work
I’ll also be blogging at the Teen Seen ( http://teen-seen.blogspot.com/ )tomorrow, so you should come on over and check it out. :)
Don’t forget either, that we’ve got a Query Critique Day coming up—so get those puppies polished!:)