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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing with Passion

I don't dish out this writing tip because I think I have it down, but more to get us thinking on this topic. "What's the topic?" you ask. Guess with that title, it could mean several things.

What I'm thinking of is writing so that our character's passionate moments really pop out. This is a bit of a hard one, in that what is the "right" amount is so subjective. I've heard everything from "less is more" to "have your characters stomping about and crying their heads off."

And what I tend to be guilty of myself is not bringing out a character's passion in a moment they should be feeling some strong emotions. Only on occasion have I had someone say I overdid it. And I'm sure because in part I'm a level-headed guy who rarely gets extremely angry, sad, or anything. When I do, watch out. It's like Mt. St. Helen coming apart. But it takes a lot of pressure to blow that top off. So I think I tend to write my characters that way.

And therein may be part of my answer. The character. Every character we write should respond differently than another character. What I sometimes receive in crits is that this or that character should be hitting things, or ripping the place apart. I think that's because that's what that critiquer would do, whereas I would not. I would respond to such a situation differently. And I've been in a few as well.

But the key is to write what that character, with their history and traits, would do in such a situation. Let's bring this from the abstract to the concrete.

The traditional scene, John enters the room to find his wife lying dead on the floor. His oldest son and daughter file in behind him. The father might be stunned and simply stand there, not believing his eyes, not wanting to acknowledge that what he's seeing is true. The son, meanwhile, may bang his head on the door post and squeeze his eyes shut, tears welling up and falling to the floor. The girl might scream and throw herself over the dead body, weeping.

And if we threw more people in the room, we could have each one react differently, different levels of emotional reaction, and they would all be true to life, and realistic. But what happens is when a reader picks it up, if that specific reaction isn't in their experience, they tend to say it isn't believable. It isn't believable that the dad would just stand there, stunned. They would never react that way and they don't know anyone who would.

But I think we can toss aside the question of whether a specific reaction is realistic or not. I think most any reaction would be realistic. Even the girl who remains in denial, plays and makes jokes as if her mother's body isn't laying on the floor, is realistic. There are as many valid reactions as their are people.

However, we also have to acknowledge that we are writing fiction. We are attempting to tell a compelling story, which at times requires a "not realistic" approach. For instance, as I mentioned in the article on writing descriptions, how many people go through their day noticing all the descriptions you traditionally see in a novel? I seriously doubt anyone does. To be going through your day, thinking about the leaves waving the breeze, the smell of exhaust in traffic, hearing a train pass by, the colorful sign we pass everyday on our way to work, etc. What you see in a novel is totally unrealistic. Yet, to make the story work, we have to put that level of detail in there, even though the character wouldn't likely notice 10% of that detail in real life.

As one author I read said, dialog in fiction is likewise unrealistic. Few of us go around speaking with each other in smooth, flowing sentences that are crisp and clear. Our conversations go something more like this: "Well, yeah, I see your point. Uh, sure. Where can we meet, how about Jerry's? No, I forgot, I have an appointment at that time. How about ten instead of nine? You don't like Jerry's? Okay, let me think. Hum, well, we could try the Lucky Duck. Cool, well, how about we chat then. Yeah. I agree. See you later."

Can you think of reading that for a whole novel? You'd die from boredom. Yet that's the kind of stuff our days are filled with. Menial task, discussions, that would be borrring to watch or listen to. You don't want to have realistic dialog in your novel! Oh, yes, you have to have a level of realism, but you don't want it to be realistic to life. That would be boring.

The same thing applies here with emotions and conveying passion. The point isn't to duplicate true life as close as possible. The point is to keep the reader entertained and involved in the story. And when you're trying to write that emotional scene where your characters should be reacting to a horrific situation, for instance, you could realistically have a man stand in shock and not react immediately to such a scene, but that doesn't create good drama. It doesn't keep the reader gripped to the scene.  So I think while one has to be careful to not overdue it, there is a time and place for drama.

The problem with overdoing it is when the reaction doesn't fit the situation. Then it's seen as the author trying to generate emotions that the situation doesn't call for.  So, for instance, if the man entered the room and found a sandwich on the floor, he might get angry that someone knocked his lunch on the floor, but if he ran in, grabbed the plate and smashed it against the window, kicked the chair across the room, and fell to the floor crying his head off, we'd be calling the for the white men to bring the straight jacket with them. They guy's cracked.

But, in the end, you need to stay true to your character. If it is a Clint Eastwood type character, he probably will remain stoic and unmoved, even in the face of danger or what is otherwise an emotional scene for others. The character and story will guide on what is too much or not enough. This is one of those areas where it becomes a judgment call, and except for blatant over or under done moments, each author's call will likely be right.

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