Thursday, March 24, 2016

In case you couldn't make it: My Workshop on Emotional Resonance

My name is Barbara Venkataraman and yes, that's my real name. One time, I shortened it as a user name to BarbaraVen, which looked like Barbara Raven and I thought, Wow! What a great name for a mystery writer, with its homage to Edgar Alan Poe. Such a missed opportunity. I tell you this, if I ever write my own version of "Fifty Shades of Grey", I'll use that name. Look for it!

I'm a practicing family law attorney and mediator and I write cozy mysteries. A cozy mystery is defined as a mystery without gratuitous violence or graphic sex which features an amateur sleuth, usually a woman, and takes place in a small town or confined setting. Think "Murder She Wrote". My cozy mysteries feature a reluctant family law attorney named Jamie Quinn who lives in Hollywood FL. I've written four mysteries so far and am currently working on the 5th one, "Engaged in Danger". My topic today is:


Let's start with a quote by the great English novelist E.M. Forester.  He said : "The king died and then the queen died” is a story. But “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The reason it's a plot, he said, is because there is cause and effect. I would add that it's a plot for another reason--because of emotion. When a writer creates a plot, what he's doing is setting up a series of questions that propel the story forward, questions that the reader wants answered enough to keep reading. For that to happen, the reader must be engaged in the story--and more than that, the reader must be invested in the characters. Think about it this way, if a stranger came up to you and said I'd love to tell you a story, can you spare 8 hours? You'd say, I don't know about that, this better be a damn good story. So you make a deal. The writer says before we start, I need you to suspend your disbelief and just play along, okay? Also, I'm planning to manipulate your emotions. I figured you'd want to know that up front. You nod and say that's fine. I'll keep up my end of the deal because I actually want to be manipulated--but only if it's done well. Otherwise, I'm going to hate you forever. And also I'll give you a bad rating on Amazon.

Speaking of having your emotions manipulated, I'd like to share one of my pet peeves. Once I tell you about it, it will always bother you too. Shall I go on? Okay, I hate it when movies have a musical score that is heavy-handed. Like, here's some uplifting music, feel happy now. Here's comes the sad music, take out your Kleenex. Now we have romantic music, these characters are going to fall in love. If the acting and dialogue aren't doing their job, then the music only makes it worse. Except for it's a scary movie, then the ominous music lets me know something bad is about to happen. I do appreciate the warning. Then I can start squeezing my husband's arm with an iron claw!  (Cue the Jaws music)

So, how do you write an effective emotional scene without cheapening it or waving a banner that says--get ready, emotional scene coming up? Before your readers can become involved with a character emotionally, they need to know the character and understand him, identify with him in some way.Like when you hear about a car accident, it's sad. But if it's someone you care about, it's devastating. 

A reader should feel like he is in the scene, experiencing what the character is experiencing, all senses should be engaged. The author's first decision is point of view--Who is telling the story? First person point of view brings the reader right into the mind of the narrator. It's hard not to feel close to someone when you are privy to their every thought--but it's not the only way. Think about Harry Potter. Throughout most of the seven books, it's Harry's point of view we experience, with an occasional switch-off, like when Snape meets with Voldemort or meets with Dumbledore and Harry isn't present. But it's not written in first-person point of view. It's third-person limited, limited to Harry mostly. Let's examine the title of the first chapter: "The Boy Who Lived". Already we're asking, what boy, what dangerous thing happened to him? We're curious, but not invested. Our first glimpse of Harry is as a baby who has survived his parents being killed by a dangerous person named Voldemort. He's been left on the doorstep of unpleasant relatives by a trio of magical people. Ten years go by and we meet Harry, who seems well-adjusted despite having to live with people who treat him miserably, and we start living his life with him, discovering that he's a wizard, why he's special, what really happened to his parents. We root for him to get away from his relatives and to learn some magic. Although we are not orphans, we understand his loneliness, his desire for family. He's not a perfect kid, he has layers. People are complicated and your characters should be too.

Authors rarely convey emotion by having a character say "I'm sad, I'm happy." No, they have an entire bag of tricks at their disposal. The setting is one example. A table is a table, right? But seen through the eyes of a sad person, that table can be worn-out, damaged, remembered as the scene of happier times that will never come again. Body language and body movement is another way. Slumped shoulders, sparkling eyes, saying she dragged herself to the party. Having a chatty person suddenly go silent can denote great happiness, or shock, or grief. Have a normally stoic person leap in the air can convey emotion without any dialogue. Understated dialogue- Jordan Peele from the show Key & Peele. Did you hear how he proposed to his girlfriend? He tweeted an emoji of an engagement ring to her.
Context is crucial--show who your character is so that we know when he or she is overreacting, under-reacting. 

My dad is a tough critic and any time one of my sisters or I would make dinner, we'd ask, "How was it dad?" He'd always say the same thing, "not bad". One day, my sister cooked all his favorite things and made a lovely dinner. After we finished, she asked him, "So, how was it dad? He saw all of us watching him, waiting for his answer and he smiled this big smile and said "It was really…. Not bad at all". And then we all threw our napkins at him. In context, if you didn't know my dad's habit, that story wouldn't make sense.

In my first mystery. "Death by Didgeridoo", the protagonist, Jamie Quinn, is depressed after her mother dies and she is trying to gather her thoughts. "But it's no use. They are shadow puppets, gray wisps flitting through my brain and they refuse to be caught." I ever used the words sad or depressed, but I think that comes across.

Let's do an exercise: 
There's a torrential rain coming after a long drought. You are a farmer & your life savings are invested in your crops. You've been praying for a rain like this to come.

Give me one dramatic but surprising action the farmer takes upon hearing the news.
Give me one sentence expressing his emotion without naming the emotion & include a color.

Now, let's change it up, the rain is still coming but it's going to drown the crops.

Give me one dramatic but surprising action the farmer takes upon hearing the news.
Give me a five or six word sentence expressing his emotion without naming the emotion & include a color.

Here is a blog post I wrote that sums up emotional resonance in a novel.

           Picture yourself in the stands at a baseball game, not just any baseball game, but the last game of the 2014 World Series--winner takes all. You've invested a lot to be here, having spent a small fortune on a ticket (that was very hard to come by) and an entire day of your life driving, parking, and fighting the crowds, all so that you could watch this game. The man sitting next to you, clearly a Giants fan, is decked out in so much orange and black that he could be an advertisement for Halloween. In between cheering for his team, your seatmate observes how quiet you are and asks: "Hey, man, who are you rooting for?"
            "Nobody in particular," you answer.
            The man is flabbergasted. "Then, why are you here?"
            Why, indeed? When you have no stake in the outcome, no skin in the game, why would you stick around? That is the reader's dilemma. Authors are asking a lot of them: to invest money in a book and to spend precious time reading it, but what's in it for them? What do they get out of the experience? For a reader to enjoy a book, to be satisfied with his expenditure of time and money, he doesn't necessarily have to like the characters or have anything in common with them, but he must be invested in them. In other words, he needs to be rooting for somebody, to care about at least one character's plight, to wonder how that character will resolve the issues in his life and whether he will learn anything along the way.
            A good example of the reader's dilemma is The Kite Runner, a 2003 novel set in Afghanistan where the protagonist, Amir, sacrifices (spoiler alert!) his friend Hassan by not rescuing him from his attackers. Amir not only justifies his behavior, but takes out his guilt by treating Hassan horribly, causing him to be ostracized, and possibly ruining his life. This protagonist is not likeable or admirable and we are universally appalled by his actions, so, why do we keep reading to the end? Why was this book a runaway bestseller? With an initial printing of 50,000 copies, this book went on to sell seven million copies and was also made into a movie. Everyone loves Harry Potter, the boy wizard, but nobody liked the jealous, weak and morally-bankrupt Amir. Even when Amir tried to redeem himself years later by helping Hassan's son, the reader felt no respect for him. Too little, too late, we thought. But we read on--and not just to find out how Hassan's life turned out. We kept reading because we were both fascinated and horrified, convinced that we would have done the right thing if faced with the same choices. In other words, that we were not Amir! But then, we wondered whether we would have been too scared to try to rescue our friend from his vicious attackers, whether we would have been willing to admit that we stood there and did nothing. The novel struck a chord because it made us explore our own characters; it made us think about how we would act in such an impossible situation. How would we deal with jealousy? With guilt? Would we be willing to risk our lives to redeem ourselves or to right a terrible wrong?
            As readers, we were invested, big time! But then, just when we thought the stakes couldn't possibly get any higher and that Amir's regret and guilt couldn't get any worse, we learned that Hassan wasn't only a servant boy, he was also Amir's illegitimate brother! Gut-wrenching stuff, for sure. And that's the answer to our question--we stick around because of EMOTION. A novel without emotion is like a paper doll. It can be a beautiful paper doll, but it will never be three-dimensional no matter how hard it tries. Clever dialogue, sharp prose, interesting characters, lovely scenery, may be enough to hold our interest, but we will always leave feeling dissatisfied.
            My Jamie Quinn Mystery Series opens with my protagonist Jamie Quinn mourning the death of her mother. Nothing can pull her out of her depression until her aunt calls in a panic because her disabled son Adam, Jamie's cousin, has been accused of murdering his music teacher. The love Jamie has for her aunt and cousin, the guilt she feels for not being there for Adam in the past, for not being there for her aunt in the present, all motivate her to come back to life. In this first book, Death by Didgeridoo, there's enough guilt to go around, as well as some jealousy, revenge and regret, but there's also playfulness in the dialogue and some fun scenes between characters. Emotion gives a story genuineness, but not necessarily realism. Until I wrote my book, I’d never heard of anyone else being killed by a didgeridoo, so that's kind of far out there, but the interplay between Jamie and the other characters, as well as the doubt and insecurity Jamie expresses are sentiments the reader can relate to.
            To sum up, I will quote you an Amazon book review I once read: "I wasted eight hours of my life reading this book and I'm writing a review to save you from the same fate!" What a kind soul, to want to save strangers from wasting their time!  As an author offering advice to new authors, I hope to do the same because, if you're not going to write with emotional resonance, then, why are you here?

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