Baltimore, MD, USA
People want it bad – the key to unlocking a good story. Our fiction writing courses at Goucher College, where I teach, are often full with waiting lists, as are the fiction writing sessions at conferences where I’ve spoken. The high demand isn’t unique – writers like me are mentoring new writers all over the country everyday. These students are enthusiastic and passionate, and most of all, they are hungry for advice.
in the gut, they can feel that the stories they’re writing somehow aren’t the
same as the published stories that have inspired them to pick up a pen in the
first place. The idea for the story might be incredible and the characters well
imagined. But there’s still something…just… blah…
about the work, as if Dorothy is in Kansas and the writer can’t quite get her
The manuscripts I encounter in workshops and conferences often suffer from the same malady – what I think of as “the emotional shortcut.” Writers are so concerned about creating emotions that they shove readers toward these feelings rather than crafting prose that allows readers to get there of their own volition. An example would be, “Melanie realized that Tony was not a good friend.” A sentence like this instructs me, the reader, that Melanie is upset, but it doesn’t provide me the opportunity to experience the feelings along with her. For the more advanced writer, a sentence like this might be used exactly for that effect – to create distance at a pivotal moment. But the beginning writers I mentor are not typically striving for such an effect. They are simply not aware that there could be other ways to convey a character’s feelings.
The mantra I try to instill in new writers is: Body First/Mind Second. It is a take on the old creative writing chestnut, Show/Don’t Tell, a dictum that many new writers seem to find difficult to understand. There are varying definitions of show and tell, when it comes to fiction writing, and students have often been confused about the differences. The student might raise her hand and say, “If I write that the sky is blue, is that telling?” We can sometimes get into the weeds, parsing which kinds of lines are telling. Besides, I’m not convinced that one should never tell. Instead, I like to focus on how emotions work.
In real life, our emotions are mainly, maybe even exclusively, derived from the physical body. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. But hear me out.
Our minds are so fast and so powerful that we forget that, in the microseconds before our emotions occur, some sort of sensory data led us to them. For example, let’s say someone slights us at a party. Maybe the person makes a snide comment about our clothes. In this moment, the hurt feels instantaneous. If we were to write this scene from a character’s point of view, it might be tempting to say, “Tony behaved badly at the party. He was such a jerk. Melanie couldn’t believe it.” But to do this would be to skip the sensory input that has led the character to these conclusions. Body First. Since Melanie is the point-of-view character, it is her body with which we’ll concern ourselves. What does she see? Where is Tony standing? With whom? Is there a lot of noise? Is he drinking? What appears to be in the glass? Describe everything that Melanie studies – Tony’s body language and facial expression and clothing. Provide the exact quote of what he said, such as “Ooh, girl, you better go home to your closet and try again.”
If the reader is able to access what the main character experiences physically – the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds, including the dialogue – this will replicate what real life is like every moment of the day for every human being. We spend our lives processing the data our bodies are giving us. If we’re bored in real life, it’s often because we’ve had the same sensory input for a sustained period of time. If we’re happy, maybe it’s because someone said something to us (dialogue, which is sound) or because we witnessed something (sight). It’s an amazing thing, really. When we say, “Melanie was bored” or “Melanie had never been this happy in her life,” we have taken a shortcut, skipping over the sensory input that would explain how she got there.
As writers, if we do a good job of providing access to the main character’s body, we probably don’t have to tell readers that Tony has slighted Melanie at the party or that he is a jerk, nor do we have to say that Melanie is shocked. We can allow the readers to interpret Tony’s behavior for themselves, as well as how it might make Melanie feel. In fact, it is important that we learn to trust readers to do that. Readers, as I say, have a ton of practice drawing these kinds of conclusions. They do it all day long.
So what about the Mind Second part? When do we use that? In real life, no one has to tell us which emotions to have. We observe something and we feel something. We probably don’t want to say, “Melanie couldn’t believe it” because it is an interpretation, and a story feels more real when the action is not interpreted for us. But we do want to allow access to what’s happening inside Melanie’s head in response to what Tony has just done and said because this is also realistic. Melanie undoubtedly has thoughts about Tony’s behavior. The more we can word these thoughts the way they would be worded in Melanie’s head, the more we allow readers to “become” Melanie and get invested in her. We also have the chance to characterize Melanie. The person who thinks, What in Sam Hill is going on here? is a very different person from the one who thinks, Bitch, please. Both of these could be summed up as “Melanie couldn’t believe it,” but this summation would not actually be direct access to her mind.
But wait – there’s more! It isn’t enough for the character to have thoughts. In real life, we observe our own reactions. We notice that an external event has elicited more or less response than we think it should, for example, or we assess whether we’re entitled to the reactions we’re having. In other words, we observe something, we think something, and then we often analyze what we are thinking. It will be the same for our characters. So perhaps Melanie observes Tony’s behavior (Body First). Then she has a thought about it (Mind Second): “Where did Tony get off? Bitch, please.” Maybe then she doubts herself: “She tugged at her tube top. Then again. Maybe he was right. Tony always wore the latest couture sweater to these holiday parties. He knew what he was talking about.” Maybe then she doubts her doubts: “Still. He didn’t have to be such a prick about it.”
New writers often compose sentences like, “The bouncer, Sal Bledsoe, was an imposing figure, and James was intimidated” or “Jordan felt like everyone was out to get him.” In workshop, I say, “Show me Sal Bledsoe. Let me decide for myself if James should find him imposing or not.” I say, “Who is everyone? How are these people behaving toward Jordan? Show me that. Show me his thoughts about it.” People don’t always understand just how much a human brain does, or how fast it accomplishes its business. In real life, it can all happen in seconds or less, but we still do well to capture it in our fiction.
Our emotions are intense and they linger. So I do understand why people have the impulse to focus their writing energy on that endpoint – summarizing the emotional conclusions. But it generally isn’t effective for creating emotion on the page. For the reader, this is like arriving at Tony and Melanie’s party after it’s over. Someone comes outside the house and tells the reader that there are beer cans on the floor and strands of spaghetti on the lampshade and there was sooo much drama, and the reader is like, Wow, too bad I didn’t see what happened here.
The good news? Everyday of our lives has been practice. A vivid experience for the reader both externally and internally – and usually in that order – is the key to evoking feelings. We just have to slow down and pay attention. If we can notice how our own bodies and minds work together, we can replicate these patterns in our characters and our prose. Readers will find it hard to resist a story that reflects how a consciousness actually functions.
Creating emotion isn’t actually all that mysterious. Just like in The Wizard of Oz, we’ve had the power all along.
Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.