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How to break the rules of emotional response

This is part six in a five part series (yes, yes, I know) of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response. If you missed the beginning, Part 1 starts here

There’s this saying in fiction that no rules are absolute. You can break any rule, so long as it works. That’s entirely true. Thus, as a little bonus for anybody who had the patience to read the first five parts of my series on the rules of emotional response, I thought it would be fun to explore some of the effects you can achieve by intentionally violating the reader’s expectations about how characters respond.

Violating Denial

The thing about the five stages of grief is that stage 1, denial, always starts with misfortunes that are by definition surprising. They are unexpected events, ones that are usually unpleasant. If they were expected, they wouldn’t be surprising. They would be things that already fit with the character’s view of the world, and so there would be no need for the five stages at all. No surprise, no denial.

So what do you get when you show an unpleasant surprise but no denial? Generally, one of two things. Or both.

One is gullibility. If a character accepts a misfortune too readily, perhaps the character is just a fool who will take anything at face value. This is the effect—an unintentional effect—I most often see in work from my clients who don’t yet have the hang of portraying the five stages of grief. The dynamic in play is that the writer hasn’t sufficiently separated themselves from their characters. To the writer, the misfortune is no surprise at all: the writer knew it was coming all along, because he planned it. Consequently, he has forgotten to let his characters show the surprise he himself isn’t feeling.

That’s how the mistake comes about, but the reader doesn’t care about any of that. To the reader, the lack of surprise from the character simply comes across as a failure of the character’s intellect.

The other effect you can create by violating denial is trust. Trust, if you think about it, is kind of like gullibility. When the unpleasant surprise is a piece of unwanted information that comes from another character rather than from direct experience, the character may skip denial (or may experience it only very briefly) if he has sufficient trust and respect for the messenger.

This type of denial violation is great for showing trust, because it signals to the reader that the character is voluntarily suppressing his own judgment in favor of a judgment made by someone he accepts as smarter, wiser, better informed, or just generally speaking more authoritative than himself.

Violating Anger

After denial comes anger. If you violate a reader’s expectations by skipping the anger, you’re conveying a mental state in your character of “I accept that the misfortune is real, but I’m not going to flip out about it.” That’s fine, but be aware that in doing so you’re going to force your character to ask why. Two things come to mind, one that is temperamental, one situational.

First, it may simply be that your character’s temperament is a highly rational one. Anger rarely helps address a misfortune. It is nearly always wasted effort, in which case why do it? A character who is so rational as to skip over anger will, however, likely also skip over bargaining and depression as well, in order to get down to the business of overcoming the misfortune.

Second, the situation may not permit the luxury of anger, no matter how strongly the character might be inclined to be angry. Take two soldiers, make them the closest of brothers-in-arms, and put them in an intense firefight. Let one man be shot in plain view of the other. Yet, with bullets flying right and left, the man left standing simply has no time for anger. More than anything else, in that moment he needs to keep his head figuratively, in order to keep it literally. At that moment, he doesn’t have the luxury of getting mad (Hollywood portrayals of battle scenes notwithstanding); he needs to focus.

In particularly intense situations, you can use violations of anger to convey the stakes of the situation itself. But note, this doesn’t mean the anger is negated entirely. Rather, it is deferred. That soldier might not get mad in the heat of battle, but later, once he’s back at camp and things have quieted down, that anger’s going to come out. Skip it then, and you risk damaging the reader’s perceptions of the character on a much deeper level. Skip it then, and you’ll portray him as an emotionally cold fish who didn’t really care about his buddy after all.

Violating Bargaining

Let’s say you’ve had denial and anger, but you want to skip the bargaining. What does that get you? That gets you pride, in its many forms. This is a character whose mental state is “I may be upset about this situation, but I’m not gonna beg!”

Again, the question is why? Why not beg? Is it because the character is too proud to ask for help (all too common for men in our society)? Is it because the character is trying to preserve his dignity, and is willing to forego whatever slim chance of success that begging seems to offer (although you who have read the stage 3 article on begging know it’s a false hope) in order to retain the ability to think of himself in positive terms? Or is it a reflection of some kind of self-assurance, in which the character doesn’t even feel an impulse towards begging because he has the inner confidence that he’ll be able to get through it somehow? In that last case, your character is likely to skip depression as well.

The final reason not to beg, and one I talked about in part 3 of this series, is because bargaining often makes no sense. When a misfortune is not attributable to anyone with whom you could try to negotiate, then again, what’s the point? If a tornado is bearing down on your house, there’s not much point in trying to bargain with it to veer left. Situational misfortunes that are simple bad luck, and not caused by the choices of any other entities in the novel, are ones where you can skip the bargaining with no particular adverse consequences to your character.

Violating Depression

What can you do with a character who doesn’t get depressed about his misfortunes? Quite a lot, actually. Skipping the depression can show many different things.

It can show perspective. Most of the time, if you take a mental step back and look at the larger picture of life and what matters, you’ll see that the misfortunes life throws at us don’t really amount to much. If you come out of a restaurant only to find that your car has been stolen, well, that’s a bummer but does it really matter? Sure, you’ll be inconvenienced while your insurance company investigates and finally cuts you a check, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.

It can show resilience. A character who rolls with the punches may well go through denial, anger, and bargaining, but having exhausted those won’t let himself get down about the situation. He’ll put on a brave face and carry on. What can get interesting for the writer is the distinction between genuine resilience and putting on an act. Is the character truly resilient, or is he putting on an act for the rest of the world’s benefit while inwardly spiraling down into depression?

Finally, there’s a danger involved with skipping the depression stage. You may inadvertently signal a lack of concern about the consequences the misfortune entails. When a misfortune threatens something of value to the character, or constitutes a significant obstacle between the character and his story goals, failing to show any moments of sadness or doomxiety could signal to the reader that the character doesn’t really care about those goals.

Violating Acceptance

Lastly, how can you violate the acceptance stage to your advantage? Remember, when a character emerges from depression into acceptance, that generally signals a shift in the character’s world-view towards a view that encompasses the misfortune and all of its consequences. So what do you get if you show him being done with depression, and yet not moving into acceptance?

You show resolve. The character is saying to himself “you know what? I’m not going to take that. I refuse to let this situation stand. I refuse to accept this as the way the world has to be!”

This can be enormously powerful as a turning point in a novel. You can subject a character to a serious misfortune, and let him fully experience stages 1 through 4. Let him hit wallow in deep blackness of depression and hit an emotional rock bottom. But from there, don’t just let him shrug his shoulders and accept the misfortune as immutable, as how things are. Let him instead emerge from depression in a fighting mood, ready to un-do whatever horrible thing you dumped on him.

Conclusion

BAD HASHThere’s a lot you can do with violations of the five stages of grief. You can, in fact, create some highly memorable characters. Characters like good old Forrest Gump. Forrest is the perfect example, because he pretty much skips the five stages entirely, and that’s what makes him so memorable.

Being not very smart, he doesn’t really do denial. To him, everyone is more authoritative than he is, so he’s accustomed to taking other people’s word on things. Skip the denial in that fashion, and there’s no particular reason to engage in anger, bargaining, or depression. And even though he chucks the whole five stages right out the window, it’s believable to the audience because for Forrest the whole world doesn’t make much more sense than what people tell him, so there’s nothing really to do except get on with things.

So that’s it. My thanks to everyone who stuck with this long series over the past couple of weeks. Go forth and add emotional realism to your characters’ reactions, but don’t be afraid to break the rules. Like they say, you can break any rule so long as it works. My hope is that I’ve been able to shed some light on just a few of the ways you can both use and abuse the rules.

< Back to part 5: Acceptance | Forward to writing better novels!

April 07, 2010 20:39 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, expectations, breaking the rules, gullibility, trust, stakes, pride, dignity, confidence, perspective, resilience, resolve

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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PNWA Day Two: I met the airline safety card guy

Day two of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference. I probably did more talking in one single day than I have done in years, and it’ll be a miracle if my voice holds up for tomorrow, but I survived.

I got to play both sides of the fence today: as conference Book Doctor helping aspiring writers learn how to strengthen their books, and as an aspiring writer myself pitching my books to a couple of literary agents. One of my consultations today was with the guy who claims—with some merit, I would say—to be the most widely distributed illustrator on the planet. He’s the guy who illustrates those fold-out safety cards in the back pocket of every airline seat in the world. You know that iconic drawing of the mother with her oxygen mask already in place, helping her child put on the day-glo yellow mask? He did that, and all the rest of them. He and his wife run a whole company that does that. His art is literally all over the world. His art has probably saved lives. How cool is that?

The Book Doctoring is fun. I have to admit, it’s fun, and not just because you meet people who save lives through technical illustration. There were two consultations I did today that I was worried about, because the material was very weak. But my hat is off to the writers, because they brought absolutely the right attitude to the table: a genuine desire to learn, and the maturity to set their ego aside in order to do that. All nine of the writers I spoke with today were that way, really. It’s hard not to have fun when you get to have nine in-depth conversations about a subject you love all in the same day. In the end, everybody left my table knowing what they need to do to put their books in a publishable state, or if not that, at least to take their writing to the next level.

In a nutshell, that’s is the great part about my job. Being able to do that for people is a very satisfying thing indeed.

In the middle of the day I had a break to go pitch my stuff to some agents. The first person I talked with was David Forrer of Inkwell Management. We had a great talk about the young-adult western adventure novel I wrote in 2007. He also suggested that his agency likes to work with freelance book editors like me, so we traded business cards and that was a nice bonus.

The second person I pitched to was Minju Chang, of Bookstop Literary Agency. I actually pitched to her at last year’s conference, so it was nice to see her again. She’s very friendly, and does a great job of putting nervous writers at ease so we can tell her about our books. She wasn’t so keen on the sci-fi novel I pitched her, but she had good feedback for me.

Like Robert Dugoni says, somewhere on my Quotes Page, all of us can always improve our writing. That goes for book doctors too.

I spent the afternoon in consultations with the rest of the day’s clients, one of whom I have been looking forward to talking with for a couple of weeks, ever since I reviewed her submission. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I mean you!) I was doubly impressed to learn it was her first novel. First novels (and especially first drafts of first novels) usually have a lot less going for them than hers did. I hope I get to read the rest of the book someday. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, use that discount code and hire me!)

The evening finished off with dinner in the big ballroom and a keynote speech by thriller-writer Joseph Finder (that’s with a short-i, not a long-i). He gave what is a semi-stock speech for this kind of conference, the “story of how I made it as a writer” speech. But it was a great speech, because he brought a lot of fresh and very funny angles to it from his personal experiences. That man has led an interesting life.

But for me, the capper to the day came right at the very end. All day, here and there, people have been talking with me in the halls to ask more about how I could help them, and after the speech ended, the desserts had vanished, and the scheduled activities ended for the day, I found myself in yet another such conversation with an eager, first-time writer. In the middle of this, conference organizer and PNWA president Pam Binder came up to me and asked if I could help her out.

She said that one of the book doctor clients, who had been assigned to a different person than me, had received a very short and unsatisfactory consultation, and hadn’t felt like he had gotten his money’s worth. Now remember, these people have paid extra to the conference (not to us, alas!) for these book doctor sessions, and many of them have come from quite a long ways off. I’ve got people on my list from Washington D.C., Florida, all over. This half-hour consultation is a big deal for them, because it represents time, money, a lot of effort, in the hopes of getting something of a road-map for where to take their writing career next; to not get that must have been a huge let-down.

Pam looked at me and asked if I could possibly do anything to help.

I looked at her and said “Of course.” So the person will e-mail their material to me, and I’ll give them a do-over. I’m happy to, because whoever they are, and whether their book is awesome or still needs a lot of work, they deserve their money’s worth.

That was the capper for me because Pam, someone I highly respect in the universe of Seattle writing, looked to me for help. I get a lot of positive feedback from the people I’ve done consultations for here at the conference, and from my paying clients as well, but to get a vote of confidence like that from Pam, well, that really left me smiling as I made my way out of the hotel for the evening.

August 01, 2009 06:21 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, David Forrer, Minju Chang, Joseph Finder, Pam Binder, Robert Dugoni

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