Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel
“If a book comes from the heart it will contrive to reach other hearts. All art and author craft are of small account to that.”~ Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
By Alison Balaskovits
Last time in Creating Emotional Resonance, I talked about creating relatable characters and about layering in concrete, physical detail. Now let’s explore specificity and tapping into the emotion of a piece while you are writing it.
CREATING EMOTIONAL RESONANCE: The Sequel
The elegant simplicity of director David Lean’s use of sunflowers in Doctor Zhivago and Steven Spielberg’s use of a red coat in Schindler’s List offer us examples of lingering in a moment, and of capturing one perfect detail which, when it reappears later in a story acts as a touchstone, triggering reader emotion. For an entirely different type of inspiration, take a look at Maya Lin’s moving and elegant design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. The unconventional simplicity of the design, polished black granite with lists of the names of the dead, is what gives the memorial its power.
If you’ve ever walked along that wall it’s hard to understand the initial efforts to kill the project dubbed, “a black gash of shame.”
A hush falls on those who come to the wall. Even its strongest detractors have since acknowledged its healing power. The memorial leads visitors on a journey to how we feel about the loss of lives in war. Think about the power of specificity in literally naming that cost. So many names. So many names.
The Power of Specificity
Perhaps the memorial wall inspired Tim O’Brien in the title story in his collection about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried.” Much of the story is made up of literal lists of items carried by the soldiers. O’Brien uses those lists to place the reader in the war zone, in a Vietnamese jungle alongside Lieutenant Cross, spending, “the last hour of light pretending.”
Those concrete lists, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches,” which make up the story are carefully interrupted with a few well-chosen abstractions. The magic lies in the words between the lists—”if you screamed, how far would the sound carry?”—but also in the items listed. Knowing “they carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds,” tells us much of what they endured and helps us to experience the soldier’s story-lives.
O’Brien demonstrates an understanding of the power of specific detail when he lists even the weight of the items carried, insuring the reader feels the weight of the soldier’s internal burdens—”unweighed fear,” and “silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” He dispenses these abstract burdens judiciously amongst the concrete—rabbits’ feet and ammunition and toilet paper. It is because we know that Lieutenant Cross carried, “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds full loaded,” that we are able to accept the truth that he also carried, “the responsibility for the lives of his men.”
We feel the burden of the things they carried. The exhaustive lists work in the same way that the sheer number of names on the memorial wall creates the most moving of statements. Let concrete, physical, specific detail carry the abstractions in your work. Think three-to-one at a minimum—three physical details for every abstraction.
Another moving element of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that when you gaze upon those many names, the black granite acts as a mirror, reflecting the viewer’s image overlaid with names of the dead.
Mirroring in literature can be used in many ways—the weeping sunflowers in last week’s post mirror Uri Zhivago’s sorrow. ‘Pathetic fallacy’—using weather to mirror the emotion of a scene—is such a common technique it’s difficult to make it feel fresh. Here is another way mirroring can be used to create resonance: Use a secondary character as a mirror in your work, reflecting another character’s emotion, rather than expressing his or her feelings directly. Remember the definition in Part 1 of this post: Resonance is ‘a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another.’
Let me illustrate using this scene from my story “The Bed You Made.” Beau has just slapped the narrator, his girlfriend, who then jumped out of the car:
“You stand back some—well out of reach—while Beau says, eyes downcast, ‘When I was little, my dad told me to never hit girls.’ He picks at the leather lacing of the steering wheel cover. ‘But late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, my mom would fly into these rages and throw things at Dad. He’d stand there, whispering, “calm down,” begging her to stop.’
He raps the steering wheel so sharply, you jump. ‘She once broke a half-inch thick glass ashtray over his head. Blood was everywhere; they had to replace the carpet. He still has the scar—’ Beau starts to lose it, stops, runs a hand over his face . . .
“You see he’s that scared little boy again, hearing his momma and daddy fight. His pain makes your own heart ache. You climb into the car and hold him and rock him so the brimming over of love inside you will pass through, healing him. You have the power within you to make him whole.”
Since Beau has trouble expressing any emotion other than rage, the narrator carries his true emotion in the scene; she reflects Beau’s heartache. Mirroring is a good technique to show-without-telling what a character is really feeling any time there is a disconnect between those feelings and that character’s actions or demeanor.
“Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” ~ Gordon Lish
Immerse Yourself In The Emotion Of The Story As You Are Writing It
Of all the tools you can employ to imbue your work with emotional resonance, the most important is to personally feel what your characters feel as you write. Your response to your own work is the first indicator of emotional resonance your readers will experience (or lack thereof). I have laughed and raged and cried as I wrote—to the point where I couldn’t see my computer screen. One of the reasons we writers are so damnably difficult to live with is that while the world outside our writing room may be placidly carrying on, we are laughing and crying and wincing and cursing the world we’re creating on the page; there isn’t an ‘off switch’ once we rejoin the real world.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”~ Robert Frost
“If your protagonist cries, your reader doesn’t have to.”~ Gloria Kempton
Frost’s oft-cited truism seems at odds with Kempton’s. But know that 1. Kempton means your reader will experience your character’s emotions more fully if you describe what they do as a result of their sorrow, rather than have them literally shed tears; and 2. having your characters cry tends to dissipate the tension. You want your reader to experience the catharsis, not your characters—be hard on your characters, leave them in pain.
In N. Scott Momady’s Pulitzer-winning novel, House Made Of Dawn, Abel wakes in the pre-dawn hour of a winter’s day to find his grandfather has died:
“There was no wind outside, nor any sound; only a thin chill had come in from the night and it lay like the cold of a cave on the earthen floor.”
He quietly prepares his grandfather’s body in the ceremonial way of his ancestors, then leaves.
“Abel did not return to his grandfather’s house. He walked hurriedly southward along the edge of the town. At the last house he paused and took off his shirt. His body was numb and ached with cold, and he knelt at the mouth of the oven. He reached inside and placed his hands in the frozen crust and rubbed his arms and chest with ashes.”
We feel Abel’s pain without a single word describing how he feels, without a single tear shed.
Experience your character’s pain, your character’s joy, in your imagination, and you’re more likely to put it on the page. Submerging yourself in your character’s experience is like Method Acting—become your characters. Each and all of them, not just your point-of-view character. I know of writers who dye their hair, who wear heavy boots or 19th century corsets—Annie Dillard lived in a cabin without running water or electricity, churning and weaving, and egg gathering, inhabiting the lives of her characters in order to write The Living.
Andre Dubus uses a similar technique he calls ‘vertical writing.’ Rather than moving forward with a story, cranking out pages, he instead feels every sensation his character feels and he writes only what happens in the next story moment (rather than writing what that character feels).
Whether ‘Method’ writing or ‘vertical writing,’ use what you feel when you become your characters to describe what happens in the story and those details will convey the emotion.
Lezlie Laws Couch, writing in The NEA Higher Education Journal, talks about the difficulty of dealing with strong emotions aroused when you write this way. One of her student was struggling to write about caring for her handicapped son. Crouch said the student’s difficulty telling her story came from needing to keep a ‘disconnect,’ because to deal with what she truly felt would take her into ‘dangerous territory.’
“She is angry, she is hurt, she is obsessive, she is tired, and she wants out. And none of these notions fits with her image of the kind of mother she thinks she should be, much less the kind of mother she should write about.”
Are you failing to do your best work because you fear having to ‘go there;’ are you hamstrung with anxiety when things get tense for your protagonist? Writing involves a calculated effort to arrange words so they reach the hearts and minds of readers. The truth is that finding that arrangement will cost you. In order to move readers you must first move yourself.
A couple of suggestions for helping submerge yourself in the emotion of the piece you are writing:
• Even if you don’t read much poetry, seek out examples which stir you and categorize them by the emotion they evoke. Read the appropriate selections before beginning to write. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that poems are like bouillon cubes, images boiled down to their essence. Use the poet’s ability to efficiently evoke emotion to inspire your prose.
• Create an ‘emotion playlist’ from your music catalogue. Sandra Bullock, filming Gravity in a highly un-evocative green-screen environment, and in extended moments of on-screen silence, said she relied on mood music piped in to help her capture the emotion of the scene she was playing. Music is one of the most elemental ways to evoke emotion. While I need complete silence when first drafting a scene, I find that when revising, playing music selected to match the emotion of that scene—scoring my writing like a movie—really helps me tap into the scene.
So to create emotional resonance:
• give us a character we identify with or care about
• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details
• collect images, experiences, observations, whatever moves you
• remember the power of specificity
• use mirroring to carry the emotion of an unemotional character in a scene
• immerse yourself in your characters experience of story events as you are writing it
And though emotional resonance creates meaning, don’t worry about what your story ‘means’—for either the characters or the reader—while in the flow of writing. Instead, immerse yourself, and therefore your reader, sometimes floating along, at other moments diving deep, and meaning will emerge.
But make no mistake, ‘meaning’ ultimately is crucial. I take on this topic next time in ‘The So-What Factor.’ I leave you now with this bit of wisdom from Lezlie Laws Couch’s essay:
“The writer carries a double-edged sword. One side representing the emotional content of her work, the writer’s willingness to pierce her own heart along with the hearts of her readers. The other side representing craft, and the daily devotion to technique. The writer’s job is to make sure both sides of her instrument are kept clean and sharp.”
Thanks for reading.
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic