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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Conveying Character Emotion

How do I convey a character's emotions without saying: He was irritated. She smiled with happiness. He was worried. She was scared. Or variations thereof?

For me, it starts with nailing the character's voice. It has to be right from the first sentence. I talk a lot about the structure of a book. That the beginning--maybe the first five or six chapters--are the foundation and frame of your book. If those are wrong, the rest of the house is going to be crooked, and no matter how much fixing you do, it'll never be right. Not until you go back and correct the foundation.

There have been books where it's taken me 3/4 of my deadline to write the first six chapters and then I wrote the rest of the book with the remaining time. I feel the only way I could do that was because the foundation was laid as solidly as I could make it.

So it's important to me to have the hero and heroine's voices. I worked on a proposal a while back where I started and trashed the opening of the book about twenty-five times because it wasn't working for me. And then I finally got it--the heroine's voice. It made all the difference.

Once I can clearly hear my characters, I try to pick up their moods. As I struggle to resume writing right now, I'm also struggling with my hero's mindset. I wrote him angry, irritated and the words came quickly, but the next day I realized it was all wrong. He's not angry.

After spending day after day after day trying openings, I think I finally figured out what he's feeling at the start of the story. Here's this guy who's spent seventeen days out in the wilderness, and now that he's back, he just wants to kick back and unwind only circumstances aren't letting him do that. What does anyone feel when they get home from work after a rough day (or in his case 17 days), only to find the furnace has gone out?

Frustrated. Impatient. Probably. Here's what I wrote for the opening last night. Will it stick? Who knows. I've trashed everything else on further reflection, but I'm hopeful I finally got it right.

(By the way, please forgive the roughness. I haven't written anything keepable since last September before the big move to Atlanta. I'm still struggling to produce something I like.)

Seventeen days outside the Old City and he returned to chaos. Flare ran a hand over his face and swallowed the curse. All he'd wanted when the team had gotten back this evening was a hot shower, a cold beer, and a soft bed. He'd had the shower, but the other two were going to have to wait.
If you notice, the first two sentences are relatively short. Shorter sentences are good for action scenes, but I also like the semi-staccato feel they give to this opening. Frustration.

The third and fourth sentences are longer. Number three talks about what he'd been looking forward to when he'd gotten back. Thwarted longing? Disappointment?

Then there's the final sentence. Resignation. What's going on isn't something he can ignore.

Right now, before I sleep on it, I actually like this paragraph. I've got characterization in there. Flare can't ignore chaos, he has to take some sort of action even though he'd rather just have a beer and go to bed. He's responsible. It also manages to convey (I think) some hint at the plot to come. Chaos is not situation normal, so something unusual is going on. Flare's been away, though, so he's walked into this already in full-gear.

But this paragraph does multiple things and that's always good. Characterization, story, and mood.

I use longer sentences when I want a slower mood, like at the beginning of a love scene. Also longer words are good in a slower, more relaxed scene. Of course, word choice reflects on characterization, too, so it's important to pick up how they talk and not put your words in their mouths.

I do a lot of my writing by instinct. Did I make sense?