Monday, April 11, 2011

Thinking vs. Feeling


One of my favorite CP's sent me a critique with several notes that said, "Don't think so much. Feel." Now, for me, thinking is feeling, so it took me a moment to figure out what she meant. I realized my character was thinking through something that they should be emotionally reacting to, and she (my crit partner) was quite right.

Are you a thinker or a feeler?

I'm heavy on the thinker side, although I think emotional arcs are the structure that holds up any great story. Our main character can lose a brother, go looking for him, find him in held hostage in warehouse, shoot the bad guys, and save the day ... but if we don't know what he's thinking or feeling throughout that journey, the story is just going through the motions.

The whole point of the story is human recovery and reconciliation. -Peter Dunne, Emotional Structure

You may think, wait, my story isn't about human recovery and reconciliation. If you don't think it should be, I suggest you look at the stories you love - most likely, they have an emotional core that beats out fears, losses, recovery, and new life. It may be subtly woven in, a subtext that the characters never explicitly think about or feel, but it's there. 

It should be in your story too, if you want to have a lasting impact on your readers.

Portraying that emotion can be done in a myriad of ways: through action (forgiveness = a gentle touch), through thoughts (anxiety = Something was wrong with this entire situation), through physical reactions (anger = The heat in my face threatened to set my hair on fire). Angela Ackerman's Emotional Thesaurus can count the ways.

But a disjointed series of emotional reactions is no more helpful than a series of mechanical plot steps. They have to be bound together by the emotional journey of a single main character (or two co-protagonists).

Although my character may have been straying into the cerebral-zone with her rationalizations, I know that her emotional arc is strong, because I've consciously laid it out. For my current WiP, where I have two co-protagonists, the first thing I sketched out was their respective emotional arcs. Even the skeleton of the plot must be built on this understructure of the heart.

When I critique, I find myself giving a lot of thought to the emotional arcs of a story. 

I know, irony.

Do your characters have a strong emotional arc that pulls them through the story?

35 comments:

  1. I hope so but it doesn't always come across in the first or second draft. I have to work on bringing them out.

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  2. Sometimes we get so caught up in 'getting the story out', we neglect how a character would truly react on the inside. That's one reason to be thankful for revisions. lol

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  3. @Laura I think that's something you can easily fix on subsequent drafts (I'm the same way), as long as you have the core underlying structure.

    @Sheri Exactly! :)

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  4. I'm a thinker too, but I use my thinking skills to try to translate what the character is feeling onto the page. And when I don't succeed, my CP plays shrink and asks me how the character is feeling. :D

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  5. SO very important!! You can write about anything from aliens to vampires but the key is having a human core to the characters. A human struggle - and that involves emotion. :D

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  6. @Stina CP as shrink - love it!

    @LisaGG Even SF has that human element - although some people might disagree! :)

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  7. ohman. i feel a little silly, but i'm way far on the feeling side, and i have to try to ground the story more on revisions. i hate to say i'm not a thinker! that sounds awful! :D

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  8. @aspiring Be proud to feel! My mom the psychologist chuckles at all my intellectualization of emotion. :)

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  9. THis is something I have to go back and check for later to. And thankfully, CPs who can force us to dig deeper, tend to pick these areas out too.

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  10. I try ... I really try to have good emotional responses. With that said, sometimes I get so caught up on moving forward that I just plug in generic stuff that my critter nails me on later. LoL. I need to work on this.

    ~JD

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  11. Oh, yes, I have had to deal with this issue too. I've agonized over that problem for hours!

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  12. I tend to be an overthinker and therefore I need to work hard to reign in the reactions of my MC's!

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  13. I certainly hope so! It's there in my head. It remains to be seen how well I laid it out on paper.

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  14. @PK My CP's do a great job of this as well!

    @Justine LOL That's what revisions are for, yeah?

    @Joanne It's a tough one - especially when your protagonist is going through h*ck!

    @Lindsay There is definitely the other extreme as well! :)

    @Matthew And that's always the trick, isn't it? Revisions, for me, are often a beating up of words to make them do what I want. :)

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  15. Like you, I usually have to go back and beef up the "feeling" side of things. :-)

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  16. I guess I'm more "clueless" than anything else! LOL

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  17. I'm definitely a thinker! In fact, I often have to be careful when talking to my friends who are feelers - sometimes their emotions just don't make any sense! =) Also a bad habit of mine when it comes to characters.

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  18. Like Laura said above, it take a lot of conscious effort on my part to bring out the emotional arc. I have learned to plan the emotional arc into the structure. But I just discovered when I sat down to write my first query letter (even though I'm a long ways off from being ready to submit) - the query letter helped me really clarify a lot with the character's driving forces. I was told it would do that, just as the logline helped and the 3 act structure helped - each in different ways. So cool!

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  19. "Do your characters have a strong emotional arc that pulls them through the story?"

    They better...

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  20. @Shannon Fortunately, that's not too hard to do!

    @Darby LOL!

    @Sierra Being an engineer, I totally know what you mean.

    @Margo I like all those techniques! Next up for my WiP, before I start drafting, is to write the query.

    @Bryan Indeed.

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  21. Absolutely—we are all motivated by our emotions. Even our personal goals, like the goals of a protagonist, stem from how we feel.

    It's so good that you think about the emotional arc of your characters—I do the same. It gives the novel an authenticity that carries the reader through the journey at the same time.

    Fantastic blog + blog post!

    Dawn <3

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  22. I think so! But you're right, this is very much something to keep in mind. And I lurv that emotional thesaurus. I've seen that before. Thanks, Dr. Q~ :D

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  23. I think I get emotionally involved with my characters, so I hope the emotion shows through in my writing... Hmmmm, I'll be more conscious of it though after this post. Thanks, Sue. :)

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  24. @Dawn Thanks for stopping by! :)

    @LTM You are welcome, sweets! And I'm looking forward to hearing your story tomorrow! :)

    @Sharon That's a great way to think of it! Getting inside your character's heads...

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  25. hi miss susan! i got some good emotions but i could do better. i been pretty bad bout telling and not showing and when i show i could have emotions that i dont get when i just tell. more good stuff to learn.
    ...hugs from lenny

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  26. I think sometimes we think the reader knows what we know and hurry on, not realizing we haven't given a scene it's emotional due. It's often in rewrite that I add layers of depth, and many times it's because a crit partner points out the lack. Great post, Susan.

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  27. I'm definitely a thinker. Since I usually have boy protags, I always worry that too much emotion will make the story too "girly" or slow down the action. One of my cps always encourages me to add more emotional reaction to my writing :)

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  28. @Lenny My son has the same issues, and I think it's tough for young writers. You're still figuring out how YOU feel about the world, and trying to put that on paper is doubly hard. But I know you can do it - and I think you have a lot of wonderful things to share with the world, so I'm glad you're keeping at it! :)

    @Tricia This is a great point - that WE feel so much of it, living it with our characters, that we forget to put that on the page sometimes.

    @Sherrie OH! I'm going to have to write a post about this - emotions from the boy-perspective vs. girl-perspective. And I do think it's different, but still present. I think Holly Black did a fantastic job with emotional showing from a boy perspective in White Cat (note to self: you need to get Red Glove!!).

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  29. This is something I don't always catch in the first draft, but I'm getting better at infusing emotion and visceral responses throughout my stories. I recently attended a conference where writers were encouraged to go beyond the "smile, grin, smirk..." and dig deeper.

    For example, I have a futuristic YA dystopia where my MC smiles as she gazes at a garden. I changed it to something like, "Such vibrant colors were rare, which made them all the more pleasing."

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  30. Fab post, as usual. And yes, emotion is so important. If I don't feel with a character I don't care about them. Or hate them if their the baddie. :)

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  31. @Natasha I like your example - it's like using the character's observations (filter as LisaGG would say) to give insight into the character, not just the flowers. Nice!

    @Leisha Ah yes, the bad guys! Portraying their emotions is tricksy too.

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  32. What a great idea to consciously lay out the emotional arc of the story. I haven't tried that before - I'll have to give it a go!

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  33. @Susan You might find my post about structure helpful - but I think I might need to write an emotional arc post too! Thanks for stopping by!

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  34. I think I am a thinker in the initial draft, then I go it on the second run through and sink into the story feelings. Er, I hope that's what I do, lol. Great post! Need to check out the one on structure as well. Thanks!

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  35. @Deb I do something similar, sketching out the feelings as I draft, then filling in the depth later on. Thanks for stopping by! :)

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