Friday, January 30, 2015

The Mirror of Emotion

Emotion is a mirror. Reflect your character’s emotional state to the reader by selecting what your character sees, hears, tastes, touches and smells. Have you ever noticed how at Halloween, everything suddenly takes on a creepy tone? Mundane objects and events take on sinister connotation because you are psychologically primed by the cultural association of Halloween, horror movies, and the things that go bump in the night. Your readers (and characters) are, too, and you can mine that. A bright sunny day looks one way when you’re happy. When you’re scared, you suddenly notice the murmur of the wind in the tree branches in voices you can almost understand. The tree limbs claw at the raw sky. The shadows are sharp enough to slice skin. That same scene when you’re angry – the wind that was bracing when you were happy might now a slap in the face. An assault. Maybe traffic grumbles. And the people passing you avoid your gaze but you see the whites of their eyes for a long time until the fall behind. So many ways for your character to reflect his or her emotional state based on what they sense. It’s as if emotion is a filter for a camera lens that only allows certain information to register.

Dialogue is another mirror. You, oh petty god and master of massive creations, have the power to show readers how a character feels based solely on what he or she says.

“I’ve got it.”
“No. You don’t. Try --”
“I said, I’ve got it.”

You know nothing about the scene, nothing about the characters, but I bet you knew exactly how to read that last line. Have a look at Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet – the garden scene just after ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.’

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

How long winded she is. She’s indulging in long sentences and thought arcs. She has the time for reflection, a little love-sick introspection, and some heady game playing in that line – ‘Take all myself’. Speak the lines aloud. Listen to the sounds – long, open vowels. Lots of hard consonants – things that stop you and slow you down in the speech. It’s to show the actor and the audience that Juliet is developing a thought as she speaks and that she’s still giddy with infatuation.

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

What man art thou that thus bescreen'd in night
So stumblest on my counsel?

Look how short this is. Say it aloud. Again. See how the sounds slide right into one another and pull you along the words? Do you speed up as you get through the sentence? Shakespeare is brilliant for using words and their sounds to either speed you up or slow you down as you speak his lines. If you’re paying attention, you find the emotion in the dialogue, too. Because this line is in such contrast to the longer speech above, it’s pretty easy to get fear from her ‘WHO ARE YOU WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE’ demand. While there are plenty of hard t sounds at the ends of words in this sentence, the vowel sounds are almost entirely formed far forward in the mouth. Sounds weird, I know, but big, open vowel sounds move farther back – like when you say ‘ah’ at the doctor’s office. In Juliet’s ‘What man . . .’ sentence, the vowels are all just behind the teeth and pinging off the hard palate. Point being that based on the sounds of words, you control and convey emotional states. Plays make it easy to see, but you can watch movies and TV, and if you listen carefully, hear how other writers spoon feed you emotional states with what their characters say.

I will confess here and now that I suggested this topic for the week because it’s something I struggle with. A lot. Just when I think I have it all figured out, I stumble and fall again over how to get emotion on the page. Show! Don’t tell! Madness dwells beneath a crit partner's suggestion that a scene lacks emotion. Suggesting this topic was my bid for a week long workshop on the subject. What’s your favorite trick of the emotional manipulation trade?