“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” – Oscar Wilde
In the previous article, we discussed choosing the right words to achieve an important goal in fiction – manipulating reader feelings.
Now we’re going to zoom out a little and focus on how we do that with sentences and paragraphs.
“Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction.”
The idea is to craft sentences that poke the sensitive spots of your readers brain when you want them to jump; or massage those same spots gently when you want your reader to empathize.
Before we can fully understand how to steer a reader’s emotions through such sentences, there are a few fundamental ideas we need to touch on.
In the real world, how do we know if something is good or bad?
Things like rain and marriage and jobs, if you look at them in a vacuum, are agnostic to morality. Rain can slick the roads and cause car accidents. Rain can also produce crops and feed a village. Rain isn’t good or evil by itself. It just is.
Without hopping onto a philosophical merry-go-round that could make us all nauseous, lets try to tackle the issue by focusing on two criteria:
1. The specifics of the instance that we’re concerned with.
As we alluded to in the ‘rain’ example, specifics are a requirement for passing judgment.
We hear that someone working for Company X may have done something that someone considered odd, but we can’t make any damning statements about that. We need to know that Debby in accounting has a habit of picking her nose when she thinks no one is looking. Then we have two people who react in very different ways. Cheyenne from across the hall thinks she’s being disgusting, but Debby’s friend Alex knows that she is donating dried nasal mucus for an important medical study.
How about the fictional King of the Republic of Quinilla decreeing that half of all citizens be sterilized because his economic advisers are worried about resource scarcity? Great news for his confidants, but other economists may be concerned that the decrease in population will affect future productivity and growth.
2. A yardstick.
Once you’ve focused on the specific event, you need something by which to measure and evaluate that instance. You can be sure that Machiavelli’s yardstick was markedly different than Gandhi’s.
Why is this knowledge important to the writer?
Character as Compass
“…a story is never really about anything. Always it concerns, instead, someone’s reactions to what happens.”
The focal character of your story and scene is your compass. Your yardstick. As mentioned above, good and bad are meaningless outside of someone’s viewpoint. That’s why point-of-view (POV) is such a sticking point for many writers. It’s not always an issue, but if there is a problem with the reader finding an emotional baseline in the story, it can often be traced back to missteps with POV.
Our viewpoint character performs three important tasks:
1. Provides continuity.
The story happens to and around your character. She helps the reader make sense of what’s going on.
2. Gives meaning.
Is that approaching plane bringing Kelly’s long lost sister into town? Or is the jet engine making it hard to hear the ransom demands for her kidnapped husband? Maybe the plane doesn’t mean a damn thing to our character and shouldn’t even be in the story.
3. Creates feeling.
The character is either for, against, or ambivalent. These feelings allow your reader to pass judgement on the character.
“If your reader doesn’t judge, count on it that the focal character is too bland and innocuous and uncommitted to be worth writing about.”
When Swain talks about worldbuilding, he’s not just talking about it in the traditional fantasy/science-fiction aspect (e.g. languages, cultures, and habitats). Those things are important, but what he means is building the world within the story itself.
And, surprise, we have another list of three things to remember about building that world (must have been Swain’s lucky number):
1. Your reader has never been there.
Never assume that your reader is seeing what you’re seeing. You need to paint the picture for him when it matters.
2. It’s a sensory world.
How do you paint that picture? Sights, sounds, smells, feeling and tastes. The five senses we all learned about in elementary school. Try to link this world with the familiar:
“The rebel interrogation room on the planet Obisis-5 felt like a sauna with the thermostat stuck on ten.”
3. It’s a subjective world.
Again, your POV character is your frame of reference. Those senses I mentioned above are his and his alone! He doesn’t know what Judy’s seeing or hearing and therefore how she would interpret them. So, unless you switch viewpoints on purpose, being careless here can confuse the reader.
Looking for a Change
“A story records change.”
From that first word to your last, the reader should have experienced two types of change — physical and emotional. Some stories will have more of one than the other. That’s okay and all comes down to taste. But a story that remains static is, well, boring. What’s the point? We don’t go to the movies to watch someone bang their head against the wall for two hours. Us writers experience plenty of that on our own time.
But change for change’s sake is no good either. Change needs to bring your focal character closer to their goal (or further, depending where you’re at in your story, but that’s a discussion for another series entry).
Let’s say Bob is at a restaurant and thinks he left his wallet in his car. Now he has to step outside and, well what do you know, he gets eaten by a T-Rex. We’ve certainly introduced change, but perhaps a better idea would be to have Bob exit the restaurant and find a group of thugs waiting for him. Why? Because when we planned the story, we decided our man Bob owes a bookie some cash. Who knows, maybe we can make the T-Rex angle work? But I think you get the point.
There should be changes in the way your character interacts with the external world as well as his state of mind. These changes should be logical within your story’s framework.
Now, try not to be a dope like me and read blindly into this whole notion of constant movement. I initially thought that every single fragment of text must move the story forward. But Swain himself states that there are no hard and fast rules; just good suggestions. Know that if you’re not moving the story forward, you risk losing your reader. You’re just as likely to move things too quickly and not bring any color to your story. All I can say is be cautious.
Cause and Effect Gives You Motive
What brings about change? Action. Fiction follows the idea of causality – a first event (cause) triggers another event (effect). Is this an oversimplified view of the world? Sure is. But trying to nail down all of the complexities of the real world into your story is an overwhelming prospect. That’s not to say all stories must be simple. It’s a matter of balance. Your story world is yours to do with as you please. Make your causal nexi (yup, it’s a real phrase!) as convoluted and as complicated as you like and to the tastes of your audience. But just make sure they exist.
This notion of cause and effect leads us to a hallmark of Swain’s theories on fiction — the idea of Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs).
There’s a lot that can be said about MRUs and their use, so I’ve saved that for part two of this piece.
I’d love to hear any feedback you may have concerning these ideas, so please don’t hesitate to comment. Thanks for your time.