Sunday, August 9, 2009

Your Book's Container--And How to Write It

A coaching client with a great story to tell is working on her memoir. She asked a very good question about her book's container. It sparked this week's writing exercise.

I had asked her to incorporate more container in her chapter, by taking out the sections of thinking and feeling. Whenever the author talked about her feelings and thoughts, the writing grew abstract and distant and the container was lost. This confused her--as it does many writers. "It was my understanding," she told me, "that 'container' is the place where everything happens."

That's true. I call it "container" because it's much more than just setting. It's both inner and outer atmosphere, both physical and psychological/spiritual/emotional environment of your story.

That's also where her confusion started. "Outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment," she said. "Therefore, it is two part. If I take out all feeling and thinking it would seem that one part would be missing. I don't know what to put in its place."

Such a good question--and a situation that stumps many writers, especially in memoir and fiction. How do you create emotional container without telling us what emotions are being experienced? How do you create a psychological container without telling us the thoughts of narrator or character?

You show. It's an old axiom in writing: show, don't tell. Showing reveals container as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-summer dahlia--without any interpreting. It just presents the situation and lets the readers perceive the effect.

A pretty hard thing for us writers to do! But not impossible. Here is how I suggest this talented writer go about refining her story's emotional and psychological container (feelings and thoughts).

First, Do Your Outer Container

The first container you need to always address is the outer container. This is what is traditionally called setting--and it's shown to readers via outwardly felt things. Such as weather, time of day or night, where we are in a room or garden or other specific location, how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us. Amazing how many writers omit these details, thinking they're boring or slow or unnecessary. But they actually are the main transporters of emotion for a reader. They set the stage.

Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.

Same in your story. Outer container is shown via your surroundings, what your narrator notices. It's transmitted to a reader most easily via the five senses: smell, sound, taste, touch, sight. And it's best done without interpretation, no qualifiers, nobody telling us what the sights mean. In other words you may write, "The dahlia was pink and gold and filled with summer light." You don't have to add "It was beautiful." We already get that.

Outer container is used by all kinds of book writers--even nonfiction writers who share ideas and techniques via personal stories need to make use of container to engage their reader in the setting. We engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing.

Then Do Your Inner Container

We also want to "be" in the emotional, cultural, and intellectual container of the situation, but we want to be shown (not told) this as well. Readers are smarter than the writer thinks, most of the time. They can perceive inner container via nuances of gesture, body sensations felt by the narrator or character, memories.

Say we're writing about a woman looking at a butterfly on a late-summer flower. She's sad because her father just died. The writer might choose to tell this sadness by having the woman think, "Looking at that perfect flower makes me so sad." Or, in third person, "Joan felt sad suddenly, not knowing why." But these statements are abstract. They tell, they don't show. So the emotion of sadness is not conveyed. The emotional container is a blank stage.

To convey the emotional container, the writer needs to find a way to demonstrate Joan's sadness. Not speak it or tell it, but show it. Maybe the woman picks the flower and shreds it in her fingers. Maybe she creates a trail of flower pieces along a sidewalk or windowsill. Maybe she goes outside at the same time each morning to watch the flower as it fades and dies.

Much harder work to notice these actions and write them, than to just say "Joan was sad." But that's how good books are made. By hard work, by good noticing, by careful writing.

When I'm stumped on how to write emotional container, I go back to Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler's wonderful book on writing, From Where You Dream. I use two of his suggestions for enhancing emotion in story. This works in every genre, although Butler's book is geared to fiction writers. Here's a recap of his two suggestions, in my own words:

1. Have the narrator feel something in their body. This is a physical sensation that's not interpreted. It has to be felt by the body, not thought or observed by the mind, to convey emotion to readers. "Joan's throat tightened and her eyes stung." "Flashes of heat traveled across my skin." "My stomach was suddenly hollow."

Specific and felt sensations, these happen in the body and are not interpreted. Let the reader perceive what this means. Most of us would understand what emotion is experienced by tight throat and stinging eyes (sadness) or flashes of heat on skin (fear, excitement). We'll read on to find out if we're right!

2. Have the narrator access a brief memory of a similar time that contrasts or connects in some way with the emotional container now. "Joan remembered her father's hands picking dahlias from the garden, arranging them in a cobalt vase, bringing them to her room. Only three dahlias, but always perfect." We don't need to add "He loved her very much." We read on to find out if he did--because the emotional container hints at it--or if he was obsessed with her or what. No interpretation needed.

This Week's Exercise
Take a thought or feeling--any sentence in your work where you've written the "told" feeling or thought, such as "Joan was sad."

For 10 minutes, brainstorm all the ways the surroundings could reveal this sadness. How can you transmit sadness without using the word sad?

Then replace the telling with showing. See if the emotion is heightened.