Friday, June 6, 2014

Raise the Emotional Stakes: Strengthening Alchemy between Setting, Character, and Conflict

Morning: writing at my sunny desk.  Task:  revise a stubborn scene.  Advice from recent feedback:  bring more emotion into it.

Sunshine and spring in New England today is no help.   In my fictional scene, it's chilly October in the northern mountains of New York state.  I'm sitting comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand.  My character, in her scene, has just crashed her small plane--on purpose.  She's bleeding, shaken, and starving.

So our situations couldn't be more disparate.  How do I have the gall to attempt such writing--to capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination?

Because I know such desperation.  I've never crashed a plane, but I know well the survival instinct that my character rides on in this moment of the story.  To access my own memory of this, I use the writing techniques of alchemy.

Alchemy simply means a combination of elements to create something magical.  In writing, these are three:  setting, action, and the character's physical state.  Combined in certain ways, they manufacture magic for the reader.  That magic that all good literature offers--where we readers can lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world. 

The Alchemy of Place
Place details are either wholly ignored by most writers--"too slow for me," one of my students once said--or used too much.  Some writers dump a lot of setting details in the beginning of each chapter, the start of each scene, as if "setting the stage."  Setting must be placed where the alchemy actually occurs.

Use of the senses is the first element to successful settings.  Especially smell and sound.  These access the reader's own memories of place, make your job almost effortless.  In my online class, Strange Alchemy, we begin by studying famous writers' work--how do they place the sense of place in each section of a story, chapter, scene?  George Saunders, Judy Blundell, Flannery O'Connor, and many more teachers help us learn that placement is everything!  When we give feedback each week on excerpts from writing by fellow students in the class, our eye is already tuned to whether the placement is strong.

Place is the backdrop used by professional writers to depict emotion.  Whatever the character notices--or doesn't notice--tells the reader about their emotional stage:  their distractions, their memories, their angst.  It's too good a tool to ignore.

The Alchemy of a Character's Physical State
Next is the character's external self--not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously.  A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion. 

As with place, it's good to have enough but not too much.  In Judy Blundell's award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book:  the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag--a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.   

I make a list this morning of my downed pilot's physical state--what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands. 

Combined with place, these physical elements of character create the first step of alchemy.

The Alchemy of Action
Place and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action.  Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago:  If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there.   Stillness is a pause, a valuable pause, but it doesn't move the writing forward.

So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page.  Action is the final element of alchemy.  It's only by seeing a person in action that we really know them. 

Put together, these three create magic. 

When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I've covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other.  Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting.  Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy. 

Intrigued?  Consider studying the attributes of alchemy with me this summer in my online class which begins on Monday, June 9.  We spend four weeks on action (specifically, raising the stakes in your writing), four on character development, and four on place/setting.  Each week includes short readings in memoir and fiction by well-known writers, to study and learn from, as well as some very helpful writing exercises I've developed from my own work.  To learn more or register, click here.