Monday, February 25, 2008

The Words of Fear

Tip of the Day: Want to listen to scary stories at work? Search iTunes for Classic Podcasts. Edgar Allen Poe holds up remarkably well over time. But nothing you hear will be as scary as listening to your coworkers explain politics.

I’ve been working to improve a writing weakness of mine: relaying events and dialogue and forgetting to emphasize my main character’s emotional reactions. I think this weakness stems from my lack of experience in describing emotions separated from action. I can write a good, fun angry, with my MC stomping around and busting things up. Fear, though, is harder for me. And I want to write some scenes where my MC is flat out terrified. So I’ve been reading scary stories lately so I can steal … I mean, learn from example.

Here’s something I’ve learned: when my viewpoint character is afraid, he or she acts like I do when I’m afraid. When I’m anxious, my heart rate speeds up and I struggle to catch my breath. So that’s what happens to all my characters, every time they’re afraid. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s getting painfully repetitive. Still, I wouldn’t know the feeling of chills running up my spine. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me. Does that happen to people? I guess it must, huh?

It was a revelation when I was reading my daughter a story the other day and one of the characters in peril was described as sweat soaked. Aha! I thought. That’s what my characters need to do more. Sweat. I need to go back and add more sweat. So my critique partners are in for a pleasant surprise.

More reading reveals that you can get away with a little more in third person than you can in first person. This is from Nighttime: Too Dark to See by Todd Strasser: “Ethan tensed. He gripped the seat … The car door opened. Ethan’s heart was pounding.” Now this is really good, but I don’t think it would work in first person. You’d lose those unconscious actions like tensing and gripping the seat. My internal point-of-view-police would jump in, “Ahem, your MC wouldn’t realize she was doing that. And she certainly wouldn’t know her eyes were widening, so delete that, too.” [Of all the voices in my head, my point-of-view-police annoys me the most. She’s so freaking nitpicky about things nobody in their right minds should notice. She’s a complainer. I’m sure she’d say “Ahem” if she could.]

In a tight third person, you can do practically anything. Even the most internal thoughts still work. This is from the story A Cry in the Night by Nancy Berberick and Greg LaBarbera: “The walls seemed to be closing in on him … Fear … grasped him now and squeezed the breath from his lungs.” Oh, yeah, walls closing in! I need to go back and throw that in somewhere.

A lot of the scary stories I’ve loved most have been in first person, so I think that can be done well, too. But I’m glad I chose to write my “scary” NaNoWriMo book with its many haunted house scenes in third person. I have my main character on the floor curling into fetal position after escaping the coffin-sized spider. I was disappointed to run into “he curled into a tight ball” in someone else’s story, but I still think it works in mine. It would work even better if he didn’t curl into a ball in one or two later chapters. He’s not Armadillo Boy. I’ll fix that on revision.

You know what the best part of this analysis has been? I scheduled a mortgage payment before my vacation, and it didn’t go through. As I realized my mortgage was mistakenly very late, my stomach dropped. And my brain kicked in with: wait, I need to write this down. How does my stomach feel exactly? I almost forgot about the mortgage. Boy, all I need is a good car wreck and I’ll be set for material. I really hope you all know what I mean by that.

-- Kate, Miss Writing Apprentice


Emily Marshall said...

I think giving internal thoughts and emotions in first person is definitely hard. Since that's all I write it, I'm trying to work on this, too.

In your research, did you find a lot in first person focuses on external stuff that happens to explain internally how the MC is feeling?

Rhonda Helms said...

ROFL I do the same thing...I always try to analyze my emotions so I can transcribe them on paper. It's totally bizarre, isn't it...

Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

LOL! Yes, I have started mentally cataloguing my own reactions to different circumstances. Emily, I like your question, too. I think with first person, you will see how they react to the symptoms as much as how they think about them.

Interesting things to ponder!

Sherryl said...

What's even better is to watch other people. Try it in the street with a busker who's trying to get people to give money for a really bad performance. You get some great descriptions of embarrassment and guilt!
Eavesdrop in a store when someone is mad about something they bought that broke, and the sales person is being rude too. Watch body language. Read body language books. Fascinating stuff!
(and yes, I struggle with this too.)