Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Go for the Gusto

      I live in Canada, northern hemi-sphere.  I have a friend who lives in Australia, southern hemi-sphere.  Now, in my head, I know that the seasons in Canada and Australia are reversed, but sometimes knowing something in your head and experiencing it in your heart are very different.  This was brought home to me one morning when I huddled in a sweater looking out at leaden skies and leafless trees, and opened my e-mail.  There was a note from my friend, complaining about a heat wave and talking about the harvest of fruit she had to deal with.  Suddenly, my intellectual knowing, became real experience.  Despite my own surroundings, I could feel my friend sweltering in the heat, smell the heady scent of ripening fruit and even feel the urge to swat away a buzzing wasp.
      As a writer, I took this as a great lesson in deepening point of view.  I've just been judging some contest entries for my local chapter and one of my complaints with many entries was the lack of emotional impact.  I didn't feel the story, yet on the judging sheet, the writer might score well because she used good grammar, avoided cliches, grounded the reader in the time and place. . . all the mechanics of good writing, but the story didn't grab me.  I had little interest in the characters and their troubles.
      So, how can a story have good mechanics, follow all the rules and still fall flat?  It's because the reader "knows" what's happening, but she doesn't "feel" what's happening.  Michael Hauge says the purpose of popular fiction is to incite emotion.  Without emotion the story is simply an intellectual excercise, like knowing that my summer is my friend's winter.  For a story to really fly, for it to grip the reader and refuse to let go, even when the final page is turned, it must contain that magic that captivates the emotions.  Even writers who are highly skilled at engaging the reader's senses, won't succeed unless they engage the emotions as well.  Stephen King says he tries to terrorize the reader -- not just explain a fearful situation or an evil character or describe the plunge into the abyss.  He wants to create terror in the reader's heart.  He'll use wonderful imagery, tight writing, sensual description -- great writing techniques, but his aim is not to excercise his writing skills.  His aim is to terrify the reader.
     So, how do we do that?  One way is to truly become the character when you write.  We're often taught to imagine we are seeing a scene through a character's eyes -- that's how we keep the point of view clear.  I would suggest we need to write as though we are experiencing the scene through the character's heart.  If we want to create terror, our hearts should pound, ours palms sweat and the hairs on the back of our necks stand up when we write that scene.  If we want the reader to fall in love, then we should wear a sappy smile, and get all dewy-eyed while we write.  If our character tells a joke, we should laugh out loud.
     Reading through the posts and comments on this blog over the past year, I know many of us have felt frustrated with the lack of publishing success for work we believe in.  It is easy to be discouraged, especially if we feel helpless.  Thank God for the loving, supportive comminity at International Christian Fiction Writers who understand and sympathize.  But let's go a step further.  Let's get out those rejected manuscripts and see if we can't up the emotional content.  If you're basking in a warm climate, does a story about winter make your shiver?  If you're eating frozen strawberries, does your mouth water at a character biting into a fresh plum?  If not, then go deeper.  Be your character, feel his emotions, then share them with the reader.  Let's go for the gusto in 2012.

Alice Valdal writes romantic fiction and dreams of the day an editor at Steeple Hill says "yes!"   She'd love to hear any tips for getting to that editor's heart. : -)
 You can learn more about her at her website:  Alice Valdal


  1. I agree, Alice. That emotional connection is hard to put your finger on, but I think you are right that it comes from the close POV. I have read books with great mechanics, set in a time period that I love, with characters I know I should love, but I just don't. There isn't enough sensory detail and psycho/physical responses to make me feel like I am there.

  2. Good post, Alice. If I don't care about the characters and can't experience what they are I will stop reading, simple as that.It's the small details that often make a character and scene come alive for the reader.

    1. Hi Alice,
      I completely agree. Writing which engages the heart is the most memorable by far. It's a bit like the passage on love in the Bible. A flawless writing technique and stunning plot are great things, but without engaging the heart, they can't help falling short.

  3. Great insights into the emotion of our characters. That is the ingredient that is often very tough to capture, but so important. I love it when I react to something my character does as you mentioned above, because it's then I feel that I've found that deeper dimensional element that will help bring the story to life.