Silk’s Post #140 — So, you’re writing a scene and there are a million things you have to remember to work into it somehow. The setting of the scene. Your point-of-view character’s “want”. Who the other characters are that he/she is interacting with, and what they want. The scene’s emotional hook. The plotting. The pacing. The conflict and suspense that’s supposed to be present on every page. And maybe you’re calculating how you can slip in some backstory without putting your author’s foot in your mouth.
Now, for really experienced writers – and, I imagine, for prodigies – all this is probably instinctive, like riding a bicycle. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to remember all the individual component actions we need to coordinate to get rolling and have a successful ride. Hold on to the handlebars. Balance. Pump the pedals. Look ahead. Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow. Don’t turn too suddenly. Steer. Watch out for cars, dogs, potholes, loose gravel.
Like me, I’m sure the last thing you’re looking for is another thing you have to remember. However, recent events in the world have made me think about another component of storytelling that links “setting” to all the other elements in a very meaningful way.
It’s emotional context.
I don’t mean the specific emotions of your POV character, or even your whole cast of characters. I mean the emotional environment that is inherently part of the setting. The storyworld is made up of more than just physical landscapes, plot-related events, cultural attributes, eras and places. There are emotional dimensions to all these things that create an atmosphere in which the action takes place.
I would call it emotional weather. While it may be a subset of a broader, more persistent emotional climate (think, for instance, of the general mood in a place experiencing prolonged warfare, or economic distress, or their opposites), emotional weather is more volatile, difficult to predict, and local. And while it may be stormy in one part of the storyworld, or among one group of its inhabitants, it may be sunny in another.
Does this sound like a recipe for one of a writer’s most desired dishes: conflict? I think so.
All this may seem obvious as you’re reading it. But like a well-practiced bike rider, we don’t always think consciously about things that have become second nature to us. We all experience not only our own personal emotions that relate directly to our lives, but also participate in – and are affected by – the mass emotions of larger groups of people, people we don’t even know.
In the past couple of weeks, events have brought my awareness of this phenomenon up from my subconscious to my conscious mind. Think about the recent emotional weather experienced by these groups of people, and how it is likely affecting their perspective on the world, and yours …
- Masses of Syrian refugees trying to gain safe haven in Europe.
- 24 million people watching the televised Republican debates.
- Tens of thousands watching Pope Francis’s addresses and homilies in person, and millions watching on television.
- 60,000 attending the Global Citizen concert in Central Park in New York City, and millions more watching electronically.
- 2 million Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj where hundreds were tragically crushed.
I defy anyone to experience any of these things directly – or even to observe them second-hand – and not react to them emotionally. Even if the experience isn’t deeply life-changing (which depends on how immediately and directly one is affected), it still can shift one’s perspective and attitude and beliefs. And in our era of mass communications, these “local” events are now experienced globally.
I think emotional weather shapes attitudes and actions more than we realize. And that makes it relevant to storytelling. It can infuse different groups of people with anger, bliss, intolerance, generosity, fear, hope, mistrust, trust, despair, joy. These feelings may be transient for some, but for others they may evolve into a permanent world view, especially if they seem to confirm pre-existing beliefs.
A key point is that people don’t have to directly experience the events or conditions that create emotional weather to be affected by it. Today, emotions can easily go viral.
So what does all this mean for a writer? I believe that when a story has deeper emotional context – when the writer builds emotional weather into the storyworld, as well as the personal emotions of the characters that are directly related to the plot – the book will be richer and more authentic.
Not only that, it will offer more opportunities to create conflict and tension. After all, conflict and tension are not just rational responses to stimuli. They’re inherently emotional. They may begin in the head, but they grow in the heart.
And that’s what storytelling is all about.
5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:
New pages written: 6 (that’s all?)
Word count: 6,916
Blog posts written: 1
Research done: 6 hours
Other progress: 5writers blog renovation – wrote new and revised background pages, updated photos, other tech fixes.
Best new thing: Thanks, Pope Francis, for stepping into the lion’s den, shining a light in dark places, and making everyone with a heart want to be a better person. You rock. (And I’m not even Catholic.)