jessicamorrell.com

The online home of Jessica Morrell

newsletter

Written By: jessicap

In January 2002 I started mailing and emailing a newsletter to students I’d taught over the years. I never suspected I’d still be at it 12 years later.  It’s my way of keeping in touch and sharing thoughts and ideas about the writing life. But in May my 100th edition will hit the presses, or the information highway, or whatever you choose to call the marvelous structures that allow us to send words and pictures through the world, from one writer to another.  If you’re interested in receiving it, contact me. Meanwhile, from time to time I’ll publish them here.

 

The Writing Life

________________________________________________________________________________________________

 May 2011                            Volume 100                        Jessica P. Morrell©

____________________________________________________________________________________

Emotional Resonance

     One of many human mysteries is how an arrangement of letters –mere black squiggles on a page, then forms into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories – can spark emotional reactions in readers. On the face of things, It doesn’t seem logical. After all, we realize the whole concoction is spun from the writer’s imagination. Why waste our sympathy, our concern, not to mention our leisure hours on reading? Reading memoirs we know the writer survived nonfiction accounts, these too  happened in the past.
            Yet we find ourselves caught up in the story world, in the lives cavorting across the pages, worrying and caring, often nervous, even haunted by a story.  We forget that the fictional characters don’t really exist, because the writer has captured our imagined with intricate and finely wrought storylines about fascinating people caught in troubling circumstances.
            The same happens with good nonfiction. Although we likely will never come to know the writer in real life or experience events in stories such as Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s bestselling account of a doomed expedition to Mt. Everest. Why? There are many factors, but especially contagion, empathy, and emotional resonance. Emotions pull us into a story, causing our brains to anchor it in memory. Let’s consider why we remember emotionally-charged stories.
            One reason is contagion. Now contagion is one of those words with an unsavory association. It transmitted the Bubonic Plague and continues in the spread of other diseases. But when we write stories, we’re attempting to spread emotions as if infecting the reader. After all, the sadness or grief or anger the reader feels really belongs to the character caught up in some plight.  Clairsentience, a kind of contagion, means that a person can feel another person’s emotions and bodily sensations, usually pain, in his or her body. Not all readers feel so deeply, but most experience empathy while following an engaging story. Empathy also involves feeling what others feel, only more consciously, because you’re willingly participating in another person’s emotions.
             Researchers have discovered that the human brain’s emotional center, called the amygdala (part of the limbic system) interacts with memory-related regions to form significant memories, then stamping these potent memories with their indelible emotional resonance. The amygdala is key to processing emotions and is particularly linked with survival functions. If the emotional memory of a run-in with a mountain lion or being caught far from home in a blizzard is emblazoned in the survivor, he or she might use more caution in the future and thus carry on the human lineage.  Likewise, if the emotional memories of a harrowing car accident or enchanting first love are remembered with a special resonance, it is because they engage different brain structures than do  neutral memories. An emotionally-potent event creates lingering impressions, because they were linked with electrical-chemical changes in the brain and a release of certain hormones. The person involved has embodied the experiences.
             However, in the modern world, when a fear response is triggered by a traumatic event such as combat, abuse, or injury, we do not want to repeatedly re-experience the episode in graphic detail for the rest of our lives. Sometimes soldiers or victims or survivors need a way to turn off the emotions linked to traumatic memory.  We want to trigger our readers to react and release stress hormones by writing tales that thrill and chill because they’re exciting, involving and ring true.
            So how is this accomplished on the page? Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader or viewer. This is apparent when events, emotions, and conflict in the story remind your audience of prior experiences or experiences or events around them. You create emotions in your reader by including emotional needs and desires that stem from basic human needs they can relate to. In stories, people or characters want something—safety, love, food, security, freedom. These needs don’t need explaining, they simply need a presence in the story. Once a writer sets them in place, the reader’s empathy is activated , he or she is connected to your protagonist’s quest. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem the protagonist watches his father Atticus struggle to obtain justice for his wrongly-accused client Tom Robinson. Jem takes on Atticus’ cause and as readers we take it on too, and consequently are angry and sad when justice is denied and an innocent man dies.
Start With Concept
              When you begin craft a story, spend time thinking about the concept. Concept can be reduced to a single sentence or log line (conveying a story concept in a boiled down, abbreviated sentence or two) and  will always reveal the protagonist’s needs and the significance of the plot. In your concept you introduce who wants something and why and what or who stands in the way.  Here are some examples of concepts and log lines, The Old Man and Sea: Disgraced, elderly fisherman goes to sea to catch a fish and regain his reputation and friendships, but then battles more than he bargained for.  Or, here’s a logline for the film It’s a Wonderful Life A family man struggles to escape small town America for a more successful life in the big city.  When his constant efforts fail, he contemplates suicide but his guardian angel visits and the man experiences what the world would be like if he had never been born. The Sixth Sense logline may go: A compassionate psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.
                  Notice how we’ve used a well chosen adjective to describe the protagonist?
                  Concept, is similar to a business mission statement (although never boring), is tightly interwoven with plot, and what we focus on in a query letter or book jacket blurb.  We create concepts by asking ourselves questions. What is the worst thing that might happen when an elderly man goes out to sea alone and takes on more than he can handle at his age? If you’re about to pitch your book at a conference this summer or are sending out queries, you don’t want to write that “Allison learns that loyalty is more important than money.” Yawn. Save that one for your book club. It is not a pitch or a concept because it doesn’t carry the story. A story concept is always a subtle study of human kind under pressure, and from this situation a network of emotions are built into the plot.
                 In most stories a character desires or needs something, which brings him or  her into conflict or opposition with an antagonist—a person, force, or society. After a series of conflicts and twists, which are complicated and intensified by subplots, and after a plot twist or reversal, and a terrible moment of despair the final confrontation, and the protagonist resolves the conflict. Even if you’re writing literary fiction with no fisticuffs or physical threats, a fully developed concept should have all the bold words in place.
                  Develop emotional resonance from the opening moments of the story. Always begin a story with at least one character shown off balance, out of kilter in the world. He or she, young or old, is somehow unmoored, whacked about by the events in the inciting incident, or the first moment of threatening change that begins the story. When the reader encounters this in the opening pages, it arouses his or her sympathy and curiosity. Although the protagonist doesn’t need to be involved in the inciting incident, it’s the first event in the story that causes the protagonist to take action. It’s the moment where the story actually starts. Now, an inciting incident can be incendiary like a murder or accident, or low key such as a letter, email, or phone call. It could be a job offer, a rejection, a marriage proposal or a disappearance. (Vader and his Storm troopers attack a diplomatic ship in Star Wars; Buffalo Bill kills his fifth victim in Silence of the Lambs; Tom Sawyer calls Huck Finn from his room to join him outdoors in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). The readers or audience should feel the discomfort or dilemma or hope within the character as he considers his next steps.
                  Last, make sure that your story contains questions that need to be answered, dilemmas that must be resolved in a satisfying ending. Problems are essential to the story structure. Stories build until they culminate like a symphony with final notes, haunting, lingering. Which leads us back to emotional resonance; connecting with your audience on a visceral level– touching their hearts, making them feel. The more emotions you can evoke in your readers, the more emotional resonance your story has. Emotional resonance is why you remember every word to a song we haven’t heard for twenty years. Emotional resonance is why you remember exactly the color and fabric of your prom dress or wedding dress or first tuxedo thirty five years after you wore it. Without emotions there would be no story, because only in the mind of the reader (or viewer) does a story come alive.
                 So the question becomes how to entice readers to experience their own emotions and extrapolate meaning from your stories. This works because the themes and dramas in the reader’s life resonate with those of the story.
Tips for building emotional resonance:
At the heart of story resonance there often lies a paradox involving two seemingly opposite yet equally true values.

When reading or watching films or television programs, become conscious of the point where you become emotionally involved with a character or situation, either positively or negatively. Then ask yourself why.

Remember  the reader does the primary emotional work in your story, so remind him, lead him to his emotions, tease him; don’t bludgeon him with tears and breakdowns and such on the page.

Fine tune your endings. Search for potent images and language that will act as the emotional trigger, but that word and/or image seems to work best if it isn’t the expected, clichéd word or image.

Emotions are shown in scenes, not reported.

When writing, take risks that push you toward deeper, darker emotional truths.

A character’s backstory will always influence how he or she reacts emotionally.

Make fictional characters suffer.

Always remember that readers are having surrogate experiences through stories.

Your characters’ emotions need to be consistent and logical. A politician or thief who is always cool under pressure should remain cool under pressure, even when the stakes are sky high and he or she makes the wrong decision. A fearful person cannot suddenly become heroic, without undergoing a believable transformation. But only within the confines of his personality traits and abilities.

Your character’s problems and obstacles should grow and intensify as the story progresses.

In general, hold off staging the most dramatic events until your reader has established a relationship with your characters.

Strive to create blends of emotions while remembering that emotions exist on a continuum.

Give your readers a chance to experience so called ‘negative emotions when reading your stories—envy, doubt, panic, embarrassment, loneliness, resentful, suffocated

************************************************************************************************************

I’m amazed that I’ve sent out this newsletter 100 times now. I began it on January of 2002 as a way to keep in touch with former students and to send bits of inspiration out into the world. As the years tumble past I realize that not only writers, but most people need mentors to bushwhack ahead, point the way.  Now, as a mentor I’m a scruffy sort—too irreverent, impatient, and fast-talking. But I love writers, the writing life, the words that we all string together to create magic. And I love to pass along what I keep learning about craft and storytelling.

        And I’m a person who lives with deep awareness of the sky, of birdsong, and seasons. I’m gardening again, checking the flower beds that face east and receive sun most of the day to see if the dahlias have wintered over and will bloom again. I’m repotting pots and tucking violas and vines into window boxes and baskets and adding new soil and spraying roses. The caretaker in me is gentle with my plants, hates to give up on the old and scraggly ones. Gardening reminds me so much of writing with all the tending and pruning and coaxing seeds into life.  As the season turns toward heat and long, sweet days, I wish you all moments spent in gardens and green spaces and writing breakthroughs.

**********************************************************************************************************

Inspiration

“Emotions are felt not just witnessed. They affect our bodies, our reactions, or responses. When you write an emotion, it will be far more realistic if you experience that emotion at the same time. Work toward making the feelings of your characters emotions that you’ve felt and drag them out of your own being so you can put them on the page in a realistic way.” ~ Gail Gaymer Martin

“Looking back over sixty-odd years, life is like a piece of string with knots in it, the knots being those moments that live in the mind forever, and the intervals being hazy, half-recalled times when I have a fair idea of what was happening, in a general way, but cannot be sure of dates or places or even the exact order in which events took place.” ~ George MacDonald Fraser

“I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.” ~ bell hooks

“Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around.” ~ Roger Angell

“Writing to create emotional responses in your reader will cost you.  You will reveal part of yourself.  You will show that you know what moves others, what touches your readers.  You’ll be proving that you’ve been moved at some point in your own life.  Writing to stir emotions may also rouse some of your own.  And to do it effectively, you may have to expose yourself.  We writers like to think we’re private, but we often reveal our deepest selves when we write.  Especially when our characters’ strongest emotions influence our readers.” ~Beth Hill

***************************************************************************************************

Writing Prompts

Write about wind that ravages a place.

Write a story that begins in a train station.

Write about cycles of growth.

Write about witnessing something that you or a character cannot reveal.

Write about missed signals.

Write about a cab ride shared by strangers.

Write a story about a tap dancer.

Write a story that includes these elements: lasso, peanut brittle, orange, blizzard, petroglyph, dog trainer, and war chest.

Begin a story with The garden was silent_____________________

Write about a person or character who hides behind hats.

Write about a mysterious illness that brings about psychic abilities.

Write about wearing something ill fitting.

Write about a person prone to gaudiness.

Write about a wanderer.

Write about sympathy for the devil.

Write about remorse.

Write about constant tears.

Write about geekitude.

Write about a person or character addicted to online role playing games.

Write about an unwilling witness.

Write about emptiness.

Write a story that includes: a runaway, travel shampoo, bonsai trees, smart phone, pothole and tic tacs.

********************************************************
 

 

 

 

The Writing Life

Spring 2011        Jessica P. Morrell ©         Volume 99

Wordcraft

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the best part of reading is when I pause to admire a writer’s wordcraft. Of course there is much to appreciate in other techniques— skillful plotting with twists that I didn’t see coming and meeting characters that I’ll never meet in life because they exist in the margins of society or in make-believe lands. And I love it when I leave behind a story world when the book ends, closing the final pages with regret and longing for more. Feeling as if I know the characters as well as I know my friends or family.

But there is something so satisfying about encountering a perfect word, phrase, metaphor, or analogy on the page—the experience sweetens the reading experience, takes you deeper into the story. This powerful allure comes from the knowledge that the writer’s style has elevated the story, has made a moment or sentence more noteworthy. Has made me recognize something important. Let’s call this wordcraft, its own kind of wizardry. Some words merely glance off us, but the important ones find the tender regions within. And when the language of the story stays inside a reader, the writer has succeeded. It usually contains some poetry, music, and lingering effects.

Wordcraft contributes to the totality—the overall mood of a piece and the cumulative effect. These techniques cannot be overstated. For example, mood is an important part of what happens when reading, and deliberate word choices will bring about giddiness, or gloom, or grief. Words also contribute to tone—the attitude a writer is implying, which also contributes to meaning. Sometimes we write just as we speak—chatty or thoughtful or sassy or serious. Sometimes we apply tone with great deliberateness to emphasize our passions or concerns or disbelief.

Make them Shiver

But how does wordcraft happen? There are so many mechanics of writing style I could write about columns on the topic for years. Come to think of it, I have. So let’s focus on layering language into a story with care so that it adds to overall meaning and effect. This means making careful choices so that you don’t distract the reader from your narrative. As a writer, search for precise words and comparisons to satisfy your reader. The problem of finding the perfect word or imagery, instead of the almost perfect word, is no small matter. While the literal or explicit meaning of a word or phrase is its denotation, the suggestive or associative implication of a word or phrase is its connotation. Thus you’re always making choices about meaning and language.

We all need a practical, sort of workday vocabulary that is consistent with our voice, and then we also need a vocabulary that’s the writer’s version of the Taj Mahal. Or, as another example, sometimes the style needs to be basic like bread pudding, sometime it needs to be more like a seven-layer wedding cake. Sometimes the best words are clear and simple, and sometimes they need to soar like a heron aloft on an air current. Sometimes stories work well in the style we’ve come to associate with Hemingway—terse, journalistic and economical. And sometimes a story needs all the embroidery and bombast of a stylist like John Updike.

Obviously there are writing styles that are too gorgeous, too painterly. The same for a style that is too ‘out there,’ too odd to grasp—as if wooly mammoths populate the page. For example, boisterous and unexpected adjectives such as claxon or tessellated or the unforgivable boustrophedonic (all used by John Updike)—stop the flow of narrative. Instead of the reader remaining involved in the scene, he steps aside and engages his intellect. Choosing surprising yet apt modifiers is vital, but it’s not a task to be undertaken frivolously.  Playwright David Hare says, “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.” Boustrophedonic (writing in alternate lines in opposite directions) and such gets in your way.

When it comes to figurative language, you want to demonstrate an imaginative range, while remembering figurative language adds layers of meaning while also concentrating the flow of ideas. We use figurative language because it mates images and likenesses, connects with the reader’s associative right brain, and helps anchor the story. With figurative language, you want to demonstrate with freshness and verve. However, don’t range too far with your images or the story becomes tangled and obscure. Wordcraft that makes us shiver is delicious. Wordcraft that exists merely to show off is pointless.

Analogy and metaphor are always subservient to the viewpoint, yet always take us deeper into the subject or moment as when Truman Capote described Elizabeth Taylor’s “eyes so liquid with life” and “the face, with those lilac eyes, is a prisoner’s dream, a secretary’s self-fantasy; unreal, non-obtainable…” Don’t you wish you’d woven together “a prisoner’s dream” to describe an indescribable beauty? Notice how it makes you feel the allure of Taylor?

In your editing process, it’s okay if your first draft is unpretentious, just as it is okay if your first draft is blowsy and lumbering. But then, as you refine later drafts, ask yourself if the writing needs to lift off the page a bit. If it is clean, or simply stark. If lush prose is necessary, or stripped down prose is needed. Pay attention to the intensity of language which can range from mild to inflammatory. Match intensity of language to the potency of the circumstance, the sentence, the scene. Note the places in the story where the reader needs to linger and feel emotions and tension. In these passages it’s important to make precise choices, to examine your sentences, and listen hard to what you must say.

If the writing seems thin, keep asking yourself a simple question: what does this remind me of? Perhaps you’ve written about time running out (always a juicy element) and in the story your character is desperate because a deadline is looming as his kidnapped girlfriend is buried alive in a tunnel under the New York subways. It is mid-February, a blizzard is raging, temperatures are dropping to the lowest in a century, and travel is almost impossible. Your reader needs to be practically digging his nails into his palms; as if the harsh cold is seeping into his joints while turning the pages.

If the writing doesn’t illustrate those glacial temperatures, the reader won’t be feeling the danger. And will not harbor visions of frostbite or worse, of her frozen body  like a soldier left behind on the Russian Front during World War II. You won’t conjure an analogy or metaphor for every passage, but you’ll need sensory details, until the reader is shivering and the cold has ripped through him.

The next thing to ask yourself as you’re revising is ‘have I heard this before?’ Clichés and trite expressions are often an editor’s first tip off that you’re a lazy or unimaginative writer. “Clichés are the old coins of language: phrases that once made a striking impression but have since been rubbed smooth by repeated handling.”

Glissando

Glissando is a term from music meaning sliding or gliding over keys. When applied to wordcraft, pay attention to the sound and flow of language. Sounds arrest the reader’s attention. Even if your words are not read out loud, the reader hears them with his inner ear. All language has sound and sound communicates meaning, emotion, mood and tone. Language is also embedded with deeply appealing rhythms that, like drum beats, slip into the reader’s consciousness and enhance the experience of reading.   In all writing every word exists for a reason, every sentence builds the scene or idea. Sometimes you want sound to lull a reader before you slap him with a heated argument or stage a bombshell scene. Sometimes you want him to pause at the end of a string of words. Sometimes you want to march along briskly as you dispense information.

When sound is emphasized a narrative becomes poetic. When sound is deliberately employed, sentences, paragraphs and scenes have clout. Writing without themes, purpose and music is only typing and writing without paying attention to sound is flat and empty.

Sound can add or subtract to the flow of writing.  Like other writing devices, flow is a nearly invisible factor, but when it’s employed, your writing will be seamless and smooth and graceful. But without flow your writing happens in fits and jerks; it flounders on the page, topics isolated like ice floes in a vast sea.

Flow happens when ideas and stories have fluidity, connectivity, and cohesion.  Flow is consciously applied as a courtesy to the reader because readers deeply resent being lost of confused when amidst a page or story. Readers also hate to be jolted or to dangle, or feel a sense of disorientation.  Flow provides the map, flow connects the dots, flow grants readers firm footing. Flow aids the internal logic needed to make your ideas comprehensible.  Flow will move the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease.

An essential technique that creates flow is transitions and it’s shocking how often writers neglect to use them.  Transitions are the words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs used to bridge what has been said with what is going to be said. Simple transitions are generally, but not always, a subordinate clause placed in the beginning of a sentence or paragraph and used as a road sign indicating a change. Probably the most famous transition in writing is “meanwhile, back at the ranch.” It provides an easy shorthand and the reader knows, Ah, we’ve changed locales; we’re at the ranch again. Wonder how Ellie is getting along since Jed has been on the cattle drive for three months now.

Transitions are handy devices because they can accomplish so much in only a few words. Their jobs are to signal: a change in time, a change in place, a shift in mood or tone, or a shift in point of view. Transitions also clarify relationships, emphasize, contrast or compare things, conclude actions or thoughts, and create associations.

Here are some quick tips for writing with wordcraft.

  • When in doubt, understate. Often the most painful, emotional, or violent moments in writing works best by using a minimalist approach.
  • Write about subjects that mean something to you, emotionally and intellectually; that force you to question your beliefs and values.
  • Save lush passages for choice moments in the story, especially decisions, revelations, and reversals. If you use heightened prose every time your character feels an emotion the whole will become contrived.
  • Omit redundancies like grotesquely ugly, grim reminders, complete surprise, and happy coincidence.
  • Make certain every sentence adds something new.
  • Generally avoid heightened prose for endings—often the best endings are concrete or understated.
  • Respect word territory. If you feature an unusual word in a sentence (effervescent, rococo, unremunerated, infelicity) then don’t repeat it again in a nearby paragraph or better yet, use it only once.

Don’t forget to keep asking yourself, what does this remind me of?  As you lay out sentences and scenes, but also as go through your days, look around you with an artist’s curiosity.  It’s a simple question, and leads to wizardry.

***************************************************************************

The mornings are sometimes wet here and the day begins with a strange silver slant or a descending gloom. The plum and cherry trees are festooned in white and soft pink blossoms and petals are drifting on the wind, dropping onto the ground. There’s something so transporting about these blooming tees, like you’re walking amid a storybook. It’s so fascinating how the different seasons and hours have such am impact on a place. How each season has a mood and rhythm all its own. I’m starting to garden again, adding and subtracting from my successes and failures, always envisioning the future and color.

*****************************************************************

And please mark your calendars:

{June 24-26}

Summer in Words Writing Conference

 

Truth, Risk & Lies

Keynote Speaker: Cheryl Strayed

The Hallmark Inn & Resort, Cannon Beach, Oregon

Registration opens April 1

*****************************************************************

Inspiration

Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. — Tom Stoppard

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make. ~ Truman Capote

We are all lying in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars ~ Oscar Wilde

Before you use a fancy word, make room for it. ~ Joseph Joubert

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. ~ Mark Twain

I put the words down and push them a bit. ~ Evelyn Waugh

I would do for you what spring does for the cherry trees.  ~ Pablo Neruda

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. ~  Rudyard Kipling
Writing is communication, not self-expression. Nobody in this world wants to read your diary except your mother. ~ Richard Peck

*****************************************************************

Prompts

Write about something yellow but don’t use the word yellow.

Write about something that is too good to be true.

Write about a cell phone jangling at the worst possible moment.

Write about someone who thinks he or she is always right.

Write about an obscure language.

Write about someone with an empowering, yet eccentric personal ritual.

Write about someone with a destructive personal habit or addiction.

Write about a wet blanket arriving at a joyous occasion.

Depict a person walking through his fears.

Write about a moment when magic is born.

Write about an obscure legend.

Write a letter to someone from your past and update them on what has happened in your life.

Write a story that begins “I am waiting for the plane to land and….”

Make a list of all the unanswerable questions you can think of.

Write a story in which you insert a sport’s celebrity.

Write about an idiot savant.

*****************************************************************

The Writing Life newsletter is copyrighted material and may only be reprinted with permission from the author.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>