Have you ever wondered what makes a scene or dialogue of a story fall flat?
When the element of the story falls flat, we feel like it’s lacking something. Drive? Personalities? Depth? It’s unclear what exactly can be missing but it obscures the already challenging enough revising process.
What if the solution lies in the emotional layout of your story? We get mired in the words, said Jennifer Manuel and suggested we map the narrative space. Last weekend I took her writing workshop on navigating the emotional terrain of the story and I‘d like to share with you what I leaned in three essential things to ask when you are writing a compelling emotionally driven project, whether it’s a short story or a novel.
1. “Give the emotional moment the space it needs on the page.”
If there is too much action with no pause for a significant moment of character’s development (making a decision, a call to action, insights on the theme of the story), the reader would gallop over the events you are describing. On the other side, if there are too many descriptions, the reader gets bored.
For example, spend more space on characters making decisions: let them wrestle as much as possible. In a play I recently read “Old Bunny” by N. Kolyada (a prominent Russian playwright), a long-forgotten lover shows up after twenty years, and the character can’t force herself to kick him out quickly enough, but lucky for us, in the process of her vacillating – we learn some of their background story (and the juicy parts of their failed relationship!), as opposed to giving us the details of their background as side note of panoramic description.
2. Define what is the most significant emotional moment here.
Is it arguing with the ex-boyfriend about who played the main role in the play or is it finding out through metaphors (a beetle in the box and a shoehorn from a holy fool) that both characters weren’t happy while they spent twenty years apart? N. Kolyada let us discover through subtle details that characters still had the fire going between them.
To practice defining the most significant emotional moment of the story, Jennifer Manuel recommended practicing to point the most significant moment of your day. For example, the most significant moment of my day was when I was starving on a chairlift and wanted to see how much time was left till I meet my partner in the lodge to grab a bite, and I knew that it was supposed to be at least 45 minutes. To my surprise, I looked at my phone’s screen and saw his text about coming to the lodge in five minutes. I looked at the time and his text came 20 minutes ago! I was so excited that I’ll eat faster than expected: I took the wrong turn and happened to hit the difficult terrain but luckily for me the snow condition was great so I didn’t waste any time.
3. Watch out for summaries in early drafts.
Often the whole story is hidden there.
When we’re most vulnerable we tend to skip over the emotional moment. In the first draft of my memoir, I summarized a moment of jealousy because I didn’t know that I was embarrassed to face the uncomfortable truth. Me, jealous!! No! But once I dug into it and uncovered the details, the culmination of the story was revealed. It wasn’t that scary after all, it was rather a matter of identifying what significance that moment held as a piece of a story. Remember, anything on the page is just a material to be shaped into a readable (read: highly engaging!) narrative.
Navigating emotions in the narrative is the big subject because “Emotion should be your central aim/content.” These three insights are a small but valuable part of the three-hour workshop I attended. I do encourage you, if you have a chance, to attend Jennifer Manuel’s Workshop.
We’ll also be touching on this subject on the last day of the Write Fresh retreat (the workshop on revision), click here to see our program.
In the meantime, take a draft of your story or approach a blank page with a new vision and check:
- How many paragraphs did you dedicate to your significant emotional moment?
- How many paragraphs are exposition?
- What followed right after the emotional moment?
- What came before on?
- How were the elements laid out in your favorite stories/novels?
To check out more writing insights on our blog, click here