14 June 2010

Plot Trick: Showing Character Emotion, Not Telling

A plot trick to connect readers to your stories? Rather than tell how a character feels, the trick is to find unique ways to show in scene the character's emotional reaction to the dramatic action. 

This weekend at my first ever Writers Plot Retreat, I had a glimpse into why this trick of writing your characters showing authentic emotions is a tough one to master.

In preparation for the retreat, I created an intricate Plot Planner based on our time frame and the number of plot consultations per each writer. 

Thursday afternoon, everyone arrived and settled, I pointed out the highlights of our event on my tricky Writers Plot Retreat Plot Planner.

The peak that most interested, or so I thought and soon came to understand scared, everyone loomed on Saturday afternoon. Having organized the retreat around the Universal Story, I explained to the writers the Crisis. If there was to be a melt-down, this is where it most likely would occur. Little did I know how much suspense and tension that foreshadowing instilled.

As pre-plotted, we left the Beginning (1/4), introductory phase at the end of Day One, everyone dazed from the splendor of the setting, meeting each other, and the over-abundance of amazing food and drink, laughter and goodwill. Well-feted, we slept.

My mission for the plot retreat was for each writer to create a mini-Plot Planner for their story, followed by making a full-length one, too. A couple of writers came with new story ideas to plan and plot. Others were bogged down and stalled out in the Middle of their first draft and came with the goal of revving back up and forging ahead. A few prepared for major rewrites. One had a completed story ready for the final, final check.

After I had checked out everyone's mini-Plot Planner for the five major scenes in their stories, our host once again overwhelmed our senses with a fragrant, delectable dinner. Full from the mountain air, expansive views, like-minded people, and general feeling of gratitude for the good fortune of being together, we once again bedded down for the night.

From the success of the day before, everyone jumped into the creation of their full-sized Plot Planners. I passed out butcher paper, felt-tipped pens, and sticky notes. Before long, all the long, open surfaces of the main portion of the house were papered with Plot Planners of all colors and lengths and dreams.

The consultations went smoothly. The Crisis point came and went without a peep. 

Not until yesterday, our final morning together, did I have a clue that, in fact, the day before at the exact moment of the Crisis point, most of the writers were experiencing melt-downs to varying degrees.

My only excuse for having missed all the outward signs are three:

  1. The writers did very little to show their external discomfort
  2. My primary focus was on the writers' stories and their Plot Planners
  3. I had eyes only for the breakthroughs and the eye-popping enthusiasm over the new relationship developing between writer and writing project.

What the lesson taught me is how often we mask our feelings, likely, I believe, due to the false belief that we are the only ones. There is a universality when it comes to the insecurity and uncertainty we each have in creating something out of nothing. Rather than share the fear, we mask and protect ourselves.

Now in retrospect, I remember the sweat on one writer's forehead, the tremble in the voices of other writers' dismissing their project's potential, how one writer kept her eyes downcast as she spoke about her story, and another gave excuses for herself and her story.

The day before, I had shared a technique I use to teach kids how to switch from telling emotion to showing. When working at the children's shelter, I ask kids to act out an emotion jotted on a slip of paper. The other children cannot tell the emotion they see demonstrated. Instead, they must point out the external signs they see that show the emotion or feelings through body language, facial expressions, dialogue, tone and mood. 

I recommended the writers keep a notepad and pen with them at all times in coffee shops, at the beach, waiting at bus stops to jot down not only the traditional snippets of overhead dialogue but to note the behaviors that indicate emotion in the passer-bys.

The two stately Weimaraners on hand for the retreat had no trouble showing their feelings right up front: enlarged pupils = intense focus, wagging tails = confidence, tucked tails = insecurity, rigid bodies = alert, yawning = nervousness, etc.

People? Not always so straight-forward.

What I learned about writers showing emotion at the retreat, or I simply remembered what I already knew and had forgotten, is that often the expression of deep emotion is barely discernible but, always, the feelings are there.

(To each of you who took part in the plot retreat, thank you for taking the leap with me. I had a ball falling in love with the perfection of you...)

Click on here for the free Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay on Youtube.