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Writer’s Craft #6: Emotional sequencing

February 7, 2011

The following bit from my novel-in-progress, Unholy Science: Part 10 of the Okal Rel Saga, is a perfect example of how something as simple as moving a sentence can fix a break in the emotional flow of a sequence. See if you can spot the same mis-configuration of stimulus and response that I did, in the draft extract below.

“I think of Di Mon as a father.” Quinn paused to look straight at Ranar. “Perhaps I have no right to do so.”
“I cannot answer such a question,” Ranar said in a flat tone. “I believe Di Mon would — resent your existence,” he said. Then added, “Although I cannot be certain.”
Quinn gave a begrudging laugh so like Di Mon it made Ranar’s heart skip a beat at the sound. “Oh, I can,” Quinn said. “And ‘resent’ would not be strong enough.”
“Stop it!” Ranar ordered, his attempt at open-mindedness breaking down in anger. “What have you done? Made a study of him? Practiced his mannerisms? What sort of sick motives could drive you to —”

In re-reading the passage, I realized Quinn’s “Oh, I can” had to follow immediately after Ranar’s “I cannot be certain”. Otherwise it’s too much work connecting the two. Di Mon is Ranar’s long dead, extremely-significant-other and Quinn is Di Mon’s illicit clone who has exposed himself to Di Mon’s memories in an attempt to connect with his progenitor. That’s why Ranar reacts to Quinn’s laugh the way he does. Moving up “Oh, I can” therefore has the added advantage of putting the laugh and Ranar’s reaction to it in direct contact.

“I think of Di Mon as a father.” Quinn paused to look straight at Ranar. “Perhaps I have no right to do so.”
“I cannot answer such a question,” Ranar said in a flat tone. “I believe Di Mon would — resent your existence,” he said. Then added, “Although I cannot be certain.”
“Oh, I can,” Quinn said. “And ‘resent’ would not be strong enough.” Quinn gave a begrudging laugh so like Di Mon it made Ranar’s heart skip a beat at the sound.
“Stop it!” Ranar ordered, his attempt at open-mindedness breaking down in anger. “What have you done? Made a study of him? Practiced his mannerisms? What sort of sick motives could drive you to —”

Better? I think so. Do you?

The symptom of an emotional sequencing problem is feeling as if you need to review earlier text to understand a character’s reaction, or having a beta-reader ask you to explain an outbreak of feeling because something distracting intervened to muddle motives. If you encounter such a nagging misalignment, I recommend blocking out the emotional stimuli and responses to spot the problem. I’ve done it for my example, below, to reflect how things pair up in the new version. The emotions of the characters are given in parentheses after each summation of the action.

stimulus 1: Ranar suggests Di Mon would resent Quinn’s existence. (Ranar is trying to be mature and rational about discovering Quinn is a clone of his dead love.)
response 1: Quinn asserts he has no doubt Di Mon would resent his existence. (Quinn is punchy and nervous. He fears condemnation, but is seeking greater intimacy through sharing secrets.)
stimulus 2: Quinn’s laugh reminds Ranar of Di Mon. (Quinn unconsciously betrays a symptom of his unstable condition, revealing his lack of control.)
response 2: Ranar erupts in accusations. (Ranar is prompted to anger one and loses his composure.)

Note that although stimulus 1 and response 2 do have a relationship, the tighter bindings are now coupled up together in stimulus/response pairs.

Is this a technique that might help you? Have you experienced similar problems you’d like to share? Can you write stimuli and response breakdowns for something you’re working on, or a favorite passage you admire, to expose the underlying sequencing that makes it work? Comments desired!

E-mail your ideas for future articles to me at lynda@okalrel.org either as a question to be illustrated by myself or with your own example. Please include CLARION in the subject of the e-mail. Thanks for taking part!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    February 7, 2011 10:32 am

    HI, OK, I’ll comment.
    I think this is hard exercise because we haven’t read your book, and there are four characters introduced in a very short paragraph. It’s too confusing to keep them straight and I gave up (and are we talking about men here? A man-man love? This is what is coming across)

    I’d like a few lines of prose before jumping into dialogue. Where are we? In a private room? A busy restaurant? Someplace cozy? Does Ranar feel safe with this person? That would be helpful to better get into the emotion of this scene.

    Are you a fan of David Mitchell? He likes to write like this: “Dialogue dialogue”. Let’s have some action. “Back to dialogue.” This is new to me and I can’t say I’m on the band wagon yet. If I read “I think of Din Mon as a father,” Quinn began, pausing to look straight at Ranar. “Perhaps I have no right to so do.” That script rolls across the mind’s eye much easier. But I’m probably making this comment because I spent 2 hours reading Mitchell this weekend.

    “Oh I can,” was much, much better placed. I can see him cocking his eyes. Yep, this was a good fix.

    Also- I’m assuming Ranar is the POV here. With Quinn we are a fly on the wall; we ‘see’ him look straight on Ranar and ‘hear’ his laugh. With Ranar we area privy to his heart skipping a beat and that he made an attempt at open-mindedness. I’d like more privileges in line two. “I cannot answer such a question, I believe Di Mon would—resent your existence,” Ranar said as insecurity gripped at his sides. “Although I cannot be certain.” (Why is he not certain- there should be a bodily reaction here, a flinch, a turning away, a pulling forward of the shoulders)

     fun! I will take this to my own chapters now, thanks for putting the bug in my ear!

  2. February 7, 2011 10:08 pm

    Good feedback Kari. Too big a hunk with too much going on. This one clearly didn’t inspire a lot of action from readers, even though it felt like an “ah hah” moment for me. A simpler example would would have got the point across much better.

    • Kari T permalink
      February 7, 2011 10:17 pm

      Linda, but what was really clear in your post was your passion for the ‘a-ha’ moment. As i’m writing right now the message is still in my head, and I’m now looking for ways to better write the emotional scenes. 🙂 I think it is almost impossible to pull an important moment out of a book with just one paragraph, because so much has been building up to this point (that you share with us). Ah well.

      • February 8, 2011 8:12 am

        Indeed, the importance of context. It’s a stumper. For years the message at cons seemed to be “pack it all into the first sentence or you’ll never sell”. But context is essential to delivering the biggest ‘punch’. I suppose anything you can do in the first page relies on a shared context that is cultural. And if you can hook ’em that way, you can build your own piece of context to orchestrate reactions after that.

  3. February 8, 2011 9:55 am

    This is a useful discussion. However, it’s small scale; I was expecting large scale. Yesterday I was outlining a story that would show a character’s change from clingy to independent, so I had to stop and think about what kind of events would cause such a change. Then I had to build scenes for those, in a sequence leading from the beginning emotional state to the end one. That’s large-scale emotional sequencing. It would be interesting to read a post about that.

    • February 9, 2011 9:31 am

      Indeed! I invite you to correspond with me at lynda@okalrel.org about working up such a topic for a future post. Perhaps you’d like to feature some of your own insights? Or you can be credited as the inspiration for what I work up. And thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Barbara permalink
    February 8, 2011 4:58 pm

    This one struck home for me, in part because it ties in with what I’m learning about the weight of small changes in text. That emotional impact can be increased or negated by something like where the paragraph break comes.
    I wonder if it’s like playing Go? One stone moves one space, and the whole board alters.

    • February 9, 2011 9:33 am

      Chuckle. It is tinkering we’re talking about here, of course. I don’t think one misplaced stone wrecks the whole symphony but I do believe writers sometimes trip themselves up by getting the emotional sequence muddled.

  5. Ernest permalink
    February 13, 2011 12:54 pm

    Very interesting subject, in my opinion, especially because it’s small scale. It made me wonder if these emotional dynamics of stimulus and response are actually simultaneous as well as linear.
    Meaning: in your story’s micro-timeline, stimulus 1 may overlap with stimulus 2 before response 1 sets in; responses may vary in duration; stimulus-response cycles may follow different rhythms, overtake one another, etc.
    So, this particular challenge of narrative sequencing would be to find the best expositional order in order to produce an illusion of ‘real-time action’, taking into account each character’s individual timing and ’emotional pace’, all without confusing the reader. Would it?
    In fact, there may be several different overlapping cycles of stimulus and response even inside one single character. Over-subtle, maybe, but that’s life.
    Shakespeare seems to get it right somehow. Chekhov, too.

    • February 13, 2011 7:54 pm

      I had some of the same thoughts while debugging this bit of emotional sequencing i.e. resonances can happen in parallel as well as in sequence, and the risk inherent in getting too sophisticated is confusing the reader. I even like to imagine I’ve achieved some emotional “sequencing” across my whole series, where tensions viewed one way in book one look different from the perspective gained by book ten. But if each “movement” of the symphony isn’t self-contained enough to be satisfying, people will be frustrated.

    • February 13, 2011 8:04 pm

      PS Big Shakespeare fan. Chekov, too. Shakespeare is particulary genius, I think, at writing on multiple levels so that the “pit” is never frustrated, the plot is clear, but more sophisticated interplays of theme or emotional subtlety are woven into the broader tapestry for those who appreciate them. I don’t think he was half-hearted about the central story, either, though. He thrilled with the audience to the simple stories of the heroes at the same time he brooded on more complex resonances in the edges and crannies of the play. Personally, I know I can best entertain the dark or complex best in the shadow of the simple and heroic.🙂

  6. March 6, 2011 1:21 am

    (I would love to read more on this topic as I have a lot of trouble with it!)

    • March 6, 2011 3:13 pm

      Hi Ron. I haven’t heard the topic of “emotional sequencing” described as such, in particular. Just FYI in case you do some searching for the topic expecting it to be identified by those particular words. I am sure there is a lot written about it under one description or another. My best advice to anyone having trouble with it is to think through, or map out, the emotional changes your character experiences — whether in a scene or a whole novel — and check for plausibility. Because we can make our characters to anything it can be easy to miss situations where an emotional response is out of place due to prior context.

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