I recently read a post by Dr. Steven Farmer in which he talked about taking his niece to acting lessons. While he waited, his interest was piqued by a comment the instructor made to the children and teens in the class.
Dr. Farmer understood what the man was telling the students. The man wanted the children to stop trying to appear sad or happy. He wanted them to find an experience of that emotion. When they remember a moment in which they felt surprise, happiness, sadness – then they express that emotion naturally. They become a sad child.
We’ve all seen the histrionic scenes that mar an otherwise good movie. The actor whose gestures are too broad, too studied. It seems most prevalent in child actors. When they’re directed to act surprised their eyes pop so wide, their mouths fall open, and they throw up their hands so dramatically that the viewer cringes away from the moment. We feel cheated from experiencing the moment because of the overplayed emotions of the actor.
As I read Dr. Farmer’s story, I realized there is a parallel in the writing world. Overplaying a scene is no worse than overwriting a scene. Although the writer has a responsibility to set up and direct the energy and feel of his work, the reader wants to be able to place herself in the moment and feel the emotions, the energy of the words from her personal perspective.
Sometimes we writers try so hard our efforts seem over the top. Exaggerated. Unbelievable.
Take this scene:
Kitty raced into the room where her father lay. She abandoned her suitcase in the middle of the floor and threw her coat aside, not caring where it landed. Nothing mattered except that she was finally here, with her dying parent. Here where they would make amends for every past wrong and speak of their love for each other.
The nurse’s eyes filled with overwhelming pity for the clearly distraught young woman. She shook her head. “You’re too late. He’s gone.”
Kitty choked on her raw sobs, tears gushing from her eyes. The pain of her loss ripped her heart apart. She felt as though her world had stopped and she would never be the same after this loss. Her hands covered her mouth, holding back her cry of anguish.
“Oh, Father! How could you die before I could make a cross-country trip to tell you I forgive you for not loving me enough when I was a child? What will I do without you? Who will be there for me now? I don’t know what to do. How will I go on? I don’t even know what to do next. And I can’t do anything without you there to support me while I grieve so terribly.”
She threw herself across her father’s cold body, clutching it to her in unbearable anguish, her grasping fingers wrinkling the old man’s threadbare pajama sleeve.
There’s no need to tell the reader how to feel, or how they should react to a scene. If we’ve done our job as writers, he’ll be able to relate what’s happening in the story to some event in his life, or he’ll imagine what it would feel like if he were in this situation. And if we’ve done an excellent job, he will remember or live those emotions through our words.
If you find yourself forcing your story, adding emotionally charged words to push your reader into some feeling or reaction, take that acting instructor’s advice. Stop.
Step out of the story far enough to feel its essence. Allow the story to flow naturally, to tell itself. Let your characters show what they think and feel through their actions. Your reader will reach her own understanding of the emotion you are trying to convey.
And it might look like this:
Kitty entered the room, placing her suitcase against the wall and tossing her coat over the nearest chair.
As Kitty approached the bed, the nurse turned. A small shake of her head told the young woman she was too late.
Kitty sank onto the edge of the bed and took her father’s cooling hand in hers, feeling more alone than she had in years. Why hadn’t she made time to come earlier? She had long ago forgiven her father for his disinterested approach to raising a child, understanding he’d done the best he could. Her regret over not telling him would last even longer.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” She placed his hand on his chest and stood. Tears burned her eyes, but there were things he would expect her to take care of. Her grief would see her through what had to be done.
In the first example the reader is told how Kitty’s loss affects her. In the second, the reader sees a scene she may have experienced in her own life, and calls to mind her memory of that loss and experiences the emotions with Kitty. Each of us has some unfinished business, unspoken words, unresolved regrets that brings the story to life for us.
We never know where a spark of inspiration or a lesson in creating a scene will show up. Next time you meet an acting instructor, or a grocery clerk, or the mother of twins, be open to recognizing the emotions and actions they portray. The same ones that make up your own life. Understand how those emotions and actions can create the characters we find most believable. Go home and watch your characters become who they are meant to be with each word you place on the page. Then stop writing.
What unexpected idea has fueled a greater understanding of how to write characters your readers will fall in love with? Share your breakthroughs with all of us by leaving a comment.