Sunday, 8 March 2015

Review: Practical Emotional Structure

Practical Emotional Structure
Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reviews of "writing craft" books. I plan to read at least a dozen this year, with the aim of taking my craft up another notch and selling more fiction as a result.

I began with this one because I recognise emotional engagement as a weakness in my fiction, one I want to work on. Did it help? Yes, it did, though I felt that with a thorough edit it would have been much clearer and helped a lot more.

There's a danger that a book like this becomes simply "how to manipulate the reader," and once or twice it did stray in that direction: "To keep selling stories, a reader needs to identify you as the person who can hit all their buttons on a consistent basis," the author says (dangling her modifier). However, it isn't simply that. What the author is talking about is best summed up in this quotation from the final chapter:

"Emotional structure is actually a series of three things—the way your character feels about the story and plot (putting “emotion into your story”), pre-thinking (your emotional hooks and triggers) and a character’s emotional arc."

Emotional response that appears on the page helps the reader identify with the character and feel along with them. Emotional hooks and triggers are (if I've understood correctly) the relationships and emotional memories that the character has, which again help the reader imagine themselves into the character's life and experience, and care about what happens to them. And the character's emotional arc is the change in the character's (habitual) emotional state, or their emotional landscape, over the course of the story. For example, a character may go from being emotionally closed off and grieving to emotionally open and able to love again.

I marked a few other key quotations from the book as I went through, and here are some:

"If I can remove my heroine and replace her with an archetype, then I don't have emotion or the right people in my story." I thought this was an interesting idea that could have been expanded on. It seems to be talking about the importance of particularity in our characters. A story needs to be about this person in particular, who is uniquely fitted to being in this story because of what has happened to her in the past and how she's responded to it.

"A core event is the psychological reason your character reacts to story events in a consistent way." The author's concept of a "core event," something in the character's backstory that shapes her outlook on life in a way that is important to the story, is central to her approach. She makes the point that it can go in multiple directions, according to the character's personality and the needs of the story. The same thing happening to two different characters can produce two very different stories. But because it's such a significant emotional event, it consistently shapes the character's reactions (and actions). Only when the character's perspective on the core event changes, as the result of a new, equally significant event, can the character's emotional landscape change permanently.

"Justified anger is not conflict. It’s just anger." But unreasonable anger, driven by misinterpretation, or by confusing what just happened with something that happened a long time ago? That's conflict fuel.

"What makes her do what she does and what will tear her apart if she doesn't?" This is another perspective on the core event.

"While you can definitely create a story without conflict, the depth of the emotional arc is shallow which means there’s no reason to have all these story events because it shows the same thing over and over and the outcome is never in any doubt." That sentence needs commas (I'll talk about punctuation further below), but the idea is that a story without conflict is a mere recitation of events. Without conflict, nothing will change, and so one event can stand in for all.

"Plot grows out of how your character reacts to or takes control of what’s already going on in your story." There are various definitions of "plot," but this one (plot is the outward events which are needed to advance the emotional story, essentially) is a useful one. As the author, it's up to you to construct a plot which fits the emotional direction of the story. "Changing an emotional reaction to the core event changes what the story is about on a very fundamental level (the theme)."

"Some people are full of angst and some aren't. Using the right focal point creates the right amount of emotional depth for the story you’re trying to tell." This was something of a relief to me. I'm not a highly emotional person myself, even by the standards of my low-emotional-expression culture, and I'm not up for the common practice of standing off and flinging tragedies at your characters until the audience cries. It may win Hugos, but it doesn't win me over. However, giving my characters some emotional stakes, some emotional driver which shapes their responses to the world, is going to help me engage my readers more, and I can adjust the sliders appropriately. Not everyone needs a deeply tragic backstory in which everyone in their village, including their parents, was horribly killed (epic fantasy authors, take note), but everyone has had something significant happen to them, something that influences how their subsequent story plays out, and by connecting to that we establish an emotional truth for our characters which our readers will recognise and identify.

"Write what you love, but realize…you love a lot of other things, too." This addresses the balance between being true to yourself and gaining an audience. If you begin with human universals, things you care about that other people care about too, your audience will be bigger than if you ride your hobby-horse until it's dead and then beat it.

All of this is good stuff. Now, to the not-so-good.

First and most obviously, the author needs remedial punctuation classes. Not just for her horrible habit of using scare quotes for emphasis instead of italics (it put me in mind of a manager I knew who would do the same with air quotes), but because she clearly has no idea when to use a comma, semicolon or em dash, and just uses them more or less at random. Along with sentences that change grammatical direction partway through, or are missing key words, and her habit of mixing together several examples and flipping between them without signalling clearly, the inept punctuation makes the book less clear and less useful than it would otherwise be. Both at the level of macro-structure (the progression from chapter to chapter to make a clear argument) and at the level of micro-structure (sentences and phrases that convey that argument clearly and unambiguously), the book has a lot of room for improvement.

It's useful enough that I give it four stars anyway, but be aware that the rating is more for the content than it is for the form.

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