Observational stretching

Writers create worlds for an audience to slip into.  Through craft alone, they can take us on a flight to Mars, on an elevator to the other side of the world, or convince us that trees can talk.

It is the finer details that convince; the ability to show the world clearly through description. Here are some exercises that help you to heighten your perception. They are designed to adjust your perspective so you can see things… differently.

At some point over the next day, when you’re stuck in traffic, riding an elevator or waiting in a line, stop the DJ in your head and notice where you are. Don’t think about that power struggle at work, or what you need to do tomorrow or what you should have done yesterday. While you’re at it, toss out judgement. Try to see what is, not what should or could be.

This kind of exercise is called noticing. When you notice the world around you in detail, you’re seeing with fresh eyes. The more you work at seeing in this way, the more accurately you’ll be able to capture it in your writing.

Start by just noticing aspects of your own experience:

  • As you’re getting ready for your day, stop for a moment and look around you. Notice the room, the light, the taste of your coffee (or tea or whatever).
  • Feel the water of the shower, your hands on your scalp as you apply shampoo. Smell the fragrance of the soaps you use. Hear the sound of the water.
  • As you walk, notice how the light falls on the buildings, hear the traffic flow.
  • If you’re racing somewhere or your thoughts are running wild, stop them. Step back. Take a breath. Look where you are. Notice your breath. What’s going on? What is that like?

Here are suggestions to broaden your noticing:

  • You’re waiting in line. Look at the other people standing there with you.
    • Ask yourself, what’s the primary emotion of each person I notice?
    • What is it about their expression, stance or activities that send an emotional message?
    • What one aspect reveals their character?
  • You’re on a bus. Move your attention from one person to another. For each:
    • What is their dominant emotion?
    • What do you think they do for a living?
    • Where are they going? Where are they coming from?
    • What are the thoughts spinning through their brains?
    • Imagine what they were like as a 5-year-old child. What about as a baby?
    • What did their mother love about them? What was the secret fear she had about their life but never told them?
    • What is the one thing they hunger for more than anything else?

And last, suggestions for fine-tuning your noticing:

  • Focus on what you see around you. The faces, colours, light, shadows. When something pings at you, try to describe it in words. What emotion does each visual evoke?
  • Focus on sound. Can you differentiate sounds? Is one sound irritating? How is it irritating? Is another sound soothing? What makes it soothing?
  • Focus on smell. Can you connect a smell to an emotion?
  • Focus on relationship. When you look at a table of people talking over coffee, or a couple walking down the street, can you tell the nature of the relationship? The quality of that relationship? Can you imagine what they’re saying?
  • Focus on conversations. Can you hear what people around you are saying to each other?

Noticing is like a muscle. The more you develop the ability, the stronger it becomes. And since it is a form of meditation, it will also help you to find calm and distance in your day-to-day life.

How do you use this in your writing?

If you’re asking this question, you probably haven’t tried it yet. So go ahead!

When you do try, even if just for a moment, you’ll create a sense memory that you can call on when you need it.

Do you know how your character really feels?

Ocean people

The more I write, the more I realize that recognizing emotional granularity is a skill. Learning to differentiate emotions has a nifty benefit: It’s something you can also use in your personal life.

There are truck loads of research defining the benefits of this skill. Here’s a great New York Times article that explains it really well: Are you in Despair? That’s good.

As the article says:

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

A useful tool is an emotion list, such as Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel, but there are others. Refer to such lists to consider the subtleties and differences. Such small differences can make a big difference in what you write.

Anticipation or joy? Amazement or surprise?

In describing emotional states, I ask:

  • Is John merely annoyed or swept up in uncontrolled rage?
  • Is Michelle apprehensive, terrified, or someplace in between?
  • Is Catherine feeling admiration or love?

When you recognize the difference between frustration and fury, you react to situations with more skill and self-awareness. Those who haven’t developed this skill (aka, many characters), react in broader emotional strokes. It’s like they only have one note to react to all obstacles: a car horn. They may not even realize that they’re over-reacting. And gosh, it’s exhausting.

There are two levels to an emotion in a scene. First, there’s the character’s emotional reaction to the circumstances. But in addition to that, there’s the primary emotion where they live their life. Some people react to everything with anger. Others, fear. A person whose primary emotion is joy, will react to stress with one set of coping strategies. A person coloured by boredom will react to stress using other strategies.

Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Not all characters are lost emotionally.

Emotionally stable characters (aka, wise characters such as wizards, monks or philosophers) inhabit a place beneath the turbulent emotions of life. It is like they are sitting on the bottom of the ocean. They see the emotional waves of the surface, but they recognize them as distractions and don’t pay them any mind. They know that if they go up there, they’ll be caught up in the turbulence. Only when a wise character is the protagonist is she thrown into the waves and just like all characters, works to find her way out of them, back to the serenity of the ocean floor.

The task of “working to find a way out” involves showing how your character develops emotional awareness. As a character grows, they learn how to handle at least one emotion.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • When out in public, look at the people around you. Can you tell what they are feeling? What about them is communicating that emotion to you?
  • Ask yourself: What makes one person look angry while another content? Is it the way they walk? What they’re looking at? The furrow in their brow? How they charge forward, full steam ahead?
  • Can you tell what their primary emotion is? The one they automatically go to? What tells you that?
  • For the people who stand out to you, see if you can write a brief description of your findings.

To help you in describing emotions without even leaving your desk, take a look at this Guide to micro expressions.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Another way to stretch and grow is to look at your own emotional ups and downs. Here’s a few simple exercises, taken from Zen Buddhist traditions, to help you develop self-awareness:

  • At times throughout your day, try to identify the emotion you’re feeling. If you can, jot them down on a list.
  • Google “emotion list” or visit Wikipedia’s entry, List of Emotions, and see if you can identify where you hang out on the scale.
  • What primary emotion do you think you communicate?
  • Try to pinpoint the emotional range of friends or family.

Goals

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

binary-code

Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

Roles

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

wet beach sand banner

Roles

Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

A writer’s spices

Show versus tell in character development

0_hor_treeroots

Do you remember what it was like to look at a page in a book before you could read? Letters were mysterious and powerful squiggles. Adults had the magical ability of interpreting the squiggles into language.

Like any change, when you learn something new you also lose something. You forget what it was like to not know. Once you can find middle C on a piano or tie your shoes, it’s hard to go back.

It’s this tendency to forget what we didn’t know that can get in the way of creating. You write “Uncle Fred has a warm smile” on the page,  but your imagination imbues those words with so much more.

A visual artist works on her skill of stripping away what she thinks she is drawing so she can draw what is actually there. The writer has the same challenge. Nowhere is this clearer than when developing a character based on someone known.

How warm is that smile?

You may write, “Uncle Fred has a warm smile.” You fill that warm smile with your memory, which is a selective beast. What your audience sees is like a movie where several frames are missing.

William Stanley

publicdomainarchive.com

If you decide to use Uncle Fred in your story, you need to look at him again, to see his spirit, not your memory of his spirit.

The spirit is revealed through actions — doing. This is where showing versus telling will be your guide…

…how Uncle Fred sweeps into the room touching everyone as he goes, leaning in so close the yummy musk he wears brushes my nostrils. I can hear his warm smile in his voice, it makes me want to lean in for a hug. After making the rounds he swirls into a chair, flicking his jacket flaps back as he sticks out his chest, ready to perform as master of ceremonies. His eyes jump from one person to the next and when the glance touches me it’s a gentle caress. He speaks with a voice that rings deep and yet tender like a Buddhist meditation bell, so resonant and full every person in the room is calmed to silence by it.

I went a little overboard in that paragraph to demonstrate, but the point was to use all the detail types…

  • Visual detail
  • Sensual detail
  • Smell
  • Movement
  • Music
  • Rhythm

These are a writer’s spices. For special scenes, the ones where you want cinematic detail, throw them all in and see how they work. But a fine meal can be ruined by overwhelming flavours. As writer, your job is to create a balanced experience — a balanced meal.

Choosing when to show — and how much — and when to tell is one of the fine lines a writer traverses. But you know what, it’s not really up to you.

Your story will tell you when. If you listen.

Listen well.

Look. Smell. Feel. Move. Sound. Beat.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?

0_or_treesinline