Monday, November 5, 2012

In Storytelling, Emotion Trumps All

Last year, in honor of NaNoWriMo, I did a series of short posts, taken from Harry Potter, to encourage and inspire NoNo participants.  As I know writers are intent on keeping their focus on writing and don't have much time to read blog posts, I kept them short (for me) and (hopefully) sweet.

I'm late to the gate, but plan to repeat that this year, though it will probably be 2-3 times a week rather than every day.

For this first post, I thought I'd go write to the heart of the matter - emotion.  When I present my HP for Writers workshop, I usually start with the three things which I believe drove HP to the stratosphere of success: 1) lovable, quirky characters, 2) fantastically detailed, fun world building, and 3) an engaging series-spanning mystery.  However, what lies beneath and powers all of these is the emotional conflict Harry and his friends face in each book, and the emotional response their adventures and interactions arouse in the reader.

I've read a couple of articles recently warning writers not to let their words get in the way of telling a good story, and reminding us that our  largest audience is not other writers, but readers -- who have a different set of priorities than our writer friends.

I think for many of us who care deeply about craft, we can get so focused on crafting our words, that we forget to enthrall our reader with a deeply-felt emotional story.  To be honest, when we hear ourselves complaining about how this-or-that book made it onto a bestseller list, this is often the reason why.  That author may have not written with exquisite craft, but I guarantee you they had a storyteller's heart that elicited emotions in their reader.

Think back to your best-loved books, especially the ones from perhaps younger days that you dog-eared favorite passages.  Were those passages where the prose was luminescent, flowing like a river through the sublime subconscious?  Or did they rock with emotion?  Emotion that gripped you, made you hold your breath, or wish you were in those pages?

In looking back at my favorite Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire, I'll share a passage with you that would be dog-eared if I still did that to a book. :-)

     A torrent of sound deafened and confused him; there were voices everywhere, footsteps, screams....He remained where he was, his face screwed up against the noise, as though it were a nightmare that would pass.... 
     Then a pair of hands seized him roughly and turned him over. 
     "Harry! Harry!" 
     He opened his eyes. 
     He was looking up at the starry sky, and Albus Dumbledore was crouched over him. ...
     Harry let go of the cup, but he clutched Cedric to him even more tightly. He raised his free hand and seized Dumbledore's wrist, while Dumbledore's face swam in and out of focus. 
     "He's back," Harry whispered. "He's back. Voldemort." 
     "What's going on? What's happened?" 
     The face of Cornelius Fudge appeared upside down over Harry; it looked white, appalled. 
     "My God - Diggory!" it whispered. "Dumbledore - he's dead!" 
     The words were repeated, the shadowy figures pressing in on them gasped it to those around them...and then others shouted it - screeched it - into the night - "He's dead!" "He's dead!" "Cedric Diggory! Dead!" 
     "Harry, let go of him," he heard Fudge's voice say, and he felt fingers trying to pry him from Cedric's limp body, but Harry wouldn't let him go. Then Dumbledore's face, which was still blurred and misted, came closer. 
     "Harry, you can't help him now. It's over. Let go." 
     "He wanted me to bring him back," Harry muttered - it seemed important to explain this. "He wanted me to bring him back to his parents...." 
     "That's right. Harry...just let go now...." 
     Dumbledore bent down, and with extraordinary strength for a man so old and thin, raised Harry from the ground and set -him on his feet. Harry swayed. ... Fudge was saying loudly. "He's ill, he's injured - Dumbledore, Diggory's parents, they're here, they're in the stands...." 
     "I'll take Harry, Dumbledore, I'll take him -" 
     "No, I would prefer-" 
     "Dumbledore, Amos Diggory's running...he's coming over....Don't you think you should tell him - before he sees - ?" 
     "Harry, stay here -" 
     Girls were screaming, sobbing hysterically....The scene flickered oddly before Harry's eyes.... 
The emotion of this scene, especially when I first read it as a young parent, was so deep and so real, it struck a chord with me.  I've analyzed part of why I think it worked on my post about the power of touch.  But there's such a complex web of emotions being woven into this scene: Harry's horror at witnessing the murder of Cedric and his vow to his spirit; Dumbledore's care and concern for the injured Harry; the news reaching Cedric's parents in the stands of the loss of their son (the worst horror of all); and the emotional reactions from Cedric's friends.

NaNoWriMo is the month in which we commit to starting and finishing a complete novel, in which we turn off our internal editor and just keep going.  It's an excellent time, therefore, to remind yourself to focus on the one thing that matters above all...the emotions of your characters and the story you are telling.

Happy writing!

Question: What would be the primary emotional response you would be seeking from your reader in the story you are currently writing?