I’ll never forget the moment when Romeo rides past the well-intentioned Friar Lawrence with that, oh, so important communiqué about Juliet’s poisoned slumber in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to yell at the screen. Even though I knew the story and what was to happen, the depth of despair from that single act of dramatic irony where no words were spoken, said it all. In this week’s blog, author Leslie Budewitz writes about evoking readers’ emotions in much the same way. As writers we don’t say, ‘And now readers, it’s time to be sad, or happy.’ Instead, the reader is guided into understanding the characters and why the actions they commit are destiny. Otherwise, as Leslie, so aptly explains, the readers won’t feel anything!
Creating Emotion on the Page
By Leslie Budewitz
Story lies not in what happens to our characters—whether they lose a spouse, stumble over a body, get sold into slavery—but how they respond to what happens. How events hit them deep inside, touch an old wound, trigger a struggle, lead to more conflict, and ultimately, growth and resolution. The purpose of plot is to force our characters into those challenging situations, where they must confront their internal conflicts, externalizing them in action. This is as true in the cozy mysteries I write as in literary fiction or any other genre. The tone and depth of exploration may vary, but the heart of story remains the same.
But if we tell our readers what our characters feel, they won’t feel anything. We need to evoke emotion by showing how our characters respond to emotional situations. How do they move when struck by grief, annoyed by stupidity, or baffled by absurdity? What happens to their faces, their voices? How do their feelings influence what they say—and how they say it?
First, we can call on our emotional experience. Then, we analogize from our experience to our characters. By analogize—a term lawyers use when comparing cases where the facts differ, but the same legal principles apply—I mean we take what we know, compare it to another situation, and picture what would happen then. I remember clearly how I felt physically and emotionally, and what I did, when a man I didn’t know walked in my unlocked dorm room while I was napping. I can extrapolate from my experience and imagine how my character would respond. (Turned out my intruder was a well-known thief, not a rapist, and didn’t realize my door led to a suite, not a single room, so I wasn’t actually alone.) A character assaulted as a young child, or who had witnessed a brutal attack, would bring to the same intrusion a more complex reaction, based on her own experience.
I used a similar technique in writing Crime Rib, the second in my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries. My protagonist, Erin Murphy, was 17 when her father was killed in a still-unsolved hit-and run. Now 32, she finds a friend’s lifeless body alongside the road, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. Ike Hoover, the undersheriff overseeing the investigation, was the deputy in charge of her father’s case, complicating her view of him. As I wondered how Erin would respond to him, I found myself walking around the house, searching mind and body for analogous situations.
I replayed an incident nearly 30 years ago when I took a walk near a golf course, saw a man keel over on the green, and ran for help, struggling to give directions to an unfamiliar place. I remembered watching in a courtroom when an older lawyer clutched his chest, stepped back from the podium mid-argument, and died. And I recalled a collision in front of my house fifteen years ago. The loud crack broke the afternoon. Dashing outside. Seeing a young man stumble toward me. Knowing I had to check his truck, that I couldn’t rely on his dazed assertion that he’d been alone in the cab. Mining my feelings, I realized I was recreating them in my body, all these years later. My jaw tightened, my breath thinned, sounds came at me as if filtered by a fog.
“[Ike] suppressed a smile. I sat and took the statement he handed me. Rereading my description of what I’d seen and heard on Saturday night brought all the sensations crashing back. My breath went shallow, and I felt the anxiety racing through my veins, headed for my heart. I did not want to feel this. I wanted to walk away. My self-righteous words to Kim still echoed in my ears: Stacia deserves justice, too.”
How do we tap into emotions beyond our own pale? Emotional research. I often call on my doctor-husband’s observations of how people respond to stressful situations, emotionally and physically, and the long-term effects. To explore Erin’s reactions, as a teenager and a young woman, to her father’s death, I thought about everyone I knew who’d lost a parent when they were young. Me, at 30, is very different from 17, but a good starting point. My college best friend, at 21; and a high school classmate at 22, who later lost her husband when her son was only 4. A law firm colleague whose father’s death when he was 18 set him on a much-different path than he’d planned. I wrote what I knew of their experiences out by hand to get at the physical experience. To put in my body, so my writer brain could call on it.
I also found online guides for teens who’ve lost a parent and for their teachers. Kids sometimes have a not-quite-rational feeling that something unrelated to their actions must still be their fault, somehow, or that it marks them.
“Calling him by his first name wasn’t disrespect. Undersheriff sounds too much like undertaker to me, and it had been Ike who’d come to the village Playhouse to get me, during rehearsal, after my father’s accident. The association still stuck. Childish, maybe, but it wasn’t a feeling I could logic my way out of.”
A writer friend described her own teenager, a very different girl from Erin, but whose desire for black-and-white answers helped me flesh out Erin’s best friend Kim Caldwell. Now a sheriff’s detective, Kim’s reaction cost both girls their friendship, led to her career in law enforcement, and still plagues her.
“Kim and I had been best friends all through junior high and high school. Until my father died, the winter of senior year. That had been too much for her, and the night of his accident, I lost my best friend, too. Since my return, we’d run into each other a few times, but exchanged only small talk. Why she’d chosen law enforcement remained a mystery. …
Something slid down her left wrist and she shoved it back up her sleeve. A bracelet? A memory flashed across my mental screen and vanished.
“I’m sorry to have to put you through this,” she said. “Your family means a lot to me.”
Right. My family meant so much, she dropped me like a rock when my father died. Like it might be contagious. Like I had done something to her.
I nodded. Until I knew what was going on, I needed to be very careful.”
Only when we dig into our characters’ minds and hearts, their successes and failures, their stresses, dramas, and traumas, will we know how they’ll respond to events on the page. But if we’re willing—even when it brings back up our own painful moments—we can create characters our readers will want to know.
About Crime Rib:
“Gourmet food market owner Erin Murphy is determined to get Jewel Bay, Montana’s scrumptious local fare, some national attention. But her scheme for culinary celebrity goes up in flames when the town’s big break is interrupted by murder…
Food Preneurs, one of the hottest cooking shows on TV, has decided to feature Jewel Bay in an upcoming episode, and everyone in town is preparing for their close-ups, including the crew at the Glacier Mercantile, aka the Merc. Not only is Erin busy remodeling her courtyard into a relaxing dining area, she’s organizing a steak-cooking competition between three of Jewel Bay’s hottest chefs to be featured on the program.
But Erin’s plans get scorched when one of the contending cooks is found dead. With all the drama going on behind the scenes, it’s hard to figure out who didn’t have a motive to off the saucy contestant. Now, to keep the town’s rep from crashing and burning on national television, Erin will have to grill some suspects to smoke out the killer…”
If you would like to read more about Leslie Budewitz’s books please click here.
Leslie Budewitz is the national best-selling author of Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, winner of the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Crime Rib, the second in the series, was published by Berkley Prime Crime on July 1, 2014.
Also a lawyer, Leslie won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction for Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), making her the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction.
For more tales of life in the wilds of northwest Montana, and bonus recipes, visit her website and subscribe to her newsletter. Website: www.LeslieBudewitz.com Facebook: LeslieBudewitzAuthor
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