Quoting the Russian

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov


Out of My Head 7: Depicting Emotions in Fiction

  1. Emotional Resonance

Often called the B-Plot, but that’s really not true.  There’s nothing secondary about it.

Life is run from the emotions outward.  You run the risk of losing your audience by working from the intellect only (technique), disconnected from body and spirit.  Your world isn’t real because of the plot points that built it.  It’s real because it feels real.

There must be a core of strong and genuine emotion resonating at the heart of every story.  Without it, the narrative will feel flat and out of balance.  Your readers may not know why they feel this way, but they will know it to be true.

Balance – addressing the needs of the body, mind, and spirit (emotional wellbeing) in equal measure.  Note that balance doesn’t mean perfect.  Out of balance leads to rich characterization.

At any given point in your story, ask yourself “What are my characters feeling right now?”  Then convey that through their words, tones of voice, body language, physical action.  Do you have to share all of this with your readers 100% of the time?  No, but as the writer you need to know how your characters feel because it will color everything that they do.

All that said, badly written fiction can actually succeed because of strong emotional appeal.  Examples of this are Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and anything directed by Steven Spielberg.


  1. Family Dynamics

The ups and downs of family drama are shortcuts into your characters’ head space.  Mom issues.  Dad issues.  The struggles of the middle child.  Example: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”  They’re universal.  Use them.  The advantage here is you don’t have to explain everything.  Your readers already get it.


  1. Evolving Roles in the Post-Patriarchy

Women aren’t more emotional than men.  Men are emotionally stunted.

The manly man (traditionally) doesn’t emote.  He’s stoic.  He’s a rock.  He’s eagle-eyed and level headed.  Depicting him as excessively emotional doesn’t ring true.  Patriarchy regulates men’s behavior, attitude, personality, even appearance.  Men who don’t fit into the mold of traditional masculinity either have to hide their true selves or face ostracism.  Men have always had more external freedom than women, but this came at an internal price.

However–today, right now–we’re in a time of transition.  The old paradigms are being completely redefined.

What does this mean?  As a writer, you have a much greater opportunity to tell stories that weren’t easily accepted in the past.  You can explore male characters who defy conventional definitions of masculinity, or female characters who defy conventional definitions of femininity.

An emotionally aware man isn’t a wuss.  A strong woman isn’t a bitch.

Men and woman together are equally responsible for bringing about and sustaining a post-patriarchal narrative.  The stories you write can be exemplars of this.


  1. Love Scenes

A love scene is not about sex.  A love scene isn’t even about love.  It’s about the relationship.

A relationship of love contains affection, trust, respect, honestly, playfulness, commitment, an entire spectrum of feelings that can’t really be defined.  All are parts of the relationship.  A love scene between two characters demonstrates these qualities.

“I love you” doesn’t always have to be said on the page.  It isn’t essential to a love scene because it’s already there–it’s the emotional context of the scene.

A love scene is not always a scene between lovers.  Most of the time it isn’t.  A love scene is between two people who love each other: parent and child, brothers, sisters, grandparent and grandchild, friend and friend, teacher and student.  Romance is but one aspect of love; there are countless others to explore.


  1. The Hard Throbbing Stuff

David Gerrold:  Sex scenes are embarrassing.  They’re embarrassing to write.  They’re embarrassing to read.  And most of all, they’re embarrassing to publish.  This is because people will assume you’re writing from experience.

Every time you write a sex scene, you’re telling people not just that you think about sex, you’re also telling them what you think about sex.  It is a very public admission of a very private part of your life.  And no matter how many times you say “It’s just a story”, the fact remains that you are the person who sat at the keyboard and imagined it.

So don’t force it.  Be honest!  Don’t feel like you have to include a sex scene just because it sells.  If you’re not comfortable writing sex scenes, it will be evident on the page.  Your reader will know.

What comes before the scene is important.  What comes after is most important.  Again, you’re going for emotional resonance.

The effective sex scene is not about sex.  It’s about the passion of the moment.

Gathering No Moss

Lots of goings-on this month.  Random, and yet not.

I’ve moved nineteen times in my adult life.  It’s one of the curses of being born with insatiable wanderlust, I suppose.  Nineteen changes of address in eleven different cities, five counties, two states.  Packing, cleaning, movers who don’t show up, mountains of boxes to stumble over.  And books–may I point out–are goddamn heavy!  So we just done it again.  Twenty times now, and no longer counting.  Packed up the cat and moved to Des Moines, half an hour south of Seattle.  And in Washington, the “s” in Des Moines is sounded.  Just the second one though, not the first.  Des Moinez, with an emphasis on the z.  I have no idea why.

My proposal for a fiction writing practicum has been approved by Tacoma Community College’s continuing education program.  (Much closer to Des Moines than our old place in Lake Forest Park.  That’s a win for the commute!)  We will be offering the class in the spring quarter and again this fall, potentially at the Gig Harbor campus, too.  I will be teaching as well as writing the curriculum based on the “Out of My Head” posts here.  Go Titans.

“Cold Ink” sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies this week, the seventh of my Clockwork Millennials cycle to be published.  This one has lived in my head for a long time–like, a really long time.  Thirty-plus years maybe.  The narrative trappings and plot points varied over the years but the story itself–the core of it–and the girl at its center, always remained the same.  I’m glad to finally send her out into the world.

I’ve been listening to the Pippin soundtrack lately.  I always wanted to play Pippin.  I still feel like him (there’s that pesky wanderlust again) but the reality of the calendar says I’m just seven years shy of his grandmother’s age.  No idea how that happened.  Plenty of time for reflection later, though.  I just moved and have to unpack all these goddamn heavy books.

And Then This Happened…

Publisher:  “I think what you’ve got in that dream sequence is awesome.  Love it.  But as a rule I don’t like dream sequences.”

Me:  “Okay…?”

Publisher:  “So I want you to keep everything that’s in the dream, but rewrite it so that it’s not a dream.”

Me:  “But the dream is prophetic.  None of it actually happens.  Not at this stage of the story, at least.”

Publisher:  “Yeah yeah yeah.  You’ll figure it out.  Awesome, though.  Love it.”

Me:  (muttering) “Great googly moogly…”



Out of My Head 6: The Rhythm of Fiction

Narrative flow has three elements: story rhythm to separate plot from random strings of events; action and reaction in equal parts (yang and yin); and movement, either internal or external.

“Stories have to move.”  You hear that all the time.  What does it mean?  Stories are journeys.  They have to end someplace other than where they began.  Movement is what gets you there.

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close

The traditional pyramid is static.  It’s driven by the requirements of the plot, but it doesn’t flow.  One step lurches to the next: first crisis, second crisis, third, crisis, climax, resolution…  Movement is what flows between the steps.  It’s generated by the dynamic interplay between action and reaction, the give and take, the yang and yin, be it internal or external.

  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.  They’re driven by character.  This is the try/fail cycle.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.

Plot is what drives the story.  Character is what drives the plot.

Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple cycles of risk and failure (the narrative flow), before achieving a resolution.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it.  How he deals with the problem reveals who he really is.  What you do is who you are.

Whoever your attention stays focused on, that’s who the story is about.  The hero doesn’t just solve a physical problem, he’s also caught in an ethical dilemma created by his role in the situation.

Stories are journeys–not only through physical landscapes but emotional realms as well.  They’re metaphors for life, the expression of truths by means of symbolic representation.  As such, they’re hypertrue.

At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death.  The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal.  It’s the fear of loss.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

What your characters are afraid of is a choice.  You choose to be afraid.  Or not.  FEAR.  False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything And Run.  We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them.  We decide what the consequences are going to be.  So too with our characters.

Every scene must serve a specific purpose.  Every scene should propel the story forward.  If it doesn’t move the characters closer to the resolution of the problem (or if it’s simply not interesting), cut it.

All the separate arts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything in the end.


  1. Plot

Plot is the narrative that drives the resolution of the story.  It rises from what your characters want and need.

If STORY is dropping your character into a ditch, PLOT is watching him try to climb out.

Finding plot for character-driven stories.  Ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?”  Then do it.  How he overcomes the obstacle or challenge is the story’s plot.

Plotting (or outlining) – the mapping out of specific story points before the text is written.  Establishing narrative guideposts in advance.  Plotting need not be rigid or a crutch.  Be flexible.  Let the story flow where it will in unexpected directions, then recalibrate accordingly.

That said, plotting is a tool not universally employed by the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants.

An outline breaks the story down structurally.  A synopsis summarizes the story in a compressed narrative.

The process is highly idiosyncratic.  There is no right way to outline.  Example: mine is nonlinear.  There is only the way that works for you.

Remember the Five W’s, Plus an H

  • Who – the character
  • What – the problem
  • When and Where – the setting
  • Why – the purpose; the reason your character needs to solve the problem
  • How – the plot


  1. Backstory

What’s the point?  Your backstory exists to serve the story proper.

If story is character + setting + problem, how your character solves the problem is shaped by his backstory.  Plot rises from what your characters want and need.  Your backstory informs the characters in how they go about getting what they need, but it’s not a principal focus.

Backstory is context.  It exists to inform and give meaning to the plot.  Equal parts worldbuilding, characterization, and hindsight.  If you ignore your backstory, your character’s actions won’t feel true.

Characters in short fiction have no less backstory than do characters in novels.  You just can’t use it all.  You as the author have to be okay with that.

Backstory can–and most likely should–be cut when irrelevant to the plot.


  1. Endings

How many of you have a story and no idea how to end it?

If a story is about your character’s resolution of a problem, the ending can only go in one of two ways.  He succeeds, or he fails.  That’s it.  Everything else is a ripple or consequence of those two states.

The nature of the ending is inherent in the nature of the beginning.

The setting will inform the solution.

Knowing how your story ends in advance will help streamline your narrative flow and reduce word count, particularly in short fiction.

Ask yourself: What do you want your ending to accomplish?

The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it.  The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness.  It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.  The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.

If you don’t know what your ending will be, how do you know when you’ve arrived?



Orycon 38

I’ll be attending Orycon this coming Saturday and Sunday, November 19-20, with five panels and a reading.  (Friday will be spent roaming the streets of Portland looking for a protest to join, if the Trumpkins don’t outlaw them first.)  Here is my schedule:

Saturday Nov 19

1:00pm – Backstory: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

3:00pm – Short Stories, Novelettes, Novellas, and the Markets Who Love Them (moderator)

5:30pm – Reading: “Through the Looking Glass, Darkly”

8:00pm – Star Trek: Reboot (moderator)

Sunday Nov 20

10:00am – Endings: Cuddling with the Reader (moderator)

12:00pm – Revision: Path to Better Writing or Way to Never Finish?