Never Say You Can’t Survive: Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion – tor.com

Posted: August 28, 2020 at 6:01 am


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Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction bookand Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Cant Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but its also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.

Below is the fourteenth chapter, Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion. You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!

Every Pixar movie Ive ever seen has made me cry like a molly-soaked debutante. I was lucky enough to visit Pixar HQ in Emeryville, where I bought a limited-edition T-shirt of Bing Bong from Inside Out. But Ive hardly ever worn that shirt, because it still makes me shed enough tears to fill a jumbo popcorn bucket.

But the main thing I kept hearing at Pixar was how much every single moment of their films gets poked and prodded and questioned and reworked, to make sure it holds up. Because even the most apparently simple moment of heartbreak or squee requires a ton of second-guessing and careful thought.

The longer Ive been making up random stories, the more I feel like I can never really get the emotions right on the firstor even secondpass. My first drafts are usually just a bunch of events, in the rough order that I think they happen in. I have to go back and keep digging deeper, and paying closer attention, to get the feels right. Its just way too easy for me to fool myself into thinking that Ive written a vivid emotional moment, when in fact Ive written a weaksauce early-90s-video-game cut scene.

And the revision process, for me, is all about turning the fake emotion of the first draft into something real. Something that other people can (hopefully) get sucked into. This is one reason I share my work with a small army of beta readers and sensitivity readers and the bison in Golden Gate Park before I inflict it on my editors: to catch any fakery early. (Those bison are a super insightful audience, I read to them as often as I can.)

Why is it so hard to get real emotion on the page? Theres this layer of distance between you and the thing youre writing that can only be bridged by a lot of concentration and self-awareness and daydreaming and zoning out and trying to get into character. (Because like I said, writing is acting.) You always have the ideal version of any story in your head, and its vivid and operatic and huge and colorful. And then you try to write it down, and itsa jumble of things happening and people talking, and where did that lush musical score go, anyway?

Gut-checking your big emotional moments can be an essential part of getting lost in your own story. Which is important, if youre writing stories as a way of holding yourself together while youre stuck in the eye of a landfill tornado.

As with everything else to do with writing, there could be any number of reasons why the emotions arent showing up the way you want them to. But there are a few major ways to catch undercooked moments: 1) Spending more time on the events leading up to them. 2) Concentrating on the little details. 3) Understanding what really pushes your characters buttons.

I sometimes outline stories and novels before I start writingbut I will always make a very detailed outline after Ive already written a complete draft. And sometimes again, after the second draft.

I do this for a bunch of reasons. Like, I want to make sure all of the big plot points hold water. (One fun trick: try outlining the whole thing backwards, from the end to the beginning, and stick the word because in between each big event. This happens, because this happens, because) Ill also outline from the point of view of the antagonist, or a supporting character, to see if these events make sense from their point of view.

But the main reason for outlining after I write is to figure out what the big emotional beats are. And then to make sure that the rest of the story actually supports them. I can look at those beats holistically and see them in the context of the rest of the story.

Even when Ive outlined meticulously before I started writing, I might not know for sure what the most crucial moments are on the first go-round. I dont always know the exact order things need to happen in, because little things always shift around. All too often, that little scene that I thought was just filler turns out to be the last time that two characters get a chance to talk to each other before something huge and terrible (or awesome) happens. Or even more often, I realize theres a scene missing, and two people need to talk before theyre thrown into the deep end.

Meanwhile, I cant always get the emotions down pat until I know how the characters are gonna end upbecause part of the purpose of these heartfelt moments is to justify and set up the decisions theyre going to make. If I know that one person stabs (or kisses) another, then I need to give them some juicy interactions before that happens.

Another way of looking at it: these emotional beats are the heart of the story, and everything else is the connective tissue that makes them work. If your story is a piece of music, the most heartfelt or intense moments are the melodic hook, and all the other moments are the bassline, the drums, the keyboard and horn-fills. And possibly the strings, if youre going old-school. All the parts of the story help to build a moodand that mood, in turn, helps make the smooching or processing or fighting possible.

Its really about tracking the relationships between these characters, so you can find the turning points and the defining moments between them.

The bigger the emotion youre trying to evoke, the more attention you need to pay to the smallest details. This is true in two different ways: each moment needs to be grounded in real sensory details, and there need to be small clues and tiny barely-noticeable moments leading up to a huge emotional climax.

The texture of reality is made out of small, often random, details. Its weird what tiny things youll notice when your emotions are working overtime: you might be in the middle of a relationship-ending fight with your partner, but your eye might land on a tiny candy wrapper on the sidewalk, being scooted forward by the wind. Or you might be intensely aware of the smell of sweat and craft beer from a nearby nightclub. Or you might find yourself remembering a broken shoelace from a pair of shoes you owned a dozen years ago.

Incidentally, smells are awesome. Nothing anchors you to a particular moment in time like a really powerful scent. There are smells that can instantly transport me back in time, or put me in a particular mindset, without any other sensory input.

And people are really prone to projecting huge emotions onto random tiny objects. Maybe its because you cant wrap your mind around the vastness of what youre feeling, but one way or another, little touchstones and cultural references gain emotional significance over time. These items might be connected to a particular person, like the song you used to listen to together, or they could just evoke a particular sentiment that then leads to someone else.

Theres one Earth, Wind & Fire song that I can still never listen to without thinking of someone I broke up with many years ago. And my home is littered with tiny objects that take me back to singing in a church choir as a kid, or living in Asia, or working for indie queer publications as an editorial grunt.

People also tend to deflect their emotions in other ways, too. Someone might be really pissed that their bae ditched them at a nightclub to go snort coke in a graveyard, but they might only get openly angry about the way their bae slurps their soup. Or a person might not be able to express the scope of their gratitude or love for another person, so they might just lavish way too much praise on that persons shoes. You can offset a lot of the awkwardness of capturing emotion in fiction by using the awkwardness of expressing emotion in real life.

Theres also the common trick of showing someones emotions by describing the thing theyre looking at through their eyes. A character can stare at the exact same wall, and the bricks might look dirty and crumbling, or bright red and homey, depending on the emotions they bring to it.

You can also use tiny, barely noticeable moments to keep emotions simmering before they finally reach a full boil. They dont even have to feel like a slow ratcheting up of tension. As Ive said before, I like putting two characters together and just deepening the content, and the subtext, of their interactions, until I (and hopefully any eventual readers) want to see whats going to happen with them. A random scene of two people debating grapefruits versus tangerines can deepen my investment in their dynamic, if their personalities are on display.

When Im revising, I wont just outline over and overIll also do a feels pass, in which I go through scene by scene, and really think about the emotion that Im trying to convey. How do my characters feel at this point in the story? Whats actually going through their heads, and how is the emotion hitting them?

The most potent reactions are both psychological and physiological. Which is another way of saying that a really strong emotion hits you in both your head and your guts.

I dearly love characters who overthink things, and Im always here for a ranting inner monologue. As a neurotic overthinker and secret introvert, I naturally identify with people who are in their own head a lot. And I love wry ironic asides, too. So when someone is feeling something, I dont just want to get a sense of inchoate emotionI bond with characters who are thinking through what theyre feeling in the moment, or immediately afterwards.

Like if a first-person narrator is like, I thought falling in love would be like drinking ten milkshakes, but its actually more like drinking a gallon of expired cough syrup. Im light-headed and nauseous and my insides are all pink.

Theres an unspoken taboo against characters just coming out and saying what theyre feelingbecause its often too flat, or too matter-of-fact, to say, I was really angry. That sounds like a robot describing human emotions. But when a character has had a strong internal monologue, or a lot of self-awareness, then hearing their inner voice saying, this sucks, or this isnt fair, or I didnt think I could ever be this happy, packs a lot of power. Were privy to what theyre telling themself about this incredible feeling theyre having.

As for the physiologicalI already mentioned feeling nauseous and light-headed. Strong emotions live in your body as much as your mind. When Ive been really pissed, Ive actually felt overheated and like my head was full of noise. When I get ashamed, my face actually feels hot.

When I was a kid, I found a book at a yard sale called Ann Landers Talks to Teenagers About Sex. And it contained an amazing letter in which a kid named Randy writes to Ann Landers about his insane crush on a girl named Dottie. When he looked at Dottie, he got weak in the knees and light-headed. He lost all appetite and sweated constantly. The punchline: It wasnt love at all. It was the flu. I always think about Randys faux-mance when I write about people feeling romantic passions.

So when I go back and try to add more intensity to the emotions in a scene, during revisions, Ill think about the psychological and physiological stuff. Ill also try to see past my own hang-ups. I love my characters and want them to have a smooth ride, so Ill invariably make them nicer to each other, and calmer in the face of extreme shit, than they actually would be. And Ill frequently fail to think about what the characters know, what they believe, and what theyre hoping and fearing at this point in the story.

[Minor spoilers for The City in the Middle the Night follow]

In The City in the Middle of the Night, Bianca thinks that Sophie is dead, until Sophie suddenly shows up to warn her of a betrayal. In the first few versions of that scene, I had Bianca understand the situation instantaneously. She knew right away that Sophie had faked her death and hidden the truth from Bianca. But when I thought more about it, I realized that Bianca, based on the information she had, would assume that Sophie had been imprisoned this whole time.

When I thought this through more clearly from Biancas perspective, her reaction was suddenly a lot more naturaland jumping to the wrong conclusion made the truth hit her harder.

Like I said last week, my characters are usually more selfish than the judgy part of my brain thinks they should be.

I was on a writing panel a few years ago with Curtis Chen, author of the Kangaroo series, and he offered a great tip: if you really want to get better at writing strong emotions, read a ton of romance novels. Not only are romance novels some of the best reads out there, theyre a masterclass in feels.

And dont be afraid to show people being sappy and shmoopy and even cutesy. Otherwise, your writing is just plain unrealisticbecause in real life, when people are under unbelievable pressure, they get gushy and demonstrative af. People who are in deep shit up to their armpits will just pour their hearts out to each other, and they usually dont stop to think about whether some critic on the other side of the third wall is going to complain about too much sweetness.

Likewise, joy is an essential part of your emotional palette. People who feel rage and misery but not joy tend to be kind of a slog to deal with, and the worst emotions hit harder if weve seen characters being actually happy and delighted at other times. Especially if something good actually happens, or things are looking up, or were discovering something new and wonderful. Dont forget: a roller-coaster has to go up as well as down, or its just a road with a sharp gradient.

Charlie Jane Anders latest novel isThe City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. Shes also the author ofAll the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, andChoir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella calledRock Manning Goes For Brokeand a short story collection calledSix Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com,Boston Review,Tin House,Conjunctions,The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,Wiredmagazine,Slate,Asimovs Science Fiction,Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA,Catamaran Literary Review,McSweeneys Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthlyWriters With Drinksreading series, and co-hosts the podcastOur Opinions Are Correctwith Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.

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Never Say You Can't Survive: Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion - tor.com

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August 28th, 2020 at 6:01 am

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