Tag Archives: emotion in fiction

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

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How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

24 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's story, "Madrid," is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” was published by StoryFront and is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his new collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can buy the story for $1 here.

How the Story Works

The story is about a son who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

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