Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.

What do you think?

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