Monday Challenge: Closing The Windows To The Soul

A male torso.

I’m sensing that you’re relaxed, but cold. Maybe you shouldn’t have waxed all your chest hair. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eyes are over-rated.

Not in the sense of seeing. I like doing that. But you ever read a book or a story where it seems like the author is obsessed with what people’s eyes are doing? They’re always looking, staring, glaring, squinting, rolling, narrowing, widening, falling out…

I know why it happens: we view eyes as the windows to the soul. In other words, they’re a shorthand for emotions. Narrowed eyes = skepticism. Glaring eyes = angry. Looking at something, looking away from something…we use eyes to shape expectations and emotions without having to come right out and say it. I’m just as guilty of doing this as anyone. Eyes are everywhere in my first drafts. You’d swear the characters are nothing more than a pair of floating eyeballs, drifting through the conflict, occasionally rolling in irritation.

But we’ve got a whole body to play with, so why are we so goddamn hung up on eyes? I draw a fair bit, and I can tell you that body language is just as useful when creating emotion as the pair of ocular orbs we’ve got stuck in the front of our heads. Shoulders, hands, legs, hips, backs, chins…they all advertise how we’re feeling. Even if we’re trying to hide it, the hiding advertises itself in its own tense, unnatural posture.

Today’s Monday Challenge: take a look at yourself right now. You’re standing/sitting/hovering in some way to read this, and it says something about your mind set. Interested? Bored?* Distracted? Curious? Take a hard look at your posture and how you feel. Where are your hands? Is your back straight, reclined, slumped? Weight on both feet? Shifting? Throat dry or tight? Shoulders tense or relaxed? Why?

Then write me your mindset without mentioning your eyes. Convey the feeling to me with the language of the other parts of your body. Stretch yourself a little bit.**

Ready? Go.

*I hope not, but, you know, I’m not judging.
**Your skills, not your body. Unless you’ve been sitting for a while. Then, yeah, maybe get up and move around a little.

Hurts So Good: Writing Pain

Black eye (orbicular bruise). Crop and Rotatio...

Research: it ain’t pretty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The simplest things can often be the hardest to write well. I already did a post on writing sex, but there’s another common one that trips up writers: pain.

Your characters are going to get hurt. The essence of story is conflict, and conflict generally means someone will get fucked up. Depending on your genre, it might be physical pain or emotional, but I’m going to concern myself with physical for the moment. Even if your characters suffer nothing worse than a paper cut, it’s still worth knowing how to do right because pain is universal. It crosses barriers, whether gender, geographic, cultural, or species.

But how do you write it? It’s something we’ve all experienced, unless we’re bubble people. Even then, I bet the bubble chafes occasionally. How do you take something that is fundamentally physical and translate it in a meaningful way to an imaginative intellectual medium? Fucking hard, right?

I take comfort in the fact that this is something that even established writers mess up. The missteps that I’ve read seem to fall in one of two categories:
1. The Cop-Out: the character passes out or is otherwise absent during painful events. Or the scene ends. Also known as the cut away or fade to black. It can be useful, especially if you’re trying to create a foreboding sense of horror, but it’s used too much as an escape from something either the writer didn’t want to write, or was unable to.
2. The Torture Porn: And here’s the other end of the spectrum. Every moment of pain is described in exhaustive detail.* The idea is to create sympathy for the character in pain, but instead it bores. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks, “Oh dear, another spleen’s hit the floor, how dull” when I read this shit.

So, what do you do? I’ve been giving this some thought lately**, and I think I’ve come up with something. When the pain comes along for my characters***, I combine physical cues and emotional aspects. And of these two, the emotions are more important. After all, most of my readers probably don’t know what it’s like to be locked in a basement with a guy who wants to cut you to pieces. But we all know helplessness. We all know fear. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped and desperate and willing to do anything to get out of there.

Those emotions are the way to connect with the reader. Add enough detail to make it real: the way a bruise stiffens after a while, the feeling of dried blood, the smell of sweat. But use those to illustrate the emotional aspects of the character in that situation.

The idea of pain is that we should find out what the character is made of. We should find out if, in extremity, they break or they rise.

*Sometimes erroneous detail, as well. I will say this once and once only: no one experiences brain pain. There are no pain receptors in the brain.
**One of the unforeseen problems when you write fucked-up stuff: logistics. You have to hit someone how hard to make their liver rupture?
***And it does. ‘Cause apparently I’m a bastard.

Cuts Like Broken Glass: Using Setting

Ashtray I

You mean you don’t evaluate all your surroundings based on the damage they could cause? Huh. (Photo credit: Domiriel)

Setting too often gets overlooked in discussions about writing. Plot and character get all the attention and the money and the women/men/transsexuals/others. Maybe because it’s hard to get excited about setting in the same way. It’s easier to tell people about this amazing character you’ve created, who is both a hobo* and a superhero, and rescues lost kittens and must drink the souls of the living to survive. The sewage outflow where he lives, on the other hand…

But setting can be powerful, so why give it half measure? Writing’s all about fighting the reader’s apathy, and if you’re not going to use every tool at your disposal, you’re probably going to lose. Think of setting as the glass ashtray in a bad bar fight: not the most obvious choice of weapon, but, goddamn, can it do some damage if you use it right.

And that’s the key: using it right. I’ve read books with exhaustive setting detail—a common sign that the writer was afflicted with World-Builder’s Disease—that actually made me skip past pages to get back to the story. And I’ve read others where everything might as well have been happening in the fucking white void I do all my rough sketches in when I can’t be arsed to draw a background. And, much like those drawings, the book feels lazy. Feels like the author couldn’t be arsed to write a setting.

The trick, in my utterly biased opinion, is to tie setting to emotion and plot. Not that obvious B-movie shit**, where fog mysteriously springs up whenever something bad is about to happen, or it rains when someone is depressed. Again, lazy. But spaces reflect the character’s feelings about both the plot events that have taken place there and the way they fit—or don’t—within those walls. A bright, spacious apartment that invokes feelings of rage because it was where the character’s ex-husband beat her so badly she had to paint the walls to cover the bloodstains so she could get the damage deposit back when she moved. The corner office that feels uncomfortably big, like when the new owner of it used to put on his now-deceased father’s coats as a kid. The rough, dingy backstreet bar, full of bikers and petty criminals and people that you don’t look at too hard, that feels like a haven because it’s one of only two places in the city she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else.

Use it right, and setting gives you that broken glass edge, the one that cuts deep into your reader and makes them bleed for those characters. And, let’s face it, writers love to make people bleed.

*Does anyone use this word anymore? I just realized I haven’t heard it in some time except in my own head. Usually with The Littlest Hobo song playing in the background. Annnd now that’s in my head for the next week. Well done, brain.
**Not that I don’t love B-movies for their own somewhat dubious charms. But the overuse of the fog machine is not one of them.