Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Writing YA: Small Behaviors Add Up (a little more on showing intense emotions)

Last week I blogged about showing emotion through the pacing and organization of narration and characters' inner thoughts. This week, I've been reading the excellent Hold Still by Nina LaCour. It's about a girl grieving after her best friend's suicide. If you're looking for another example of thought disorganization as a demonstration of strong emotion, definitely check out this book. The first few pages in particular are beautifully instructive.

As I was reading this book, I noticed another technique the author uses to demonstrate the character's intense emotions:

Idiosyncratic behaviors.

Let me explain. Caitlin, the MC, begins the book with her response to the news of her best friend's death. And instead of saying, "OMG, I was so devastated," and screaming and crying, Caitlin does this:

But my hands are wild, they need to move, so I pick at a piece of the bench where the wood is splintering. I break a short nail on my right hand even shorter, but I manage to pull off a small piece of wood. I drop it into my cupped palm and pry off another ... My left hand is all the way full of wood now, and it's starting to spill over.
At another point, she does this:

I'm pulling the fake fur from the front seat covers even though I love them. I can't stop my fingers; white tufts are falling everywhere ... the backs of the seat covers are furless. My hand aches.
Whoa. Is this book about a kid with OCD? No! In these moments, the author is showing us just how deeply distressed Caitlin is by having her perform a seemingly purposeless, idiosyncratic behavior. Simple. Concrete. Fascinating. We're not being told Caitlin is crying/moping/sobbing/lamenting. We're being shown that there are things inside her, intense feelings, deep regrets, panic ... all screaming, growing, the pressure building up and ... it comes out in these behaviors. Something tangible. Something observable.

What I love about the way Ms. LeCour does this (there are many other wonderful examples in the book, in addition to it just being a great read) is that it's not expected. It's not stereotypical. It's not predictable. But, at the same time, it is BELIEVABLE.  And I understand. Without being told Caitlin is really, super-duper upset, I totally get it.

Because this is the way human beings actually behave. We don't always know or say exactly how we're feeling. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes it's not the right time to talk. Sometimes there's so much there that we can't even scream and cry. Sometimes that's just not the type of person we are. But sometimes, those emotions find their way to the surface through our random behaviors.

We pick at things. We move our bodies/fingers/toes/tongues in funny ways. We engage in odd activities and rituals, like scrubbing the dishes clockwise or counting the ceiling tiles. We touch ourselves in ways of which we're not even conscious (hey now, calm down), like tugging at our earlobes or pinching ourselves or pressing our fingers against a hard surface until the tips turn white. No matter what those behaviors are, they can be outlet valves, a pressure release. Things that keep us from exploding or collapsing or becoming completely catatonic. As writers, we can use that understanding to create 3-D characters. And we can use those idiosyncratic behaviors to make those characters stick with the reader long after he/she reads the last page.

How about your characters? How do you SHOW their intense emotions? How do you get beyond the basics--just saying "she was devastated" or "tears poured down her face" or "her head/heart pounded with grief"--and get to something deeper ... and maybe more basic? More believable? More demonstrative? Unique? UNPUTDOWNABLE?


  1. Since teens are emotional creatures by nature, it's important that YA writers really focus on this element in their novels to make the characters believable. And going deeper in how you show this makes a huge difference compared to just being told how the mc feels. We don't feel her pain when we're told she's devastated, and as readers, we want to feel all the character's emotions. It's why we keep reading.

    Great post!

  2. i guess i use these outward signs more often when writing in third person... but this new WIP that i'm having difficulty with is in first person, and i've been so focused on her train of thought- i've forgotten about what her body is doing unconsciously. so what i need to do is have her doing things without realizing it because her focus is split.. and then have her realize it. or focus completely on the fidget... hmmmm.... thanks! can i say again how much I LOVE YOUR BLOG!!! :)
    also, thanks for the new title! in this new proj, there is an element of the suicide of a close friend, and i haven't read any YA dealing with that- so! thanks! :)
    *adds HOLD STILL to tbr list*

  3. Great post. This is so true about YA and showing's so easy to make every character a drama queen, but subtle works better.

  4. Stine--Good point, and I think this is particularly true of YA contemporary, though it certainly makes the spec fic characters deeper as well.

    Aspiring_x--Yes! Def add Hold Still--it's a quick and fascinating read. And--you are SO sweet. It's kind of you to say, because I'm just finding my feet as a blogger.

    Demitria--Exactly as you say--sometimes less is more, and subtle is more powerful. When we're not hit over the head with it, sometimes it hits us right in the heart.

  5. Ooh, great post. I'm following these closely - my WIP involves a MC in a huge number of painful situations and I'm a bit hard-pressed to show in diffent ways for each one :O


  6. Oh, man. I might be in trouble! Apsiring_x's comment totally had me thinking about my new wip. I might have that same problem! Actions ... my MC needs actions. *runs back to read over wip* Sigh. Fail.


  7. I HAVE this book and can't believe I haven't read it. Great examples and suggestions about writing emotion. Now to check my wip . . . :)