Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Swing For the Fences

by Sophie

I have a strong memory of being told by an exasperated parent that I was “too emotional.” It was a liability that turned out to be impossible to shake, but luckily, I only had to invest about four decades in the struggle to figure out that it has one salubrious side effect: a free pass to the heart of genre fiction.

I like stories that make me feel things. I like to have my emotions stimulated and tested, stretched and wrung dry, and since I’m overburdened in that department, it takes truly compelling character work to make a dent on me.

And I like crime fiction because it’s the perfect vehicle for the job.

Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea that the most powerful human emotions are longing and horror, that all other emotions build from there.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" - his character's longing fuels all his impulses, criminal and otherwise

Every genre depends on these for emotional tenor. But when you combine them in one story, you intensify the experience by more than a factor of two. Play the attraction off the repulsion and if you do it right, you seize the reader’s attention at the most visceral level.

Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie - played by Casey Affleck in "Gone Baby Gone" - is driven by an emotional cocktail of guilt, longing, despair, revenge...Lehane knows how to stack the deck

One way to look at crime is the buildup of a need to a tipping point. It can be as simple as hunger driving the theft of food, but the more personal you make the need backstory, the more compelling the result.

Revenge crimes are a particular interest of mine. When you deprive a character of something longed for, or take away something held dear, they will be motivated to react to the extent of how strongly-felt the loss is.

Liam Neeson in "Taken" - a man with everything on the line

Said another way, the more you take from a character, without extinguishing his humanity, the more forcefully he will have to react to restore equilibrium.

That’s why we have so many heroes who show up on page one having lost their woman and child, who have nothing less to lose. (Which would be fine, except it’s unoriginal, and that’s a whole other discussion for another day.)

In a call for submissions for an anthology he was editing several years ago, author Craig McDonald wrote:

 “Swing for the fences…Gut-shoot me and/or break my heart, because, tonight, I just want to feel something.”

I’ve had that exhortation taped up above my computer ever since: aspiring crime writers can do far worse for a rallying cry.


Kelli Stanley said...

Cool post, Sophie! :) I love the thoughtful ruminations on emotion and what key desires play the motivators in transgressive behavior ...

It also reminded me of a couple of lines from Out of the Past (1947):

"My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them."

and of course:

"Build my gallows high, baby."

The film is based on the book "Build My Gallows High", and is the perfect noir paradigm--a must see!! :)



Jen Forbus said...

"I like stories that make me feel things. I like to have my emotions stimulated and tested, stretched and wrung dry, and since I’m overburdened in that department, it takes truly compelling character work to make a dent on me. "

Wow! Exactly! I was trying to explain to Craig Johnson why KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED was my favorite Walt Longmire book and I couldn't get the words to come out right; I should have had you speak for me, Sophie!

I just kept smiling and nodding through this whole post. I couldn't agree more. Thanks!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh, Jen, thanks so much - your words meant a lot to me. When I bare my soul like that, I sometimes worry I've been a little bit too...unfiltered? But I love it when I find like minded people. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post, Sophie! I tried to explain to my brother once how his daughter's tears, very quick to come and go, weren't "crocodile" but merely of the moment. Nobody ever believes the maiden aunt about these things!

Swing for the fences, exploit the hell out of your premise, tell the hell out of your hard to actually DO sometimes, when all we want is validation. But the only way to make fiction that resonates across time and cultures is the scare the dickens out of ourselves, to tell the story we are afraid to write. That's my new theory.

Unknown said...

oops, that's "to scare the dickens" should have done one more proof :)

Shane Gericke said...

Being too emotional is not a vice, but a virtue, in my opinion. As a writer, you can't transmit strong feelings unless you have them yourself. Readers inevitably know when you're cheating, just writing the words you think will evoke, instead of feeling them as you write.

If I find myself misting up while writing a tough rescue scene, for instance, I know that scene will be dandy for readers. Not that I ever mist up, dammit. I'm just sayin'.

I'm having a tooth yanked tomorrow, so I might not be on much till later in the afternoon. (Reminds me of the classic Three Stooges short where Curly has to have his tooth yanked, so Moe ties his molar to a doorknob ...) Hope to see y'all online then.

Cool part will be writing my Friday blog while on narcotic painkillers. Better living through chemistry ...