Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Crime Writing

The opinion, The Shadow of Violence, by Jane Casey appears in the winter 2019 edition of The Author. Ms Casey is the author of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels.  Her most recent novel is Let the Dead Speak.

Jane Casey

Ms Casey takes exception to the Staunch Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, screenwriter and author of educational material on violence.  The prize is awarded to books that do not feature violence against women.  Ms Lawless says the purpose of the award is to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women, and make sense for exciting alternatives.

Ms Casey says, “Our genre may frequently feature murderous rage, but crime writers are renowned as a calm, close-knit and pleasant literary collective.  It takes a lot to get us agitated; we generally work through our darker feelings in our books.  Yet nothing has stirred us up more than the Staunch Prize.  The reaction of many crime writers has ranged from scepticism to hurt to actual outrage.  Crime writers are defensive.  Crime is a genre that struggles for critical respect, despite brilliant and inventive writing and enormous popularity with readers.  The Staunch Prize feels like a response to the bad old days when crime was thought of as low-grade and vulgar entertainment, designed to titillate and thrill, devoid of any merit.

“At a recent literary festival ion London, I suggested that it is the duty of writers who write contemporary crime novels to reflect society as it is at that moment.  We live in a state of perpetual change; what appals one generation barely ruffles the feathers of the next.  Universal crimes – the ones that echo through the generations – are crimes against people.  These stories are as old as time; not telling then does not make them go away.  Telling stories about these crimes to a new audience has an important function: this is part of the world and it must be understood like any other threat to our safety and well being.

“The Staunch Prize website asserts that through their work, crime writers are perpetuating rape myths.”  (The rape myth, based on academic research, is that jurors are reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men of rape because such men do not fit the idea of rapists that jurors have internalised from stories and popular culture.)  She continues, “But contemporary crime writers, I would argue, no longer perpetuate the myth that only ‘stranger rape’ is ‘real rape’. We do the opposite.

“With the rise of the domestic noir genre of psychological thriller, crime-writing has moved inside the home to focus on exactly those behaviours that the Staunch Prize suggests it obscures.  Gaslighting, emotional abuse, coercive control, domestic violence, rape: all of these are real crimes that affect women (and often men) behind closed doors.  Exploring them in fiction is a way of placing them in context for victims and those of us in society who have never had to endure similar experiences – even, eventually jurors.

“A 2013 study by psychologists at York University in Toronto found that reading two genres in particular was a significant predictor of greater ‘interpersonal sensitivity’ – romance and suspense/thrillers.  Reading crime makes us more empathetic rather than blunting our sensibilities.  A 2010 Harris poll found that crime and thrillers were the most popular novels for both men and women, with 57% off female readers enjoying them (compared to 39% of male readers).”

As a footnote: Dorothy, a junior doctor, in my novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, is raped by her supervisor, a senior consultant.  She goes public, winning public support, forcing the resignation of the consultant, who flees the country, and a financial settlement.

Creative Writing Tips

The Writer’s Relief website has some worthwhile points about making the best use of one’s writing skills.  I have extracted some of the best points be]ow.

Sentence Length: Today’s reader tends to favour short sentence lengths—clear and direct writing rather than flowery, convoluted prose. It’s a busy world full of information, and simple, easy-to-read sentences with powerful verbs are appealing. Sentence length can have an enormous effect on your readers.  An example of effectively using short, powerful sentences to create an impact can be found in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved.  But this paragraph, from A Farewell to Arms, shows Ernest Hemingway’s skill with more complex construction, giving the reader a sense of the character’s languor:  They left me alone and I lay in bed and read the papers awhile, the news from the front, and the list of dead officers with their decorations and then reached down and brought up the bottle of Cinzano and held it straight up on my stomach, the cool glass against my stomach, and took little drinks making rings on my stomach from holding the bottle there between drinks, and watched it get dark outside over the roofs of the town.

More Powerful Verbs: He ran through the crowd. I didn’t like my coffee.  These phrases might come off as emphatic when they’re uttered in conversation. But when text is our medium, the primary way we can emphasise the tone of the words is by making stronger word choices, like this: He sprinted through the crowd.  I hated my coffee.  Sometimes amping up a verb requires restructuring a sentence: He darted among the pedestrians. My coffee nauseated me.  And other times the verb choice will need to reflect a character’s dialect or personality:  He bullied his way through the crowd. I’m not relishing my coffee.  One other “problem area” to work on when you’re ramping up your verb choices is the dreaded adverb. Overusing adverbs is the equivalent of trying to do crunches by pushing yourself up with your hands—it’s a way of “helping” the main action, but it makes the results less dramatic. Sometimes adverbs are absolutely necessary, but when you can get rid of them, you should.

Unusual Words: Examples of creative word usage abound in The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This novel is first set in Paris on the brink of World War II. The young Jewish protagonist, Andras, learns he must quit school and return to his home in Hungary. He’s bummed out. When he gets to Hungary, he thinks, “Budapest was cobwebbed with memories…”  Most of us think of the word cobweb as a noun. “Look at those cobwebs! That corner is full of cobwebs!” However, Merriam-Webster notes a lesser-known usage of cobwebbed as an adjective. Few of us would say, “Look at that cobwebbed corner.” It feels awkward.  But in Ms. Orringer’s hands, cobwebbed is a revelation. Could she have written that Budapest was full of memories? Of course.  But cobwebbed is so much more powerful and evocative of Andras’s frame of mind. First, cobwebbed is more visual than full. Second, it’s more specific. Third, it evokes age—something forgotten, despairing, and maybe a touch repulsive. It also provides some eerie foreshadowing for what could, and does, happen to this young man during the Holocaust.

Setting: The settings or locales of books, stories, and poems can be just as important as characters, plot, and prose style in making a creative work bloom.  Does your story or book have a setting that comes to life? That is a character in and of itself?   In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s renowned 1884 novel, the Mississippi River and its environs come alive under the magical pen of Twain—a pre-Civil War pilot on that waterway. Twain contrasts the beauty of the Mississippi’s southern portion with the racism, scamming, and other not-so-beautiful things that happen in and near there. But the river is also a place to have fun—and for Jim to possibly find freedom from slavery.

Point of View:  Point of view can be defined as the narrative perspective from which a story or novel is told. Many editors and publishers will tell you that a novel written from the first person point of view (I, we) is often a sign of an inexperienced writer, and—toss!—into the trash it goes. Check your local bookstore and take note of how many best-sellers are written in first person. They exist, but novels are far more often written in third-person narrative, and for good reason. In first person, the character is also the narrator, either playing a central (active) role or a peripheral (sideline) part. As the first-person narrator, you have but one point of view to offer, and this can be limiting. There’s simply less opportunity to bring depth to the story. On the other hand, a first-person narrative creates an undeniable intimacy with the reader.  The second person point of view is a difficult and uncommon style to pull off successfully. Imagine an entire novel where the character, narrator, or even the reader is referred to as “you.”  Often considered an experimental form, this type of narrative would be nearly impossible to sustain through a full-length novel and would be more successful in a short piece.  Storytelling from a third person point of view (he, she) offers a clear distinction between the author and the characters, allowing the author complete freedom to travel through the story and its characters. The narrator is not a character and can therefore comment on every aspect if so desired.  There are several alternatives to the third person point of view: the omniscient point of view, where the narrator is all-knowing; the limited point of view, where the narrator knows only one character; and the objective point of view, where the narrator offers no opinions or value judgements.  Once you’ve chosen your point of view, consistency is a matter of importance. Switching POVs can cause confusion for the reader and interrupt the flow of the story. If you do choose to use multiple POVs, make it obvious when a new character takes over the storytelling.