Emotions on and off the Page
Emotions manifest in a dual sense in fiction. The characters emote, while readers empathize with or reject the passions expressed on the page as they read. Thus, emotion is a tool that writers must wield sagely at all times regardless of their genre. Roland Barthes, who wrote Le Plaisir du Texte (translated as The Pleasure of the Text), delineated the difference between what he called readerly and writerly texts. He explains that the former elicits pleasure for the reader because it is simply pleasant to read. The latter stimulates “juouissance” (intense pleasure) which in French means intense pleasure at the intellectual, moral, physical, or material levels. For example, reading gives the reader the pleasure of knowing and learning. Figuring out the meanings or understories of the text is satisfying to the reader. Reading the text may give the reader sensual pleasure. Or the book itself may give the reader the pleasure of possession. Thus, from Barthes’ analysis, the writerly text is more stimulating than is the readerly text because it operates at different levels. Something unexpected in a writerly text forces the reader to engage more deeply. Writers then are challenged to create an emotional tenor in their stories that grabs the reader’s attention while stimulating them to think or react sensually. The intensity may be experienced by the protagonists themselves or the emotional tenor of the story could be inherent in the plot or the genre of the novel itself.
Emotions in Different Genres
As I have thought about different genres, I realized they can be divided by the emotions they elicit. The major genres are mythology (awe), tragedy (grief), fantasy (wonder), mystery (intrigue), adventure (excitement), and science fiction (astonishment).
Because mythology is a sacred form that features gods and goddesses who engage in exemplary or sometimes terrifying deeds, the characters exhibit awe, fear, guilt, regret, power, anger, or human frailty. The reader’s experience tends to reflect the characters’ experience with the addition of a sense of injustice at humans’ defenselessness—imagine being raped by a swan!
Tragedies tell the tale of human suffering. The characters usually have a human flaw that begins their demise. They express strong emotions such as hatred, jealousy, lust, anger or in the case of Antigone, love for her brothers. Their readers experience horror at what happens, sadness at the death of the innocent, and repulsion directed at the villain.
In fantasy just about anything can happen because magic exists. The fantasy world is created rather than realistic. The emotions vary depending on the storyline. The characters experience love and hate, fear and joy, the excitement of adventure or the boredom of home. The fantasy novelist must be able to stimulate readers’ suspension of disbelief. For it to work, the readers must happily tumble, like Alice, into a setting with characters that are not real and a world that is not possible. The emotions the readers experience tend to reflect those of the characters, even as they remind themselves, “Well this isn’t really real.” In a good fantasy, the reader’s reading pleasure results from delight with the wonder of the fantasy world itself.
Mysteries require that the author provide a hook to grab the reader’s attention. They also have to involve the reader actively in trying to solve the mystery, while throwing in misleading clues to throw the reader off track. The intrigue of mystery creates suspense. The reader must identify with the protagonist enough to be anxious or worried about what is going to happen, literally holding their breath as threats or dangers come to a climax. The reader must enjoy the same physical release as Sherlock when then the mystery is solved. Thus, the mystery seems to hold the elements of a writerly text in the ways that it engages the reader’s thought process, even though it might not engage literary critics in the same way.
In novels that fit into the genre of adventure, the characters take action. They do things that normal folks don’t engage in; there are ups and downs. They experience some type of trauma but manage to survive. The characters’ emotions rise and fall in line with their adventures, moving from calm to excitement, from excitement to worry, from worry to terror, from terror to achievement, and finally relief.
I just read an adventure novel that falls into a new genre—climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow by Bill Liggett, the heroine is a woman scientist who discovers an unlikely occurrence high on a glacier. Because of the setting and the threats of global warming, exciting adventures and traumatic deaths occur. It seems to me that most adventures would fall under Barthes readerly texts label because they are a pleasant read. However, cli-fi definitely stimulates the reader to consider how to solve current climate issues so it may move into the writerly realm.
As a genre, science fiction creates an unknown world in which all aspects of society—gender, roles, technology, biology, finance—operate differently than in our daily lives. However, in science fiction emotion tends to work similarly to other genres. The characters experience emotions in reaction to the world around them or as in Star Trek, some characters, Data, for example, do not experience or understand human emotions at all because they are robots or cyborgs or some type of alien. The reader experiences many emotions including astonishment, surprise, delight, disgust, horror, or even disbelief. I do think the attraction of science fiction, if it is well written, is related to Barthes discussion of the writerly text. It does make the reader think. It forces the reader to react. I recall reading Wool by Hugh Howey. It triggered an incredible range of emotions in me—most of which were on the dark emotional side. The situation in the story was horrifying, which brings me to the question of what does emotion have to do with plot.
Emotion and Plot
In Wool, I think the plot drove my emotions. People were trapped physically because they were unaware of the reality of their situation. Emotionally some characters were resigned; others rebelliously tried to get out. Their rebellion drives the plot while drawing the reader along. The plot creates a sense of claustrophobia in the reader, so the reader experiences deeply what the characters experience. Wool adds a whole new meaning to Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the “man in hole” plotline!
Clarifying the Genre of My Novel
Curiously, I am not intrigued by writing in any of the genres discussed above. Although I think any good read has a bit of each in it. The book I am working on seems to fall under the category of literary fiction, although I don’t know if I can achieve a literary complexity of writing. It is a modern Bildungsroman about a young woman coming into her own.
Based on my experience, I would add a third level to the discussion of emotions: the emotion of the writer as she writes. I read somewhere if the story makes the author cry when she writes it, it is likely to make the reader cry. What this means to me is that the story must above all have a sense of authenticity. The emotions that fill its pages must be unavoidable. The novelist really must do something besides stare at her own navel. The story must be engaging enough to stimulate the reader’s plaisir du texte.
As I edit my draft this year, that will be my challenge—to make sure that as a writer I infuse the text with authentic scenes, while drawing the reader into my characters’ lives. I want my readers to laugh, to cry, and to rise to the challenges that occur in their own lives as my main character does.
Writing Goals for 2019
This year my goals are to:
- Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019. For the month of January, I had the delightful company of my daughter and grandson which kept me busy. I decided to continue reworking my outline to assure that the storyline unfolds without repetition or without skipping something important. I had to split a couple of chapters. I also deleted one unnecessary part. I woke up last night dreaming I was writing a new story which is a pretty good signal from my brain that I need to get back to my writing. I’m finding the pull between creativity and paying attention to the structure to be a challenge.
- Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019. I have the first draft of my outline done, but it has holes. I don’t have the complete flow of the story in mind so I feel a bit as though I am playing chess: moving the players around to see in which directions they can move.
- Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019. This is my second blog of 2019—typing that date still makes my heart stop. I cannot believe we are already 19 years into the 21st century. Blogging for me continues to be a learning experience. It also helps me keep tabs on my progress.
- Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing. My networking in 2018 was fruitful. I am now sitting on the Steering Committee of the Boulder Writers Alliance. My job is to help with programming and to give input into the strategic plan. I also joined a second BWA small group of writers who analyze a novel each month. It has already helped me analyze my own writing even though I have attended only two sessions.