Character ‘interiority’ and clichéd physical reactions

The Big Peat

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I think Harebrain is onto something here. I am a particularly big believer that physical reactions most commonly used for Show tend to either fall into cliched and in their own way telling - their presence means I know exactly how the author wants me to feel - or are straining for creativity so much that they don't really work. Obviously these physical reactions have their place, but I'm increasingly believing they can't be used for the heavy lifting. Maybe they should be coup de graces (I saw one author on twitter talking about how they use "let out the breath they didn't know they were holding all through the first draft", then strip out all but one from the final draft).

To use a non-YAish example, I've been going over Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy again recently. Chapter Twenty is one of the tensest chapters in the book. You have to get a long way in before the PoV character there refers to feeling tense or nervous in any way about what he's doing (although he has some negative thoughts about the instructions he heard, given mildly flashback, and about his love life, indicating in a sideways manner he's not super calm). The first moment of tension?

"Momentary panic. Take the file with me or leave it? What do I usually do? He left it on the desk."

I'm not sure the Tell right at the start is needed, but I think showing the character asking himself questions is very effective as a way of showing internal tension (not to mention it adds an extra element of character development and allows us to track the physical action). And those questions and internal comments are the main way of showing his tension and even when he does use physical tells (thrice in the entire chapter) he still puts it in the same internal commentary for consistency (which I think Jo does with the second half of the highlighted sentence in the Bunny's example but not the first) which a) makes it all flow smoother b) allows for modifying the examples to keep them fresh, as you've got the character voice and they can make up their own exaggerated versions of themselves c) means you can tuck in a little more character building.

I'd consider what Le Carre is doing to more or less fit into interiority as HB is describing. We are in the PoV character's interior thoughts and that is giving us the majority of the tension from his questions, his distracted thought processes, his checking of the time, and so on. And that the "Momentary Panic" and "My hand is shaking all over the page" are mostly crowning moments and used to affirm the feelings we're getting.

I'd also add that the risk in using stuff like "the hairs rose on the back of his neck" to show someone is scared in these circs rather than the interior thoughts with that as the crowing moment is that it is basically a tell. We know the code. You're telling us to believe this character is scared. And if you haven't persuaded the reader that the character should be scared of the circs, you've lost a little trust. Using the interior thoughts can help. Maybe not the only way, but it makes a lot of sense.

Those are my off the cuff thoughts anyway.

I'd add that a similar focus on the interior thoughts and questions can be seen in the opening scene in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and echoes the way some of Tolkien's descriptions were less focused on what the characters saw, and what they felt on seeing it - which has the signal effect that we can fill it in with our own, more evocative, internal descriptions.
 

HareBrain

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However if you don't put those physical cliche's in there somewhere then you have a shopping list of reasons with no physical reaction what so ever. The reader ends up with confusion; gosh that's quite a list of things; but i've no idea if he's happy or sad and will or will not miss all of that.
But I think this is answered by the excellent example you gave earlier:

Now the Show:
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and rearranging the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Clearly, he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t about to make it easy for him.

The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.

Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. “JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”

JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed from the office.
Her emotions are absolutely clear here, but from her thoughts/feelings and then her external actions, not a description of physical emotional reaction (the possible exception is "as she lightened her grip on it", but that's actually backing off from from a previous, undescribed emotional reaction).

(And to be clear, I'm not suggesting these emotional tells have no place at all, just that they can probably be used a lot less.)

Here is one blogger I found helpful--even if I don't agree on everything.
It was indeed she who gave me the initial feedback.

(I saw one author on twitter talking about how they use "let out the breath they didn't know they were holding all through the first draft", then strip out all but one from the final draft).
:LOL: (Though to be honest I think an author should be allowed this once per career, not once per book. See also "she quirked an eyebrow".)
 

Plucky Novice

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Great post @HareBrain, and discussion too.

As with all these things it is probably a case of balance. I think it is easier to invoke feelings in a reader over time, immediate reactions being more difficult. I guess this is the foreshadowing aspect others have commented on.

Getting away from beating hearts and breathing can be difficult, especially if you are writing in a less advanced world where there is less vocabulary available. This has given me another tool to think about in those moments, thanks.
 

jd73

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:LOL: (Though to be honest I think an author should be allowed this once per career, not once per book. See also "she quirked an eyebrow".)
^ this. I liked it the first time I heard it, years ago. Then I just knew that everybody would start using it, which they did. It's had remarkable longevity, I'll give it that but then maybe lots of these expressions do.
 

tinkerdan

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However the point that must be recognized is....
But I think this is answered by the excellent example you gave earlier:
The two work together and you can't start removing one thinking that that is all you need when it weakens the interiority to remove the physical tell or show however you look at it. And with both there should be moderation--and the author's discretion when to push the limits.

And in the example we were discussing; I don't see that the author came even close to any limits. I didn't see cliche, I didn't see excess, and it was relevant to the situation.
 

CTRandall

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I'm suspicious of your idea of "invoking" emotion, primarily because you haven't offered us a concrete example of it. In Tinkerdan's example, the woman's emotional state is made clear through a combination of interior thought (sixteen years, sick kids, etc.) and physical descriptions which are utterly cliche (edge of the seat, straight spine, jerking to her feet, storming out). All of that works in an isolated example but is more difficult to do well across an entire novel. For me, it doesn't even work well in this example, as I find it far too overdone (I didn't need the crinkling handbag or anything after that.)

I think your real issue here is style, the voice of the author, perhaps. It sounds to me like you are trying to find a way to communicate emotion to the reader. More specifically, you are trying to communicate emotion in the absence of dialogue. Internal thoughts and physical reactions are two very effective ways to do this. The difficulty lies not in using them, but in using them well.

In my opinion, Jo's example uses both physical cues and internal thoughts well. The "low feeling in the stomach" is part physical description, part metaphor, but there is nothing physical about Shug possessing a "dull knowledge". Removing your highlighted phrase would weaken the writing, partly because of the distance it creates between the reader and character that others have already described. It would also weaken the writing for another reason: time. It takes time to communicate emotion, to really build it up.

We all know it is not simply enough to say, "Joanie loves Chachi". As Shakespeare tells us, we must count the ways. (How's that for mixing pop culture and high art references? :)) By adding thoughts and physical descriptions, we give time for the emotional dough to rise. Yes, technically the words may not be necessary to convey the meaning. They are necessary, however, to convey--or should I say "invoke"--the emotions. Jo's description of Shug's low feeling and dull knowledge give time for a sense of foreboding to build in the reader. Absent that description, the scene moves on before we have a chance to feel what Shug is feeling.

One of the great difficulties for the author is in judging how much time, and how many words, it takes to build the right level of emotion for a particular scene. Hence so many critiques here advising "cut, cut, cut".
 

HareBrain

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The difficulty lies not in using them, but in using them well.
As I said above, if physical tells are used well, they can be effective and powerful. But they are very difficult to use well, for reasons Peat gave:

physical reactions most commonly used for Show tend to either fall into cliched and in their own way telling - their presence means I know exactly how the author wants me to feel - or are straining for creativity so much that they don't really work.
I've been looking out for them in books I've been reading over the last few days by John Fowles and Alan Garner. In both cases, though the characters are put in high-stress situations, the physical tells I would have used in my own writing as a matter of course are absent. (Also see Peat's example of le Carre above.) That's not itself a reason not to use them, but it might suggest there are better ways of getting the feeling across.

As for a good example of "invoking" (which perhaps should be "evoking" now I think about it), I'll try to find one.

Jo's description of Shug's low feeling and dull knowledge give time for a sense of foreboding to build in the reader.
I feel bad bringing Jo's into this now, because there's nothing wrong with the writing; it just happened to be the example that provoked the thought, because I could see that (for me at least) the emotion had already been evoked. (And this would be an example of where it works, except it didn't seem to work for everyone.) But as for foreboding, Shug's realisation of the likely theft of the craft has already happened -- why would you need to forebode(?) that? More foreboding might have been useful (or might not) in the previous paragraph, but I think the whine of the engine and the em-dash interruption work fine for that.

It takes time to communicate emotion, to really build it up.
I'd agree with this, though perhaps we'd differ on how much time. A two-word sentence can be plenty of time if it makes the reader pause. (That wouldn't apply to audiobooks, of course.) But in any case I'm suggesting that physical tells might not be as useful a part of that process as we took for granted.
 

The Big Peat

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To go back to the Le Carre well as an example, here is the big emotion invoking bit right at the end of Chapter 21 - the moment of victory:

"God is in his Heaven and the first night was a wow. He could have sung out loud: God is in his Heaven and I can still fly."

The elation of the moment of victory is solely in those two sentences. Obviously, this is at the end, so we've got a lot of emotional backing at this point, but there's an example of an emotion driven solely by the character's inner monologue and us sharing what that must feel like.

I will say that a lot - maybe most - of the examples I can find off the top of my head use a mix of physical and inner monologue, switching back and forth. But I think it's not uncommon for an author to only use "Physical shows" every two or three emotional updates, like Le Carre does, and to use the interior thoughts as the engine.
 

CTRandall

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I don't think we're really disagreeing much here. No one is taking the position of "physical reactions bad, inner monologue good" or vice versa, and it seems to me you're advocating a balance heavier on non-physical emotional cues (dialogue, thoughts, actions) as opposed to an over-reliance on descriptions of physical characteristics which, as you've already said, is difficult to sustain without excessive repetition, reliance on cliche and tortured writing.

as for foreboding, Shug's realisation of the likely theft of the craft has already happened -- why would you need to forebode(?) that?
The reader hasn't yet seen what happened. Yes, it's been alluded to but, on my first reading, I thought it was an unscheduled craft landing. Without further information, alternative possibilities remain open. This means the reader is left feeling something different than the character. This is entirely appropriate and incredibly common. We need to understand what a character is feeling but, often, it would be grotesque for us to actually feel the same thing. (Thomas Covenant is one example.)

Returning to Shug, his reaction makes it clear something bad has happened. The reader experiences foreboding because s/he doesn't know for sure what that bad thing is and has to wait for it to become clear. The waiting heightens the tension and makes for a more engaging story. So, we need to know what Shug is feeling but we feel something different. (There are times, of course, when it works best for the reader to feel the same emotions as the character, though almost always at a lesser intensity.)

As for the amount of time it takes to build emotion,
perhaps we'd differ on how much time
I think this is one (amongst many) of the weak points in my writing. Overuse of physical cues for emotion is definitely another. Which means this discussion has been helpful for me. :)
 

tinkerdan

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On interiority.

I've been watching The Undoing and of course ended up reading it which was originally published as You Should Have Known.
I think this is both a good example of Interiority and an example of how it can be overdone.

It definitely is a book I will say I love to hate.
Though I think it is worthy of an amazon 5 star; I also think that there these mind numbing long paragraphs full of long sentence that come very close to maybe beyond abusing interiority. Yet I read this in one day and enjoyed it despite having to stop at times to try to process the large number of images that led up to the characters emotional state at the end of the paragraph. It's a 440 page book that should probably only need 300 pages at most. Yet at the same time it, infuriatingly, makes good use of the 140 excess pages if you can keep yourself from scanning those two page paragraphs.

One reason I think these blocks of interiority work in this book, is that there are no action scenes. It is all about the charged emotions. Though it is a suspense, it is one that is slow pondering. And lastly it is largely a book about self reflection.

They changed a lot of things for the TV Series; I believe because all that internal pondered stuff is too hard too do without either constant narrator over-voice or flashbacks. They do use flashbacks to get some of it; but it in no way comes close to what is in the novel.

In some other thread in this forum there is a question of what can't be done well in film and I think the answer is: good blocks of interiority.
 
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