There are times I hate being a writer. One of the things it does is set me at odds with normal (or really, abnormal but not writers) human beings, and prevents the enjoyment of simple pleasures that involve story telling.
I used to think I was alone in this, but the last few Liberty cons have quite put paid to that idea, as I hear colleague after colleague say things like “I used to enjoy reading, but now I find myself analyzing it” or “I loved movies but now I can see the mechanics and the effects.
In a way I am fortunate because I can still turn on the analytical brain most of the time. It requires a bit of care, so if I’m writing sf/f I read something like romance or mystery and it works, provided there’s no point of contact with what I’m writing.
I can also watch British mystery because honestly I mostly do it while ironing or doing other house work, which means I’m giving it half a mind.
But sometimes the problem intrudes, even while I’m only watching with half a brain.
I’m not going to name the movie here, because it is well loved and people seem to think it was wonderful. Because I’d read the reviews, my husband asked if I wanted to watch it with him. I said sure, and sat down to watch it.
Fifteen minutes in, I got up and went to do the dishes, (I can still see the television from the kitchen.) The movie made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to watch it.
I thought that it was the subject matter, and because I don’t like tense situations where a number of them might end in death without its being mentioned in the reviews.
And then our son who lives in the basement apartment (our contribution to keeping his educational expenses down) came up the stairs and said he really needed to go to sleep, and why were we blasting the sound at the highest possible level.
We hadn’t changed the sound settings from other movies, but when this happened, I realized that the movie was like three times the level of normal movies, AND it was relentlessly “horror movie” (which this wasn’t) music. You know! The ominous music that plays before the ghost jumps out and eats your face.
At that point the writer brain kicked in. My unease and inability to sit in front of the movie was due not to worry about the characters — the movie jumped from character to character, without really providing much reason why I should give a hang about any of them — but simply to the loud music creating unease and discomfort.
Once I analyzed the movie, it was a succession of not particularly interesting vignettes, most of them ending in the predictable way if you know it’s written by a leftist. The REALLY LOUD ominous music masked this, though, and produced a counterfeit of emotions in the watcher, so that one not a trained writer, or perhaps a writer not paying enough attention will think the movie is ominous and wildly interesting.
So what does this have to do with writing?
There are ways to manipulate your readers’ emotions that have nothing to do with the plot/characters or how skillfully you developed both. Make sure you know what they are and also that you’re using them consciously, because if you’re doing it subconsciously you might be doing it wrong and not achieve what you desire.
What do I mean by that? There are reliable ways of manipulating people’s emotions. If you want tears, a puppy or a child bravely trying to save adults will do it, or scenes of tenderness between an elderly couple, or… a ton of other things.
Kitchy? Sure. But no more so than ominous music to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. And sometimes, when you’re dealing with work you really don’t want to do (it happens. Sometimes it’s not even the work. It’s the work combined with you at that moment) or have a slow part in a novel, you can make use of such obvious manipulation to get the reader to not realize that part is slow.
There are other things you can do.
For instance, you can while away an expository/revelatory part with an argument between characters. You can have a minor scare/attack that doesn’t lead anywhere, but makes that part less boring.
One of the easiest ways to do this is comparing the moment/plot/incident to something historical that everyone knows and which will resonate with everyone. This is getting harder in this age of historical ignorance, but it’s still not impossible. You can tell the story of a siege that ended badly, for instance, then compare your character’s situation to it. You can have your character whisper “puere se mueve” and therefore evoke Galileo and all the stuff we learned about him in school (most of it lies, btw.)
This is where you need to watch out. Why, you say? Because if you learn your craft by writing either fanfic or work for hire in a world not your own, you’re in a way turning that music to eleven. There is already a complete background there. For instance, in Jane Austen fanfic (pride and prejudice to be exact) all you need to evoke angst among your readers is to have Mr. Darcy be married when he first appears in the story, thereby making his happy ever after with Lizzy impossible. People will read to see how you’re going to “fix this.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all your writing. You’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
A similar danger is your using something that tends to make people not realize you have a lack of plot, like, for instance a ton of sex. A lot of romances use pages and pages (and pages) of sex to disguise the fact they have maybe enough plot for a short story.
This works, maybe, kind of to a point. If what the reader is looking for is a red-hot romance bordering on porn, they’ll love this “one simple trick to retain interest.”
But if the genre isn’t usually that sex-soaked, if the sex you soak the book with is not only not vanilla, but a particular flavor people in general find odd — beet, or perhaps squid — it’s going to give you problems. Sure, it might be your favorite way to while away a book — or an afternoon — but it might bomb with 99% of the population.
So you need to be aware of what is essential to the story, and what is put in to get reader reaction, and also of how likely you are to get the reaction you expect.
Oh, you should also be aware that other writers will totally catch you cheating. It’s okay. We won’t tell if you won’t.