Friday, October 26, 2007

Emotional contact points

I recently came across this video of opera singer Paul Potts on a friend's blog, and while I very rarely spend time on YouTube, I've watched this a number of times since then. There's something about it that really hits me, and I think it's the same thing that makes me connect with a book on a deeper level. First, the execution is brilliant. Seriously, I could listen to that voice all day. And while I'm sure most people in that audience were not opera fans, they were unable to stay in their seats when he sang. Whatever their surface preferences, Potts managed to resonate on a level all of us share. Secondly, the story of who he is--a mobile phone salesman who grew up with a lot of bullies and has always struggled for self-confidence--made his victory all the sweeter. It's the underdog element, it's the getting-down-to-the-wire-before-all-is-lost element; in short, it's the things that make a reader unable to shut a book. I want to write things with humor and entertainment value, but at the same time, I want some point of the book to make that point of contact with my reader. I want to say, we're different people, we live totally different lives, and yet--we tap in to a deep, common well. I want to leave something for a reader to carry around and think about. To feel. I'm not entirely sure how to do this, but I think it does need to have a little humor mixed in for balance, and I think it's got to test the character more than they think they can be tested, and I think it's got to be both universal and specific.

Here are a few books that hit me this way:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
, when he walks into the forest in chapter 34.

A Little Princess
, on that extremely cold night in the attic, just before Sara was discovered by the next-door neighbor.

, when Catherine runs through the parking lot with Jason, as well as all the fishtank moments with David.

The House of the Scorpion
in the many moments where the MC struggles with having human feelings, yet believing he isn't a "real" person.

A Wrinkle in Time
, when Meg goes back to get Charles Wallace.

Obviously, most of these points are climactic moments. What makes these climaxes special is that I feel just how much the characters stand to lose if things don't work out.

What about you? What books do you carry around with you and don't want to let go? And what makes an emotional contact point for you?


Danette Haworth said...

You are so right about the Paul Potts video. The first time I watched it, I was awestruck when he began to sing and I realized he was much more than he seemed.

My sister was hit the same way by it.

Natalie said...

Hi Rose,

I, too, was moved by hearing Paul Potts sing. And a big part of that was the interview they did with him before he went on stage. If they had simply started the video when he took the stage, I still would have thought he looked a little nervous, and I wouldn't have expected him to sing as well as he did, but the fact that we hear him saying that he's a mobile phone salesman, he's always had low self-esteem, etc. made his performance all the richer.

I think it's the same when we create characters...we want the reader to feel that they know the inner workings of our characters, so when the moment of truth arrives, it's even sweeter.

Same with the villains, which in the opera video, were the judges. Showing their expressions of "Give me a break--THIS guy is going to sing opera??" and then contrasting that with their expressions once he started to sing--it upped the emotional reaction for me as I watched him sing. Without those "before" shots of the judges, I still would have been blown away by Paul's voice, but that "Ha! Take THAT you snarky judges!" would have been missing. So the overall effect was made up of several emotions--surprise, rapture, vindication and pride (even though I had nothing to do with the way he sings!). How many of these emotions would have been missing if we had only seen/heard him sing? His performance brought me to tears (several times) but I don't know that I would have reacted that way without having seen the interview and the judges before the performance.

Again, same with writing--I think we need to make our villains multilayered, so the reader knows what makes them tick. And the end result will be a mixture of emotions, some even conflicting, possibly.

I like that you mention humor, Rose...any book that can make me laugh out loud AND cry is usually a winner.

Thanks for a great post, Rose!

Rose Green said...

I just keep sending links to everyone I know. I think my favorite moments re: everyone BUT Paul Potts were watching the audience propelled from their seats, as if there was no way they could possibly keep sitting. That, and when the one really skeptical judge broke out in a huge smile. And I love when Potts says in a later interview that his tryout gave him "a little bit of confidence." Hm, he has a CD available now--maybe if I leave a Christmas wish list lying around conspicuously my family will take the hint...

Great post, Natalie--you really hit on all the strings that pull an emotional piece together.

(And happy Allheilige, or whatever you call this day down there in Italia.)

Sarah said...

What makes an emotional contact point for me?
Different books hit me in a variety of emotional ways. Sometimes it is when the character cannot escape his fate, but somehow he finds a way. The other is when the character faces her struggles in such a way that she better understands herself and life; I see life with more clarity after reading these types of books.

What books do I carry around with me?
Searching for Shona, by Margaret J Anderson when the main character realizes she has found herself and that her name is not who she is.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, in two places. Where she first accepts what happened to her and where she faces her tormenter.

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson (this is an adult fantasy) where Raoden and Saren manage to survive when all hope is gone.