Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pulling Your Readers' Emotional Strings - 5 Keys to Writing from The Gilmore Girls

I've been watching the Gilmore Girls series on Netflix and pondering the way writers manipulate our emotions in books and film. Seeing as how I am a writer, I want to know how to perform this puppetry in a way that keeps the audience on my side and doesn't turn them against me. That's always a dangerous possibility -- to have a reader put our work down, or worse yet, have them throw it against the wall, because we tried to pull a fast one on them. Pulling on their emotional strings without breaking them is a precarious trick. On the upside of that heavy responsibility, it's the most fun a writer can have.

Using the Gilmore Girls as our example (because it seems most everyone watched it when it was still running except me, and now I've been on a winter long, Gilmore Girls marathon) let's pay attention to the emotional manipulation in detail.

Core to the story are the relationship statuses of mother and daughter to their respective boyfriends or boyfriend hopefuls. Will Luke and Lorelei ever get together? What new conflict will keep them apart? Will she "settle" for someone else entirely? How should we feel about Chris? Will Rory finally fall in love for keeps with Dean? With Jess? With Logan? Which boyfriend character most closely reflects her heart's desire? How will they win her? Why do they lose her? What magic of writing keeps us glued to the screen to frolic along with the ever-changing direction of these wandering hearts?

All of these questions and their perspective answers give us the first key to what manipulates us -- and that is because the first key is Character. Each of the Stars Hollow characters is so unique, so fully fleshed, so developed, that even from the very first episode we are sold on them as "real". That means the writers knew the back stories of these characters well before they ever introduced them to the stage.

Note how quickly we come to care for (or become annoyed by) the many and varied folk who populate the small town of Stars Hollow. Either emotion engages us; we are manipulated by irritating habits as well as heart-tugging desire. Face it, one of the biggest pitfalls authors tumble into is when we neglect to fully form secondary characters. But we invest ourselves in the Gilmore Girls more fully because Suki, Kirk, Zach, Michel, and the rest of the zany townsfolk are fully formed personages. Because we are invested in their lives just as we are the main love interests, we quickly come to care about what happens to them. We are emotionally entangled in their joys, sorrows, and array of mishaps that add richness to the main story line.

So, Key #1: To first get hold of a reader's emotional strings, introduce fully formed characters that have had lives before they stepped onto the page. Even though the writers don't weigh us down with Lorelei and Rory's backstory, it's clear the entire series is built upon it.

As seasons of the show progress, we first root for Rory's perfect, pure love for Dean. We think, "Wow, they're so cute together. I hope they make it through all the trials of adolescence. I hope they stay together." Yet, we know better. They're young. It's a TV show. That their young love will last is unlikely. Our hearts break with Rory's -- with Dean's. And yet... and yet we are just as attracted to the character of bad boy Jess as Rory is. We are compelled to follow our heart right along with her into the magnetism that is Jess. Why is that? How have our emotional strings been so pulled when Dean is such a sweet kid, such a perfect boyfriend?

First because of key one, Jess is fully developed. He has a troubled spirit and conflicted soul, and he's been through a hellish childhood. He pops onto the scene of Stars Hollow carrying a backlog of angst. We find him intriguing. But the deep reason we are convinced that Rory should give him a shot is because, in small snippets, even while hearing warning bells that this relationship will be a bumpy ride, we sense that he might be her soul mate. (Okay, I said it. No matter that they go their ways later and she gets all serious over spoiled frat boy Logan, Jess is her soul mate. Just check out the fan-fiction on this, and you'll agree.) After all the outer layers are pulled away, we see Rory and Jess are two of a kind. Maybe Rory isn't rebellious, but she has the same deep yearning for ideas that Jess does. I mean, come on, they love books and they both become writers! Oh my heart! Rory was never part of the rich girl scene until getting acquainted with her grandparents as a teenager. Until then, she'd been a down-to-earth-raised girl. She understands struggle. She's watched her mom work from the bottom up to give them a good life. Rory is something of an experienced soul, like Jess, if a bit more protected. Besides this, the writer gives them a commonality that resonates. They both love literature and use it to analyze life, to understand each other. This one thing alone leads viewers on a path of cheering for them when they finally get together. We know that Rory needs someone who appreciates language, literature, and ideas as richly as she does.

The other thing that helps us move swiftly from Dean to Jess in following Rory's love interest is that they challenge one another. Scores of romance novels are built around the idea of seemingly opposites attracting, or two people first having conflict, but later falling head over heels for each other. This works when the characters challenge one another in healthy ways. Jess challenges Rory to let go and be the girl she's meant to be without following a course set for her by others; and likewise, Rory challenges Jess to make something of his life because she believes in his untapped intelligence, and that he'd be wasting himself not to do something dynamic. She definitely becomes the woman who makes the man, just as he becomes the man who sets her on her true path. The same is true of Luke and Lorelei. They belong together (or the writers convince us that they do) because they always tell each other the things the other needs to hear, even if it's not what they want to hear. Luke is the only one who isn't run over by Lorelei's fast talk. He just smiles and nods and pours her another cup of coffee and loves her -- and tells her what she's doing wrong while he pours himself out for her in tactile ways like fixing her house, loaning her money to get her business off the ground, hauling furniture to school for Rory. There's a lot of emotional metaphor in the things he does that allow their relationship to deepen and grow, and thus pull viewers into their story.

So, Key #2: Characters have to challenge each other to grow. Watching a character grow, sometimes painfully, sometimes through expressing commonalities, only makes us more willing to follow them from one foray into another, and to even abide their changes of allegiance. 

So, if all that's true about Luke and Lorelei being meant for each other, why do we start to feel "okay" when Lorelei and Rory's father Chris get together in Season 6? Now, in all honesty, at first we're like, "No! Wait! What?!" We know she's making a huge blunder. But then we see that somewhere along the way, in his own life, Chris has changed too. He's grown up -- finally -- or at least he seems to have. He knows Lorelei really, really well, because they've been close since forever. After all, he's Rory's dad... We give him grace because, suddenly, we see them as a family, or at least the tug on our emotional strings makes us think we might be able to see them together that way. Besides, Luke has been acting like a total ignoramous. We're mad at him. The writers have made him flawed, and right then, they're letting all his worse flaws show! While we're wagging our heads moaning, "Luke, Luke, Luke..." the writers are simultaneously painting a picture of familial completeness when we see Chris, Lorelei, and Rory all driving home together from a Friday night dinner at Richard and Emily's. It's so... Norman Mailer. Rory, the kid, is in the back seat, smiling serenely while her corny-acting parents rock along with 80s radio in the front. It's a glimpse at the life they missed raising Rory together, juxtaposed with current conflicts Lorelei is having with Luke. We still know that Luke and Lorelei were meant to be together, but we also accept that sometimes in real life people miss each other because they just can't get their acts together, and maybe that's what is about to happen for Luke and Lorelei. By painting a picture of Chris, Lorelei, and Rory as a happy family, our emotions are led to believe that maybe it'll be okay after all. The writers do a fairly decent job of leading us down this winding path with a bit of acceptance if not a whole-hearted throwing in with the idea.

So, Key #3: A scene that paints a picture of "what if" can help a writer tug on the emotional strings by establishing moments of "maybe" in a story. This goes back to the adage "show, don't tell". Scenes able to visually depict this "maybe" moment are the stuff romantic or suspenseful cliff-hangers are made of.

That type of staged scene is all about what's happening. There's no end to great dialogue in The Gilmore Girls, but what really backs up everything being said is action. Concrete actions lend deeper feeling to what their words are or aren't saying. What they do, what they give, where they go -- all leads our emotions on a merry, winding path. All really good stories have this in common. They cause us to glide along because of this same attentiveness to heightened or subtle action in the emotional moment.

I love how action portrays the emotion in this scene between Jess and his uncle Luke. Luke is angry, frustrated, perturbed, at wits end. He isn't really yelling, but watch his body language, and pay attention to Jess's as well as he attempts to blow Luke off. As the confrontation heats up, so does the body movement. And check out Luke's final reaction. It's a topper. (By the way, the video says best scene ever, but how does one choose?!?)

Then there are those heart-aching episodes that chronicle Luke and Lorelei's breakup. After Lorelei breaks it off with Luke in a big way, we don't hear her say much. The movie or television screen has an advantage here. It shows Lorelei mooning silently on Suki and Jackson's couch, but we get what's going on in her head. In books, we can show that, and we should, but the temptation is strong to let a lot of internal dialogue take over. While internal dialogue is acceptable to a point, it should be action that speaks loudest most of the time. If the Gilmore Girls scene of her depression following the breakup were in a book, we could depend upon the action showing her doing what anyone might do at a time of deep rejection. She turns inward, growing quiet (which is very unlike her), and heads to her best friend for comfort. All the dialogue that then takes place in this scene goes on over her head by Suki and Jackson as they try to understand, console, but mostly dispel the discomfort hanging over the room in the face of Lorelei's heartbreak. It's their actions that complete Lorelei's emotional free-fall. When going to them isn't enough, Lorelei then makes an active decision that really bottoms out her pain. She turns to Chris for comfort, making us all want to weep.

It isn't what she says, what Luke says, what her friends say, or what Chris says in these moments that tug us into her despair. It's where she goes. Her quiet actions alone fill us with sadness and despair -- and even anger. This is probably the closest I came in watching the show to throwing the proverbial book against the wall, but I didn't. Why? The writers imbue Lorelei's stupid decisions and the actions of surrounding characters with enough hope to keep me dangling in my hold. I can't help it. I'm that invested in these characters.

Aside from characters coming onstage fully fleshed out, the actions of the characters showing their internal conflict are the biggest reason our hearts can be pulled one way or another. Remember the scene during the dance marathon, where Rory is dancing with Dean but being drawn to Jess? She's clinging to the fact that she loves Dean, but can no longer deny her attraction to someone else. Not a lot is said about it during the scene's buildup. Yet there's an entire, unspoken dialogue going on in glances and actions prior to the confrontational moment. Then there's a verbal blow up, and Dean breaks up with her. But prior to that, so much is displayed in her body language and what she leaves unspoken, it becomes one of the most tragically romantic episodes of the show.

Someone said, "Character is built during confrontation with your weakness." This couldn't be truer than when a writer is forming a character. In the dance scene, Rory's weakness is her attraction to Jess. Throughout the dance, we've felt every part of her struggle up until the moment of confrontation is presented to us. If you haven't seen the show, check out the clip of that moment when all the silent angst finally comes bubbling up:

So, Key #4: Actions speak louder than words. If something BIG is about to transpire on an emotional level in your story, make the characters act it out accordingly. Whether they say much or say little, set the scene in actions, blatantly or subtly as the atmosphere affords.

All this said, it seems the stronger the conflict, the more the emotional investment. We, as readers or viewers, go along in whichever direction a writer wishes to manipulate us as long as we find the characters to be real and the conflict to be stimulating. Even when the characters finally get what they they want, the conflict stakes rise, because now there's the chance of losing what they've won. The element of risk is something we have to make very clear in our writing. In some cases, it means causing yet another problem for our character to overcome, keeping them from a potential happily ever after for a little bit longer, but to do so in a way that we're boiling the frog -- er -- not making our readers feel manipulated. Tension should mount in stages until, at some final black moment, it can't stretch any further. The final risk or peril is upon them. 

Unfortunately, conflict is often pasted into a story. Too many authors make this mistake. An author may feel like they've imposed integral conflict, but actually it's pasted, fake, fabricated. How can we tell? We don't care about those characters or their plight. We haven't been made to see or feel things through their skin. To accomplish integration and thus to feel the emotional pull of conflict, we need to sink deep in their point of view. It's easy to fall into the point of view of the Gilmore women or their men and to live vicariously through them. Accomplishing that on the page is tougher. We have to express our characters' emotions in ways that are sensory to our readers so they can feel the same emotion. Does the conflict have our hero feeling angry? Let the reader experience their temples pounding, the blood roaring in their ears, their clammy palms clenching into fists. Does our heroine feel rejected, crushed in spirit? Let her feel outside herself, hollow, empty in such a way that the reader also feels hollow, empty, outside themself. Show what a character sees or doesn't see as they're staring into space, looking through their eyes, going through the motions of living but not feeling from the inside out -- that will put the reader there too. Or maybe the heroine has an overwhelming urge to run away, to melt, to cry, to get in the car and drive without a destination. How do you show them experiencing those desires and conflict from the inside out? 

Does the conflict resolve itself heroically? Can the reader feel the character's heart pounding, the anxious grinding of his jaw, the beads of sweat breaking out and cooling on his neck? Get personal in the conflict -- deep-below-the-skin personal.

So, for the final Key, #5: Conflict must continue to mount, but it cannot be only external. Characters must feel the physical angst or heightened mood internally and through body language, and those feelings must be conveyed to the reader at the gut level.

To summarize:
Here's what you need in order to pull your readers' emotional strings so that they'll allow you to wring their heart first one way and then another.

You need completely developed characters who challenge one another. Important emotional moments need to be set in appropriate atmospheric scenes where the characters perform actions that boil over into deeper meaning and higher stakes. And the real kicker? All those stakes, those intense emotions, must be conveyed to the reader in physical ways which the reader can then internalize

When all these keys combine, we'll have characters readers care about so much, they'll want their stories to continue even after The End. The creators of The Gillmore Girls pull this off. I mean, really, have you seen the websites full of fan fiction?

Now let's get busy. Let's go toy with our readers' emotional state of mind.

1 comment:

J Lenni Dorner said...

I'm writing a fantasy story right now. Two of the "love interest" characters really have much in common with Dean and Jess. (Yup, my mom watched the show, so I've seen it.) The other "intended love interest" would be like Rory's grandparents arranging her marriage to Taylor. LOL.

Thank you for this article. I never would have made this connection on my own. But now I see how "my Dean and Jess" can be fleshed out better.

You rock!