Make Me Sway: Emotion on Rails

9 Aug

I think we’ve all heard it. That one piece of music, something about just gets you. A line, a melody, the ache in a singers voice. At some point or another you will find yourself swayed by the power of a song. Your body will automatically initiate a reaction. Swaying, tapping your foot, smiling, and on occasion crying.

Just like music books should sway a readers emotion. SOMETHING about the book needs to be powerful enough to intiate a physical reaction. Who hasn’t found themself laughing, sighing, kicking your feet impatiently, or crying on account of a book? Today I’d like to talk about a scene that caught me off guard and why it’s the perfect example of how to infuse emotion into a scene so deeply that your readers find themselves swaying to your current.

I’m going to be looking at the first chapter of Beth Revis’ novel Across the universe. So no spoilers! Though I do reccommend that you read the first chapter for free HERE to get the most out of his post.

Anyway if you read that or have read the book you know that the first chapter consists of Amy (the MC) getting ready to be chronologically frozen and put onto GODSPEED the spaceship with her parents. And I’m not going to lie to you I started having a minor panic attack during the FIRST CHAPTER! I actually cried a little bit, and this deeply disturbed and stunned me at once. I couldn’t understand why I had been so moved and upset without any back story. After-all, how could I possibly care enough to be crying when I’d only met Amy something like 10 pages ago?

It didn’t make sense. So I read it again. And again… and one for time just to make sure I knew what I was talking about.

And that’s when the light bulb went on.

All my writing life I’ve been told that creating emotional investment in a novel is entirely dependent upon characters. you must make characters we care about, they say. You must make them relate-able, that’s the key!

But reading this scene I realized that characters are just the train on the tracks of making emotional connection. Sure thats the part everyone pays attention to but what about the tracks themselves? The stop lights and stations?

And Beth Revis puts the tracks to the test in this first chapter.

Let me explain.The ‘tracks’ are our basic human fears and feelings. This whole chapter is so full of them that I could just

The rails are deeply grounded in all of us

choke and vomit and they all wouldn’t be able to come up at once! (sorry gross) Anyway, this chapter confronts several fears, some smaller ones being the fear of needles, cold, and small spaces. All of which Amy has  to watch her mother go through as she is put into a tiny freezing box of cryo-liquid, her blood painfully pumped out, KNOWING she will have to do this in a few moments. This anticipatory fear is also a factor in the sheer genius that Revis presents. (As anticipation of pain is often worse than the pain itself, remember shots when you were little? Kicking and screaming for a pinch!)

Basic human fear. Something we can relate to.

Amy also faces the fear on loneliness another ‘track that great emotional characters run on”. Many people are afraid to be alone.  Humans are naturally social creatures (yes even writers we are not a separate species despite some outsiders opinions! haha). Amy is forced with a decision (a stop light) of staying on earth or leaving with her parents her dad telling her before he is frozen that :

“I’m going next. Your mother wouldn’t agree to that—she thoughtyou’d still back down, decide not to come with us. Well, I’m giving youthat option. I’m going next. Then, if you’d like to walk away, not be frozen,that’s okay. I’ve told your aunt and uncle. They’re waiting outside; they’llbe there until I’ve. After they freeze me, you can just walk away. Mom andI won’t know, not for centuries, not till we wake up, and if you do decideto live instead of being frozen, then we’ll be okay.” (Revis, 6)

Not only is there a HUGE decision, but it is riding on the rails of loneliness. Amy must decided if she can live a life without her parents knowing she will die long before the realize she has left them (and live her whole life knowing this) or go with them and leave all her other family and friends behind. leave the safety and comforter of everything she is familiar with behind. She can not avoid an empty loneliness no matter which way she turns. Even if she chooses her parents she is forced to choose the icy slumber of centuries, perhaps a loneliness even worse than a life without her parents. It makes your heart sink doesn’t it?

Applying basic human fears, is the key to making emotionally strong characters.

Because we are all afraid of something and loneliness, Pain, and responsibility are all basic fears that Amy faces in just chapter one of the novel.

Learning how to use the rails of writing great characters is one of the most important tools a writer can have. What do you think? Do you know of a scene that shares rails with this one? What’s your most emotionally moving scene?

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3 Responses to “Make Me Sway: Emotion on Rails”

  1. Writer Group August 9, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    That was another fantastic post today. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  2. Janeal Falor August 9, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    I remember reading that a while back and being really emotionally involved from the beginning. It really was well done. I’ve never stopped to think about it before, but I think you’ve really nailed it on the head. Having a connection that starts with a basic human fear. Though it may even be able to go a step further other emotions if you coud find the right thing to hook onto. It’s too late for my brain to come up with another example, but I’m going to pay closer attention to this when reading in the future.

  3. Kylie August 9, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    There’s a scene at the end of Clockwork Princess (Cassandra Clare) that I can’t stand no matter how many times I read it because it plays off one of my worst fears: holding something in, keeping it quiet until it’s too late, and then you find yourself wishing you’d had the courage to say it before because if you had, everything could have been different. I think a lot of people have the fear of speaking at the wrong moment and that makes us bury things we should have said. This scene uses that fear extremely well.

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