Film, Writing

Do we exploit emotions in writing fiction?

I wrote this piece  about my writing for the Britfic site. You can read it on the site here and in the copy below. Does it strike any chords with you?

The bulk of my creative time recently has been taken up writing factual material for documentary film. In that mode, whilst structuring and de-structuring sensitive and often complex narratives, I have been striving to find a balance between taking the audience to the intimate core of the story, without emotionally exploiting the memories of the contributors whose journey I have been sharing.

It’s a tension that I’m now beginning to recognise in my fiction, increasingly so as the ownership of my second novel shifts back and forth between my characters and me. My characters, despite being my own creation, are taking control and pushing that balance further and further in the direction of emotional ‘exploitation’. In some instances they are hurtling towards crippling outcomes at an urgent pace and I’m struggling to haul them back and temper the journey with a more methodical approach.

I wonder though, instead of trying to moderate their course, should I be listening more carefully?

Perhaps this breaking free is an indication that I need to stop trying so hard to direct the proceedings. This is not documentary; this is freedom. It’s supposed to be energetic, spontaneous and fun.

Unlike the way I approach non-fiction work, I don’t plan as a novelist. Allowing the story to unfold as I write is integral to my creative process. I do, however, shape a rough outline, maybe half a page indicating my ambitions for a beginning, middle and end. But for me as a fiction writer, maybe even that is too restrictive.  Suddenly, the shackles of formality feel uncomfortably restrictive.

The strongest works, be it in novel writing or onscreen in film and television have engaging characters at the root and tips. Outcomes and adventures in various overarching arcs are only of relevance if we care about the characters undertaking the creative journey.

In my current writing I honestly don’t think my characters are going to let me go to the place I originally intended. They are telling me they aren’t who I thought I wanted them to be. Not even close. I’m obviously influencing the process; my own emotions have been battered relentlessly since I began this journey so if the very heart of me has changed then surely this must influence my writing?

Write what you know, write what you don’t know, push your boundaries, go where you have been before, go where you’d never imagined you would…

I guess one thing is true. One of the above may or may not apply to you. The trick is understanding what does.

In a moment of clarity, I have submitted. I have agreed to be swallowed by pain (not all pain has long-term negative consequences) and driven by the voices in my head that are shaping themselves not as I anticipated them to be but as they need to be.

It’s a very different experience from my debut. In that writing, my characters took their shape from the off. Whilst the narrative journey developed they changed tact and altered off course, but they never changed who they were to me.

Interestingly, that’s not the case with Rathlin and Barra, the twins in my novel. They are facing a family crisis that is testing their relationship, and the external relationships they have built on their fastidiousness around an event from their past.  I thought I knew what the outcome of the chaos was going to be but in actual fact I don’t and that is the sheer joy of writing fiction. For a while my twins felt distant, but through their own perseverance they’ve brought themselves back to the community and culture that I know and understand and as a consequence they are closer to me and easier to write.  There is a tremendous intimate energy to them and that’s exciting.

Is this why we write contemporary fiction? To be of the people and of the place, our emotions exposed, and dare I say it, exploited?

I think I hope so…

2 thoughts on “Do we exploit emotions in writing fiction?”

  1. And this is also why, in Hilary Mantel’s words “A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.” (Guardian article 16/04/16). The characters should come alive like this and take on their own dynamism. Otherwise how will there be narrative tension? You give those twins free rein!

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