I just sent the first draft off to my editor; that makes the fourth Memoir a Real Thing now, ’cause other people are going to be reading it.
Doing the final polishes before kicking it out the door, I came upon one scene where I felt like I needed to amp up the emotional force a bit. So I went to the middle of the scene, stuck in a few line breaks, and started typing a new paragraph that would take what was going on and foreground it a bit more overtly. I wrote a sentence . . . started another one . . . deleted it . . . wrote a second sentence . . . started a third . . . deleted that and the second sentence . . . and after a lot of fiddling, I had a new paragraph, which I joined up to the following text. I looked it over, polished it a bit, tweaked some words — and then deleted the whole paragraph.
Because I was trying to play the wrong game.
These aren’t the sorts of books in which the narrator lays out her emotional state for the reader to marinate in. Those lines I had so much trouble writing? They were too overt. They were modern in style, rather than the buttoned-up Victorian tone I’ve been aiming for this whole time. I don’t pretend this will work for every reader, but: as far as I’m concerned, that scene has more impact, or at least more the kind of impact I’m going for, when I keep it simple. Less is more.
This is on my mind right now because my husband and I just finished watching Agent Carter, and we’re also nearing the end of the first season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I realized tonight that I’m starting to crave passionate, operatic, heart-on-sleeve declarations of love, because both of those shows feature a lot of very proper characters having All the Feels but never talking about it openly. I said before that I ship Peggy Carter and Edmund Jarvis in a totally platonic way, and I stand by that — but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t flailing during one of the last scenes of this last episode, with the two of them being so very Britishly reserved at one another. And my god, if Jack Robinson and Phryne Fisher don’t kiss by the end of this season, I might throw things at the TV. (A real kiss, I mean. Not a “no I only did that to keep the murderer from noticing you I swear that’s all it was” kiss.)
My reaction means the writers are doing their jobs correctly, of course. And this is the thing romance and horror have in common: they both carry more impact if they tease you for a while first, hinting at stuff and building it slowly before finally delivering the emotional payoff. If you rush the process, it doesn’t work as well. But if you play the tension right, if you see only hints of the monster or the occasional Meaningful Gaze between the characters . . . then you don’t need an enormous payoff to get a lot of energy out of it. One kiss can work as well as — or better than — the characters falling into bed; one brief shot of the monster’s face can horrify you more than seeing the entire thing.
When it’s done well, I adore this sort of thing. Too steady of a diet, though, and I start feeling like I need some characters with a bit less self-control. But tell me: what are your favorite “oh my god this tiny thing was so incredibly meaningful” emotional payoffs in a story, or your favorite “and then we pulled out all of the stops and fired up the jet engines and went so far over the top we couldn’t even see it with binoculars” moments?