The Emotional Charge

By Brenda W. Clough

bangThesis: If you want to find the true subject of any story, look at where its emotional charge resides.

I read this in a review of a book that I have already forgotten. But this concept – do we have here another peephole into fiction? As I recall the author said that at the bottom of all romance novels there was the (admittedly risible) doctrine that you could take a worthless, borderline psychopathic man and somehow by the application of True Love turn him into husband material. In other words, the emotional charge does not have to make any sense or stand up to reason. It is however the reason why that particular book was written, and the reason why readers love it. It is the subconscious of the book.

I took this tool and immediately went off into the flowery fields of fiction with it, the way a boy would carry a shiny new axe into the forest looking for targets. What is the emotional charge at the bottom of LOTR?  Clearly it is that the suffering and sacrifice of the Very Small, the negligible foot soldiers, may save the war. For modern combat this is nonsense, as anyone who has studied war will tell you. It may have been true when Homer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre. But how powerful that must have been to a post WW2 audience, and I note that the next boom period for LOTR was during the Vietnam War.

 What about PRIDE & PREJUDICE? How about the necessity, against all odds and practicality, of hanging tough and waiting for true love? This seems a little surface and simplistic. What’s below that? Perhaps that you do not necessarily have to pay attention to the bottom line, that money is not central – and if you ignore it, it’ll somehow turn up in your life. Good luck with that.

What else could we do with it, this interesting tool? If you like a book, what is its emotional charge?

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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The Emotional Charge — 8 Comments

  1. I think this thesis is part of the age-old “Where is the conflict?” At least, this is the direction I’ve always thought in: I never was, and am not, a sophisticated reader, but I was in tenth grade, reading Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities followed by Les Miserables when it occurred to me that the difference between my passionate reads and the excruciatingly dull classroom discussions was that our (male, as it happens) teachers were insisting on our looking at these books through their particular lens, “Is it man against nature? Man against society? What is the theme?” and I was trying to articulate that the books were good because of the emotional engagements of the characters: the emotional conflict.

    This conviction only strengthened over the next few years, as I plowed through classroom required literature ranging from a world-weary ennui to a hip emotional detachment as response to postmodern pointlessness. ( I retain a vague impression that reading Lilian Hellman’s plays was akin to being locked in a room with too many cigarette smokers arguing about arguing, an image perhaps borrowed from Waiting for Godot, which I believe we had to read in three different English classes).

    Anyway, I began to see that works like Pride and Prejudice, which we did not study, brought me back to rereading because of the emotional engagement–not only between heroine and hero, but between the women, between assumptions of class privilege, i.e. the obnoxiously arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh and how Elizabeth trounced her. I realized there was a great deal of emotional fun in how, in all Austen’s books, the nobility got skewered on the point of her pen, even though I was also reading and loving Georgette Heyer’s uncritical fawning over rank and wealth in her romances. But Heyer’s axes of emotional fun, I thought, were narrower than Austen’s.

    I also began to realize that each reading of Lord of the Rings, P&P, War and Peace, etc, was bringing me a different emotional punch–my first reading of Tolkien was for the sheer adventure, when I was fourteen. When I reread it ten years later, the powerful emotional engagement was that tremendous sense of yearning for a passing world, which I had just begun to perceive in post-WW I writers.

    I should wrap up this blather by saying: the books I return to are ones with different emotional axes, perceived at different stages of my life.

    • It was something of a revelation to me when I started re-reading as an older adult many of my favourite books from my youth. Of course, I wanted to recapture the magic which had initially drawn me to each, but finding different magic in addition to – or instead of – the original was always a surprise.

      Inevitably there would be the odd one that retained neither the original magic nor offered anything new, and it was sad putting them back on the shelf and acknowledging that they would remain a permanent part of an ever-receding past.

      And then there are those books we can return to again and again and again until suddenly one day we realise we’re done with them (at least for the foreseeable future – there’s always hope, right?).

      A friend once told me that he never re-reads books, no matter how much he has enjoyed them. I could never grasp that idea – it’s like only listening to a piece of music or preparing a delicious recipe once. To me, it’s like sunsets: there’s one every single day, but never the same way twice (mind, I might eventually tire of a book, but I’ll never tire of sunsets…).

      • Rereading childhood’s book tends to bring up much astonishment: why did I ever think these two books were comparable?

      • Surely re-reading is one of the great pleasures of life? I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that the first reading gets you that rush to see what happens. But after that, then you can really dig into the calmer pleasures of the work.

  2. Pride and Prejudice: know what you want in life, and work towards that. Charlotte Lucas could find happiness where Elizabeth Bennet would have been in excrutiating agony every day of her life; so it’s not a one-size-fits-all happiness; and neither money nor infatuation are keys.

    • Hmm. I like that. Clearly Lydia Bennett is the primary example of someone blown about by the winds of desires, today a bonnet, tomorrow a fetching gent in a red coat. And much of the work revolves around the process of =finding out= what you really want. Darcy condemned Elizabeth as insufficiently pretty and a punishment to stand up with, but he found out.

  3. I immediately took this tool to my own current WIP. What is the emotional charge down at the depth of these ms (three novels, each about 100K word count)? Maybe the root of my story is that desire does not rule. You can want something (or someone) desperately. The whole nine yards, the one in the books and the poems and the songs: ’tis the moon and Juliet is the sun, I wanna hold your hand!, let us not to the marriage of true mind admit impediments. And you can not get it, forever — and still be more than okay. That is a really hopeful thing to say, and quite contrary to popular wisdom. You are not what you desire.