Emotional Continuity

Elephants Remember

News Flash! Editor Deborah J. Ross interviewed me about writing, my story in the forthcoming issue of Sword and Sorceress and other things.

In it, I touch on how negative influences have had a strong impact on my writing.  Here’s an example.

Last week, I took a week off writing to immerse myself in various aspects of the Firekeeper universe before moving into the next part of the story.  One of the complications about writing the seventh novel in a series is how easily it is to gloss over small details.  Add to this that I haven’t written a Firekeeper novel in over a decade and the complexity grows.

By coincidence, my pleasure reading included a series I am enjoying very much – especially for the evolving relationships of the central suite of characters.  I’m not going to go into details, but something I read made me think about an often neglected element of continuity – emotional continuity.

When something traumatic happens to a character, something that is key to a great deal of the action of that particular book, and then in the next book, something similar (but not identical) happens, I expect the characters to comment, to remember.  When they don’t, my sense that the characters are “real” suffers.

I’m not saying that the author must provide  a full recap of past events, not at all.  However, real people remember what happened to them and those memories influence how they act in the future.  Indeed, one could argue that our core self consists of an accumulated suite of experiences.  Whenever something new happens, we seek to understand it by relating it to what we have experienced before.  When something recurs, the most common reaction is “Here we go again!”   Even new experiences are often understood by how they relate to past ones: “I’ve had milk chocolate with fruit and nuts, but never with chile pepper flakes!”

The importance of emotional or experiencial continuity is one reason that senility is such a horrible thing,  not only for the sufferers, but for those who love them.  The person you once knew is vanishing, in part because he or she cannot make those little connections to past events that are the heart of identity.   PTSD is another side of emotional continuity.  In this case, rather than remembering too little, the person is subjected to remembering too much – even to having traumatic experiences “flashback,” contaminating what in reality is a pristine or unconnected situation.

When I’m writing stories featuring continuing characters, what’s most important to me is to establish the sense that the characters have emotional continuity.  To me that’s more important than dates or order of events.  After all, humans do forget such details.  We’ve all had those discussions as to whether it was two or three summers ago that Uncle Joe got that horrible sunburn.  The sequence of events is less important than what those events did to us, and how our future actions are influenced by them.

Another element that goes into writing believable emotional continuity is making sure everyone doesn’t react the same way.  Let’s go back to Uncle Joe’s sunburn.  Uncle Joe is going to remember the pain, and maybe how dumb he felt for forgetting to renew his sunblock or for falling asleep out on the beach.  Aunt Reba is going to remember not only her concern for Uncle Joe, but the fact that their long-planned anniversary outing ended up cancelled.  Cousin Buck is going to remember how annoyed he was because Dad getting sick meant he had to call off the date he had with the pretty lifeguard.  And so on…

When I read a book in a series where the characters seem to remember events perfectly well, but not react to current events in light of past experiences (especially when those experiences were traumatic), my sense that they are real begins to ebb.  When they start reacting in light of events from decades before, but seem to forget what traumatized them two years ago, then I feel the fingers of a plot-driven author stirring the pot, rather than feeling the characters actually exist.

Does this ruin the read for me?  Not necessarily, but it definitely makes me acutely aware of how I don’t want to do that to my characters – or to my readers.  In thinking about what bothers me as a reader, I strive to become a stronger writer.

Now…  Off to write!

9 Responses to “Emotional Continuity”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    As an avid reader, I agree with you. Things like this can jar me out of a story. I start thinking about details and I start analyzing instead of being imursed in the story.
    A good story with fully developed characters makes me lose my sense of self. I’m living the story.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    I can also remember reading more that one story that had me going ‘but when are they going to remember…?’ Don’t ask me which stories, none of them merited that much retention, and that was often only one of a host of failings.

    I have to admit, when it comes to Uncle Joe on the beach, that if it grabs my attention I’m quite capable of dissecting entire parallel time lines in order to figure out exactly when it occurred. Mind you, I rather doubt that Uncle Joe ever did anything so bourgeois as getting a sunburn. If he did, I would bet that whoever was assigned to keep the beach umbrella properly adjusted spent the next 20 years in the Gulag 😉

    • janelindskold Says:

      I catch your joke, but there is more than one Uncle Joe!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        True enough – we’re assured that Joe Hill never died, after all.

        More seriously, your point about continuity is indeed crucial, but a coherent chronology can also be important. Not to say that every scene should be time stamped, but people do tend to assume that things happen in the order they read them, unless told otherwise. Some of us, at least, are also quite aware of things like travel time and have a tendency to start counting on our fingers and going “whoa, there! how did _that_ have time to happen?” And that doesn’t count characters who by their nature or occupation should have a very precise knowledge of when things happen even if they wouldn’t express it in precise terms in the context – not having a clue when you should is quite distinct from not burying people under unneeded facts [something, I have to admit, that is one of my own weaknesses]

  3. Harried Harry Says:

    Great point you have made. I had not thought of the consequence of “continuity” but it sure comes true for me. Many stories seem to lose sense when prior events are ignored. For me, it is the same as when I come across a spelling mistake or a grammatical error. I lose track of where the author was trying to take me. (I learned English in a private school where mistakes were penalized by a ruler! ).

    As some of us have managed to become older, we do lose track of the “when” but not the event. Of course for some of us, we have trouble remembering the past, let alone the present. I’m glad I don’t need to worry about remembering the future or I would be in worse shape than I am now.

    Keep up your efforts to maintain the continuity and Congratulations on the interview by Ms. Ross.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks! One of the fascinating things about aging is realizing that events you need to consider precisely when they happened still have an impact on how you react to new events — good or ill!

  4. valorandcompassion Says:

    Thank you for this helpful post, Jane. I think emotional continuity–or describing emotion overall–was one of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer.

    I still smile and wince at the same time when I look back at the first longer work I wrote, when I was ten (I guess you’d call it a novella, based on the size of my handwriting versus 12-point type). It’s a perfect example of cluelessness about how to describe characters’ feelings. In one scene, the main character discovers the body of her father in the shower (it’s a combo of a murder mystery and an urban fantasy, featuring a vampire rabbit). After a required sentence mentioning her bursting into tears, she then decides to use the upstairs shower…presumably body-free. Geez!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Oh… That’s a GREAT anecdote… Thank you, Margaret.

      • valorandcompassion Says:

        In the same book, I created a silly scene where, for some unfathomable reason, the protagonist’s attic is filled with about 50,000 pillows, and the antagonist pulls a trap door, sending them flooding through the house and causing the family to have to swim through pillows to get to anything.
        Only a kid would think of this, right? 😉

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