Mentor Monday: Emotional Ping-Pong


Last week I promised to share some insights
from my mentor, Claudia Mills.

Claudia is helping me revise a middle-grade novel
about two girls, one homeless and the other, not.

The first time I met with Claudia, she praised my
"wonderful sense of the shifting terrain of interpersonal
dynamics and psychological nuance."

But, it turns out my sensitivity and attunement to my characters
is also the main stumbling block in my story.

Claudia went on to write in her comments:
"It’s that you are SO good at psychological nuance that I sometimes
felt as if I were watching a ping-pong match . . . feelings were shifting
back and forth with such frequency that I lost sense of where
we were in the overall shape of the story."

She was absolutely right.
And I have a feeling some of my earlier readers had that same issue
(whether or not they were able to articulate it that way).

So that’s what I worked on in my opening chapters
(plus some other issues regarding initial conflict).
I focused on the psychological dynamics in each scene,
watching for the ping-pong effect.
I wanted to build tension in each of my story’s relationships.

I worked and worked.
Last week I met with Claudia to discuss the revisions.

While I nailed the revisions of the initial conflicts,
it turns out I’d written some more emotional ping-pong.

I was frustrated with myself,
and as we talked, I wondered if I’d ever fully grasp what she was saying.
I mean, I’m a hyper-sensitive person and I feel lots of emotions all the time;
I wasn’t sure if I could write characters any other way.

And then Claudia said this:
Your task is to give yourself room to build.

Cue the epiphany music!

I cannot write scenes in which characters’ feelings
jump all over the spectrum from one moment to the next.
Even though they might feel that way inside,
I can only allow their emotions to move incrementally within each scene
so that there’s somewhere for them to go as the story progresses.

For example, if I write a character expressing full-blown anger
toward another character in the opening chapters,
there’s not a lot of room to maneuver the emotions of their relationship.

I need room to build.
It’s as simple as that.

(This was taken yesterday afternoon and somehow the imagery feels right for this post). © 2010 Tracy Abell

19 thoughts on “Mentor Monday: Emotional Ping-Pong

  1. That’s a brilliant insight. It’s hard, though, isn’t it, to avoid the ping-pong match effect when our “characters” are careening from one crisis to another?

    Beautiful doves. But boy howdy, are they ever teh stooopid.


    • I’m so happy I finally understand the problem because I think I’ve written that way before. A bunch. Not in all my stories but all the ones with intense emotional arcs.

      The doves are beautiful. I was just thinking the other day how I admire them because they remain calm and unruffled as they roost in the tree alongside the finch scuffles and squirrel invasions, etc. I could use that mind-set. 🙂


      • I so wish that we lived closer. I want to learn this (and so much more) from you.

        When I was buying birdseed on Sunday, the salesman and I were laughing about how doves seem to embody the very definition of serenity, but in truth, it’s really because they’re (in his words) “dumber than the fence posts on which they perch.” Maybe that’s the key to being a “neutral witness”? There’s gotta be more than one way to enter a state of Zen-ness. 🙂


  2. Pingback: My Insides Match My Outsides | Tracy Abell

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