Continuing with the HEAVES, the elements that boys respond positively toward in their reading, we switch gears and take a look at the first E…
Let’s begin with an excerpt from Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Thirteen-year-old Brian is on his way to visit his father when the only other person on board the plane, the pilot, suffers a fatal heart attack. The plane is flying mostly on its own, but soon Brian will need to take action and he has to decide how to proceed.
He repeated the radio call seventeen times at the ten-minute intervals, working on what he would do between transmissions. Once more he reached over to the pilot and touched him on the face, but the skin was cold, hard cold, death cold, and Brian turned back to the dashboard. He did what he could, tightened his seatbelt, positioned himself, rehearsed mentally again and again what his procedure should be.
When the plane ran out of gas he should hold the nose down and head for the nearest lake and try to fly the plane kind of onto the water. That’s how he thought of it. Kind of fly the plane onto the water. And just before it hit he should pull back on the wheel and slow the plane down to reduce the impact.
Over and over in his mind ran the picture of how it would go. The plane running out of gas, flying the plane into the water, the crash––from pictures he’d seen on television. He tried to visualize it. He tried to be ready.
But between the seventeenth and eighteenth radio transmissions, without a warning, the engine coughed, roared violently for a second and died. There was a sudden silence, cut only by the sound of the windmilling propellor and the wind past the cockpit.
Brian pushed the nose of the plane down and threw up.
The E here is for Emotion.
Emotions might be the most misunderstood element of what boys want from their reading. Simply put, boys want to feel what the protagonist is feeling, but they don’t want to be told what to feel or how to feel it. Boys want to experience these emotions viscerally and vicariously without having the emotion defined for them.
In the example from Hatchet, Paulsen puts the reader in the seat alongside Brian, and often right behind Brian’s eyes. Finding oneself suddenly flying a plane in the wilderness without radio contact stirs up a great deal of emotion but the reader isn’t told why Brian tightens his seat belt just then, how Brian feels about touching the dead pilot, or what other concerns he has while running through his crash-landing checklist. In fact, Paulsen gives us no real clues about what or how to feel this scene until the final two words of the chapter – threw up – which actually serves as a sort of release for all the emotional tension the scene has been building.
And as with the embarrassment of inadvertent humor, it doesn’t hurt if the emotional investment is slightly uncomfortable to the reader. It is these precise moments of discomfort that boys look for. They want to know they aren’t alone in these feelings, but they also want to be able to feel good about it when its all over.
A common complaint about boys is that they don’t express themselves, emotionally or otherwise. This can be tricky for a writer who is trying to feed a boy’s desire for emotion by creating a realistic character who is equally closed off. Ironically, one of the best ways a writer can convey this is through dialog.
Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now manages this through the use of elision, the technique where what’s left unsaid is filled in by the reader. The main character Sutter is an unrepentant teen alcoholic who idolizes Dean Martin, proudly and stubbornly remaining true to his dead-end life while his friends are all transitioning to the possibilities that await them after graduation. His pretend girlfriend Aimee is planning to move away, his old girlfriend Cassidy has found a new boyfriend named Marcus, and Sutter insists he’s fine with it all despite pining for Cassidy now and then. So when he calls her on a whim while she’s off with Marcus visiting colleges and discovers she’s actually planning to change schools he steadfastly tries to hold his emotional neutral ground.
“But you’ve been all set to go to OU for months.”
“I was, but I have the right to change my mind if I want to.”
“But surely it’s too late to get enrolled somewhere else now.”
“No, it’s not. The application deadline isn’t until June 15. I checked.”
“What about your parents?”
“They’re the ones who encouraged me to come out here and look it over. You know how they always thought I should go to school out of state and get a chance to see more of the world and everything. Besides, they absolutely love Marcus.”
No big surprise. I’m sure her parents figure Marcus is an enormous step up from me. I don’t mention that though.
“How about the cost?” I ask. “won’t it be a lot more expensive, out-of-state-tuition and everything?”
“I’ll get a job. Anything’s worth working for if you want it enough.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It’s like a whole new era in my life is unfolding, Sutter.”
“Well, that’s great,” I say, “That’s very cool.”
What’s the point of arguing? I should be happy for her. We’re just friends, after all.
“So, what were you calling about?”
For a second I completely forgot why I called. “Nothing,” I say. “It’s just been a while since we talked.”
There’s not much to say after that. She tells me she’ll email me some stuff about the college, pictures and all. She’ll fill me in about the whole excursion when she gets back.
I’m like, “That’s great. That’s great.” Somehow just about my whole vocabulary has frozen up, except for the word great.
A second later, she’s gone, vanished into the enchanted New Mexican night. She’s gone, Aimee’s soon to be gone, and me, all of a sudden, I’m hit with this absolutely incredible thirst.
Though he never says it outright, Sutter’s questions about Cassidy’s new school – the costs, the application deadline – aren’t concerns for her as much as they are his attempt to articulate his fear of her moving away. And Cassidy’s line about anything ‘worth working for’ is a less-than-subtle dig at the fact that Sutter never really worked to keep their relationship together. At this point Sutter emotionally freezes behind the word great and, as he has done throughout the entire book, he turns to alcohol at the end to deaden his emotional pain.
Here again, the boy reader gets the benefit of calculating the emotion themselves. They can put themselves in the uncomfortable phone call with a girl and feel the mental block that makes them inarticulate without having to suffer the embarrassment or turn to booze.
The trick in presenting emotion to boys is finding a way to make the reader reach in and grab the visceral heart of the scene. Let the character dance around the emotion so the reader can see it from all sides and name it for themselves. Just because boys don’t like to express their own feelings doesn’t mean they don’t have them or want to acknowledge them.
Next week we’ll look at the letters A and V in HEAVES and see how character empathy comes into play from an unusual direction. That’ll be next Tuesday and Thursday.