Ask yourself these questions: Do I wish for my readers to experience quiet, peace, placidity, and calm? Or, do I wish for my readers’ experience to be intense? I suspect I know your answer. Who does not want their novel to be intense?
A couple of weeks ago, guest contributor Gaëtane Burkolter introduced us to her Excite-O-Meter, a tool to chart the intensity of her WIP. It’s a graph with the horizontal axis representing each chapter and the vertical axis measuring intensity on a scale of zero to one hundred. The line produced is a visual picture of her novel’s rising (one hopes) level of intensity.
But what exactly is intensity? What causes the action of a novel to provoke that feeling in characters, readers and authors? How is intensity produced on the page, so that readers feel it? How is it generated by authors within themselves on any given writing day?
When most of us think of intensity, we probably think of experiencing what is extreme. That’s not wrong. Extreme action can be intense. Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity (1995) is a good example. It’s the story of graduate student Chyna Shepherd who is recovering from an abusive childhood. Her weekend visit with the family of her lifelong friend Laura Templeton, however, turns into a violent nightmare. Serial killer Edgler Vess breaks in at night and kills everyone except Laura, whom he abducts, and Chyna, who stows away on Vess’s motor home.
The story that follows is about as horrifying as they get. I’ll spare you, or save for you, the lurid and violent details, but there are two points to note. First is that Vess (modeled on real life serial killer Edmund Kemper) kills in order to experience “intensity”. Second is that Chyna is able to endure and defeat Vess because she, thanks to her abusive childhood, has a greater tolerance for intensity than he. Trust me, the read is quite intense.
In science, intensity is a measure of power per unit area (physics), such as radiant heat flux (heat transfer), or field strength (electromagnetism). It can also be luminous intensity (optics), radiance (astronomy), or peak ground acceleration (as in earthquakes, geology). In other words, intensity is when force is packed tightly into something. It’s not the object itself but its effect. In writing terms, that means that intensity isn’t action per se, it’s the effect that any given story moment has on us.
Violence can be intense but it’s not the only way to produce the effect of intensity. In psychological terms, intensity is a high degree of emotional excitement. Over-excitability used to be seen as a personality problem, but is now understood not as a cause but a consequence of something else; a consequence that can be constructive, in important ways forming and strengthening personality instead of impairing it.
Psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration explains, among other things, the extreme excitability of gifted children. Once seen as hyperactive, distractible, disruptive, immature and oppositional, Dabrowski and later researchers revealed that such children are instead high energy, imaginative, passionate, sensitive and creative. They react more quickly and intensely, moved by inner forces that generate over-stimulation.
That’s true in all healthy personality formation. Conflict and pain lead to an inner collapse or “disintegration”, which in turn builds stronger personality based on an individual’s values. The result is autonomy, or what informally we would call maturity. Grown up, if not gifted, individuals are curious and driven to challenge conformity, complacency and self-satisfaction.
Does that sound like a guideline to creating great protagonists? [Read more…]