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Thread: Angst check: avoiding narm

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Angst check: avoiding narm

    Do you ever angst-check your characters? How much screaming and crying is enough before readers become apathetic or entertained? My MC spends a couple of years recovering from a debilitating injury. I can't put my finger on where or how, yet, but I'm feeling like some of it is venturing into narm territory (for lack of a better word).

    TVtropes defines it as:

    Narm is a moment that is supposed to be serious, but due to either over-sappiness, poor execution, excessive Melodrama, or the sheer absurdity of the situation, the drama is lost to the point of surpassing "cheesy" and becoming unintentionally funny.
    What are your thoughts on balancing tragedy so nothing turns to cheese?

    I may be overanalyzing because my fiancee always laughs at every movie scene that's supposed to be heartwrenching and I have internalized that voice in my head. >.> I understand some of it is subjective, too--if you type in "wangst" on Urban Dictionary, "Louis the Vampire" is the first cited example. I love Louis!

    Where do you draw the fine line between dark vs. whiney, and happy vs. barfy? For example, longwinded, self-pitying internal monologues should not be abused.

    I don't know why I'm angsting over this right now. It's too bad I can't spellcheck with F7 and then narmcheck with F8.

  2. #2
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    For me it might come down to whether or not a character is portrayed realistically (unless it's comedy, in which case pretty much anything goes). That's almost certainly subjective to an extent, and what's narm for you may not be for someone else.

    In the case of your MC, without a specific example it's difficult to comment. If you're showing your readers how much pain s/he has to endure on a daily basis, I'd say you're on the right track. If you're telling them, then I'd say maybe not.

    A great and narm-free example of a character in constant pain would be Joe Abercrombie's inquisitor, Glokta (First Law series). Unyielding, excruciating pain is central to his existence, and you can't read about him without reading about his debilitating aches. You never tire of it, though, because he's a great character and handled very adroitly.
    Last edited by van Adel; 11-15-2017 at 01:33 PM.

  3. #3
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blackcat777 View Post
    How much screaming and crying is enough before readers become apathetic or entertained?
    Very little. Less is definitely more. And I'm kinda-sorta guessing that if you're concerned you already have too much, you probably do.

    Maybe also try balancing the moments of angst and discouragement with moments of determination and stoicism and humor.

  4. #4
    cutsie-pie Curlz's Avatar
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    It's all in the execution. Read books about tragedy, have a look how others have approached the subject. There are more ways to show a melodramatic moment than just saying "she was very sad and cried". Besides is your character only going to be vocalizing their sadness? Aren't they actually doing ​things?

  5. #5
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    If you're even worrying that you're in narm territory, then you almost certainly are. Less is definitely more with this stuff - a single tear rolling down a cheek at 3am is worth five pages of wailing, imo.
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  6. #6
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    I'd never heard that term "narm" before, but seeing it makes me think of a teen-angst rewrite of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with twenty pages of an adolescent Aslan bawling his eyes out as he scribbles in his diary about how the White Witch was, like, so mean cutting off his mane like that in front of everyone...

    As others have said, if you're worried you're approaching overkill, you probably are. Beware of crossing the line between angst serving the story and the story serving angst - a little can go a long way. (But that's the point of drafts and revision; sometimes you need to write these things out for yourself, as the author, to understand and refine your characters as you carve them out of raw material, but then it can go away in the next draft and the reader never needs to see that pile of shavings.) Keep in mind that everyone has different thresholds, though - getting a few betas to give it a once-over might help you find that line for your story.
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  7. #7
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Generally speaking, the stronger the emotion, the more narrative distance you put. As a rule of thumb. Exceptions do always apply as ever.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

    -- George MacDonald

  8. #8
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
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    I tend to take a "less is more" approach, conveying pain through little gestures and so forth. But then, I've had instances where the reader is then not even aware that my character is in pain, and is completely baffled when the character finally cracks and exposes his inner turmoil in some way: like, "Huh? Since when is he so unhappy? This seems abrupt." So then I have to go through and find ways to make their pain more obvious (even if it already seems obvious to me) without being too narmy about it.

    It's a fine line to walk.
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  9. #9
    Tending bar by the litterbox. Thomas Vail's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    Generally speaking, the stronger the emotion, the more narrative distance you put. As a rule of thumb. Exceptions do always apply as ever.
    I forget where it was, something sci-fi, but I remember a character being shot in the head, and others hovering around, wringing hands, as the medic examined them and slowly shook their head, and then the damn burst with everyone wailing, 'oh no, X is dead!' And it had two big problems -

    1: the whole thing was massively over wrought with extensive emphasis on how tightly wound up everyone was. Quivering lips, tears on the verge of being shed, the works. We got to know just how anxious everyone was in detail.

    2: the scene made it sound like the character's head was _blown_ _off_, so, shock, surprise, the medic can't save them. It shouldn't be a dramatic reveal of death when the medic has to wander a block from the rest of the body to check the pupil response.
    Last edited by Thomas Vail; 11-15-2017 at 10:46 PM.

  10. #10
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
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    That actually sounds hilarious. I vaguely remember a similar scene in an anime (something with girls and guns and I think it had "Mars" in the title) where a character is literally decapitated and the medic runs all these tests on the headless body and then solemnly says, "It's too late" and covers her with a sheet.

    I think Terry Goodkind is the worst offender I've ever encountered for "overwritten emotional responses." It's tolerable in the earlier books, but eventually his writing became almost a parody of itself and he'd take like, a full page to tell you that a character is angry.

    There's also a lot of "characters giving long-winded philosophical speeches while they're in the process of being stabbed in the chest."
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  11. #11
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    lol to the above. Goodkind became unreadable for me after the first book. Anime has some delightfully bad cheese.

    as for this...

    characters giving long-winded philosophical speeches while they're in the process of being stabbed in the chest.


    I definitely never do anything like that... nope, nope, never >.> *edges away whilst whistling*
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

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  12. #12
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Some responses you can't control. When I was reading the Harry Potter books (way back when) I cried when Cedric died. I didn't even like his character much but there was a lot of emotional response in that particular scene. But then, I read book five and when Sirius died (a character I *LOVED*) I felt nothing. Because the build up to the loss (plus he was kind of a dick in that book) wasn't the same.

    In general, if I write a scene that creates an emotional response in me (as the author) I assume my readers will experience something similar. (They read my stuff because they like and understand it, right? So there should be some overlap between how I write/respond to a scene and they do, even if it's not 100% all the time.) When I feel like things are not working right - they seem silly or too much or not enough or whatever - I do two things. 1) I try and figure out what's missing. What isn't clicking for me. (Or feels like too much.) And 2), I take a break come back, read it again. Take a break, come back. Sometimes that pesky inner editor will try and tell you, you aren't doing something right. Or imposter syndrome. Or those tacos you ate last night. If you are consistently getting the same feeling that something is off, then fix it. But fix it for you, not because some reader somewhere might not feel exactly like you do.
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  13. #13
    No, you're the grease monkey. Fruitbat's Avatar
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    I agree a hundred times over with those who say less is more.

    Also, there is really no substitute for other eyes on your work.
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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    I wouldn't say that if you're worried about it, you're doing it. I think it's much more the writers who never worry about it that are the culprits - those who wonder if they couldn't wring out the heartstrings one more time.

    Again, this is something that is almost impossible to do without reading the passage, and even then I'd bet unless it's very egregious there will be people who think it's overkill, those who think it's underplaying a dramatic moment, and those who think it's just right.

  15. #15
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Joe Abercrombie's inquisitor, Glokta (First Law series).
    I have been debating over which Abercrombie book to read next, thank you <3

    Aren't they actually doing ​things?
    I appreciate everyone mentioning show vs. tell check, that's useful to keep in mind when I scan the parts that are bothering me. A lot of emotion with the MC is revealed in how he blows up and picks fights vs. ruminating. But this wants me to search and destroy paragraphs with ruminating.

    it makes me think of a teen-angst rewrite of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with twenty pages of an adolescent Aslan bawling his eyes out as he scribbles in his diary about how the White Witch was, like, so mean cutting off his mane like that in front of everyone...
    I want to hang this on my wall and read it every time I feel the need to question myself.

    the stronger the emotion, the more narrative distance you put
    Never made that connection, thank you!

    characters giving long-winded philosophical speeches while they're in the process of being stabbed in the chest
    You might have caught me with my hand in the cookie jar

    Anime has some delightfully bad cheese
    I ate the entire cookie jar, including the jar

    2), I take a break come back, read it again.
    This is priceless.

    Thank you so much, I sincerely appreciate the thought-provoking replies, as well as all the examples of other works so I have things to browse.

    The WIP is dark fantasy bordering on grimdark in the villain's POV, and I've never written so much nasty stuff before (I blame getting chiropractic and hitting my 30s ). I have about 30k of emotional shorts developing characters and killing them off--villages are burning, children are burning, everything is burning, the demons need sacrifice, hell is just another realm to be conquered. You know. Terrible things warrant emotional responses, but I've never had such a laundry list of terrible and it's making my brain go ASDLFIJE)(FWDC:EFW)(FDL

    I guess another thing that concerns me is taking myself too seriously--I think somehow that might tie into my fear of narm?

    This is also making me think I should blunt my MC's emotional responses, but dial up the love interest's freakouts to 11 and embrace the narm for contrast.

    Thanks again for all the helpful thoughts!!

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brightdreamer View Post
    I'd never heard that term "narm" before, but seeing it makes me think of a teen-angst rewrite of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with twenty pages of an adolescent Aslan bawling his eyes out as he scribbles in his diary about how the White Witch was, like, so mean cutting off his mane like that in front of everyone...
    I hope you're happy; I may never stop laughing. Even if I'm at a funeral, I'll think of this and double-over laughing.

    Though in all honesty, I did have a nice little nostalgia trip, thinking of all the years I read and talked about fanfiction online. I cut my storytelling teeth on fanfiction and it's in those trenches where I learned what keeps angst from turning into wangst.

    Really, the answer is quite simple: have the character try. There is no drama, no story in having a character sit around, weeping and moaning about how much his/her life sucks, and the rest of the story is just him/her getting more shit dumped on him while he/she sits around and weeps about how much his/her life sucks. Drama/Story comes from effort, comes from the character trying to overcome what's happened to them. Even if they fail, the fact they tried and didn't just sit on their ass and let stuff happen to them, is what makes for a compelling story. They didn't just go meekly to their demise; they fought every step of the way. Hamlet may have annoyed me with all the mopey soliloquies, but he did eventually stop with the monologues and get to work with the vengeance. Though I liked how Laetres served as a foil to him. When Hamlet finds out his father was murdered, he spends several scenes debating whether or not to murder his uncle in revenge. When Laertes hears about Hamlet killing his father, he goes straight to "I'm gonna kill that sonuvabitch," skipping out all the soliloquies.
    Last edited by Emermouse; 11-17-2017 at 06:59 AM.

  17. #17
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    There is no drama, no story in having a character sit around, weeping and moaning about how much his/her life sucks, and the rest of the story is just him/her getting more shit dumped on him while he/she sits around and weeps about how much his/her life stuff. Drama/Story comes from effort, comes from the character trying to overcome what's happened to them. Even if they fail, the fact they tried and didn't just sit on their ass and let stuff happen to them, is what makes for a compelling story. They didn't just go meekly to their demise; they fought every step of the way.
    This is helpful, too.

    Interestingly, the moment I'm struggling with is the moment in which MC decides to get up and fight. After bad stuff happens, there's an implied period of wound-licking (which I don't bore the reader with), but I'm trying not to have a cheese sandwich with the rainbow poptart cat when he gets up and is like, "I CAN DO IT!!!!!!!!!"

    But yes, soliloquies. I should make sure he's not having any of those with a whole bowl of Splenda when he decides to come out of the misery cave.

    It all really comes back to thinking vs. doing.

  18. #18
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Otter View Post
    I vaguely remember a similar scene in an anime (something with girls and guns and I think it had "Mars" in the title) where a character is literally decapitated and the medic runs all these tests on the headless body and then solemnly says, "It's too late" and covers her with a sheet."
    I don't suppose it was satire...?

  19. #19
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blackcat777 View Post
    I have about 30k of emotional shorts developing characters and killing them off--villages are burning, children are burning, everything is burning, the demons need sacrifice, hell is just another realm to be conquered. You know. Terrible things warrant emotional responses, but I've never had such a laundry list of terrible
    You know, when there's that much awfulness going on, readers can become numb to it and won't feel anything no matter how you handle character emotion. Just something to think about.

  20. #20
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Probably not. Anime can be wonderfully OTT at times.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

    -- George MacDonald

  21. #21
    King of the Kitties Quentin Nokov's Avatar
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    I don't watch Game of Thrones nor have I read the books. How does George R.R. Martin handle emotional responses?
    My cousin's only son has been recently hospitalized, and is tentatively scheduled for surgery on 11/21/17 for a brain tumor. The doctors also noted abnormalities on the spine. He's only 1 1/2 years old. Prayers and thoughts for the family are appreciated at this difficult time. If willing, please share Baby Odin's Story with others. Thank you.



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  22. #22
    Heckuva good sport frimble3's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quentin Nokov View Post
    I don't watch Game of Thrones nor have I read the books. How does George R.R. Martin handle emotional responses?
    He kills someone else. Sometimes as a consequence, sometimes for revenge, sometimes because, well, they were standing right there.

  23. #23
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Not very well. GoT interiority falls off a cliff around book 2 or 3.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

    -- George MacDonald

  24. #24
    Tending bar by the litterbox. Thomas Vail's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Otter View Post
    That actually sounds hilarious. I vaguely remember a similar scene in an anime (something with girls and guns and I think it had "Mars" in the title)
    Mars of Destruction, that was it. It's hilarious, but I totally remembered this as being a written piece, but being reminded of the title brings it back. And that makes just how dumb the reactions were even worse.
    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    I don't suppose it was satire...?
    Nope, played totally serious, if incompetently. The whole twenty minute episode can be found on Youtube if anyone wants to see it. Redshirt girl takes a laser blast to the face that replaces her whole head with a literal geyser of blood. After the battle, the wounded characters are being treated, which includes headless girl, with a doctor pulling up a sheet saying, 'this one is gone already.' It should be noted the shot only shows her from the shoulders down because... well... and then it cuts to another couple of characters, in the same room, reacting to the news.
    Last edited by Thomas Vail; 11-17-2017 at 05:42 AM.

  25. #25
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    when there's that much awfulness going on, readers can become numb to it and won't feel anything no matter how you handle character emotion
    I have seen that sentiment echoed in other places advising about the biggest potential pitfalls of dark fantasy. I've never experimented with this much character-killing, but if I removed it, the plot/motivations/characterization/theme/point of the struggle would all suffer, so it's not gratuitous. The real test will be whether or not my betas throw the book at my head.

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