Thursday, February 11, 2016

Romantic Tension--and Dance!

I like stretched comparisons. So when my husband and I were practicing our lindy in the kitchen the other night, and I was paying some extra attention to the tension in our arms and torsos, I started to think about how that related to writing, too. In particular--how tension, as it does in dancing, defines the movement between two partners in a written relationship.  

So, in honor of Valentine's Day weekend, a little post on romantic relationships and the dance they create.  

With examples from swing dancing.

First up--in partnered swing dancing, we use "tension" to mean the body position of both partners, the connection between the two partners, and how the lead's movements direct the follow and the follow responds. By the way, I use "lead and follow" not "guy and girl" because leads can be girls and follows can be guys! Plus, it's more descriptive of what the roles actually do, and it's not a gender thing--it's a dance thing.  Proof--two ladies in a partnered dance at the Savoy (and one gal just doing her own thing):



In really good partnered dancing, there aren't "cues" to follow most of the time.  That is, the follow doesn't need to know "when I put my arm up, you go under it."  Instead, where the lead places himself or herself dictates where the follow will go. The lead puts his arm up and there's no logical place to go *but* under it.  If, of course, there's good tension.

So what makes tension?
Body Position Different dances require different proper body positions--in swing, it's athletic and at the ready, more springy than formal. Both partners have to have the right posture for the dance to work at its best. What about writing? Well, if you're going to write a relationship between two characters, you need two characters. I may have just made what seems to be a "duh" statement--but how many drafts, or even published works, have you read where one of the characters doesn't stand up on his or her own? Both characters need good posture, and it needs to be right posture for the relationship. You're going to have a really awkward dance if one person is in upright ballroom position and the other is in athletic, slightly crouched lindy stance. They'll have to learn to dance together if they start out in different postures!
The Connection The connection in dance refers to the places where the lead and follow touch. Take a look at Fred and Ginger:
Now, this is kind of a posed photo, but work with it.  Their connection points are at Ginger's back where Fred's hand is, at Fred's shoulder where Ginger's hand is, and their clasped hands. The most obvious connection point is the clasped hands--you see these the most in the fancy moves, because she's going to turn under his arm and he'll appear to be leading her with that hand most of the time.
He's not. It's a lie. The strongest connection point is his hand on her back. When you have a good connection, a follow should feel like the lead's hand is glued to her back except when he wants it gone, and she'll try to keep the hand where it's supposed to be. This will direct a lot of her movement--where he goes, she goes; if he turns, she goes where the hand directs her to go, which may be away from him or with him.
So, where do your characters connect? Is is an obvious but superficial spot like the hands? If you lose your grip, the you've got no other connection. Or is it a more solid spot, allowing them to communicate and dance together? This is one place where writers often develop the relationship through the story--you see the hands only at first, but the plot reveals or creates other ways the two are connected.
One other point--with good connection, the movement is organic, borne out of the connection and the lead's movement. The lead isn't shoving or pulling the follow. So, too, with your characters--one character shouldn't feel like he or she is forcing the other (unless that's a particular issue your characters are going to have to work out).
The Tension Itself So here's the thing--you can have good posture and a great connection, but still no tension. Tension is the resistance that the partners give each other. If one person has noodle arms, you have no tension, and the lead can't tell the follow anything. Imagine a cooked noodle--you push on it, it just flops. On the flip side, too much tension and you'll be too stiff to communicate with. The lead can't get through to a too-tense follow, and a follow can't understand anything if the lead's tension is too heavy. Imagine a piece of uncooked spaghetti--push it too much and it breaks.
So, basically, characters can't be noodles, cooked or uncooked.
To make a relationship enjoyable to read--to make it a real dance--there needs to be tension. When the lead pushes, the follow gives--a little. Not all the way. This keeps them developing the relationship--too much tension and there's no give, no keeping the reader involved in the hopes that something will develop. Too little tension and the story just folds on itself--it's a done deal before it's really begun to develop.



And one more thing...it's supposed to be fun! (See, these folks dancing at the Savoy are having fun.) Sure, any developing relationship will have its angst--dancing with a new partner means getting used to all their little nuances and learning the moves they know that you don't. You're going to bonk your follow in the head or step on your lead's toes. But if it's all head-bonks and toe steps in your story, your readers are going to get bored. They want some fun, too--not just angst.
If your favorite romantic pairing in a book, or your current WIP's characters, danced out their relationship, what dance would it be?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Resisting the Gross in Non-Contemporary Lit

I'm sure we've all seen the lists and click-bait articles, like Ten Revolting Facts About the 18th Century.  And we've definitely read it and viewed it in books, movies and TV.  Some time ago, Terry Dresbach, the costume designer for Outlander, posted an extensive blog about All That Is Icky in the Eighteenth Century.  She has since removed the post, but there's a response that discusses it in depth here.  All in all, the peasant's explanation in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that he could tell that the king was a king "because he doesn't have any shit on him" seems, in fact, quite adequate in light of what we "know" about historical hygiene and cleanliness norms.

Fact is, much of it is pure crap.

As writers, this becomes problematic.  We either accept the current concept on non-modern norms (whether writing historical, fantasy, or speculative fiction), or risk accusations of (or actual) "romanticizing" of these spaces.  Frankly, gross sells, too--it's different, it's shocking, and it feeds our egos that we're oh-so enlightened and "better" than those poor sods. The thing is, different is not necessarily a bad thing--and to our characters might be quite normal.  And not always gross.

Take, for instance, the use of showers and deodorant.  (This is going to be a long for-instance--fair warning.) We find it totally normal to shower, wash our hair, and apply an underarm deodorant (not all of us--but I'll get there).  To compare with the 18th century, we quickly get grossed out--Ew! They didn't shower! They didn't even *BATHE* for pity's sake? Well, they were walking stinkbags, then, weren't they?

Trouble is, we forget to look past "they didn't take baths" to a more nuanced approach to hygiene.  Yes, most people didn't "bathe"--that is, immerse themselves in water--on the regular, but they did wash.  Washing and bathing--not the same.

Maid with washbasin, presumed to be helping her mistress with a touch-up sponge bath, not preparing to upend it over her for calling her "Hey  You" for the eighth time this week.

Freshening up, for lack of a better term.

And then we dig deeper.  Did they scrub their hair with shampoo? No, but they combed it, worked pomade (conditioning agent) and powder (oil absorbing agent) through it and then styled it (with  no extra sticky, chemical-y, gummy, shall we say gross? styling products).  So we can surmise that most people had regular hygiene routines, just like we do--they were different, but effective.  I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the pomade-and-powder hair routine.  I haven't "washed" my hair in about a week.  I will soon, because I like wearing it in a "modern" style that requires hair prepared in a modern way--and there's the rub, isn't it? This "gross" hygiene practice is actually coming down to aesthetic preferences and norms, not cleanliness!

And then we slather on antiperspirant, right? Turns out, not everyone--write them off as hippie nuts or laud them as progressive, but plenty of people reject the idea of applying a product that's intended to slow or stop a natural process, or are leery of the ingredients in modern deodorant antiperspirants.  And you know what?  They don't stink.  They wash.  Maybe they use scent, like our "gross" ancestors did.  (And their choices haven't gone unnoticed by The Science, which of course now is developing armpit odor studies.)

So. All of that coming back around to this.  It can be hard to Resist the Gross when writing, because a) initial research is going to lead you to Gross and b) there actually is a lot of real, factual Gross out there.  It's also hard because the expectation for any pre-technologically-modern society is that it be Gross, so you might walk a line of being told you're *not* being realistic when you are!  But I think it's worthwhile for solid world building.  We can't fall back on Gross when we aren't sure what to do, but consider what people *actually did* in similar situations.

I try to Resist the Gross.  There are time it makes sense and adds authenticity to include some gross, but we shouldn't fall back on sensationalist Gross to pull in readers--instead, we should aim for tactile, awesome world building.