Ordinarily the mind can only have one emotional focus, they tell us. Nothing so simple is true, but this time it’s a useful rule of thumb, I think.
People don’t read fiction to meet the ordinary. It’s novel or nothing.
One thing that’s novel is getting the reader’s mind to experience two things at once – two emotional foci. It’s not ordinary.
People’s favorite songs tend to have two simple melodies (or things like melodies) going on simultaneously. Descants are a good example.
Another example: The bass line in “Billy Jean” is the second “melody.”
Skim the next paragraph…
The simple chord progression “melody” plays against the vocal melody in Manson’s “Great Big White World.” If you google and play it, it’s this part: “All my stitches itch, My prescription’s low, I wish you were Queen, Just for today…”.
I’m not a Manson fan, just an over-analyzer. It’s not healthy, but neither are Ruffles. I do both.
Nothing but hard-guy here.
In fiction writing, take it from an unpublished hack: making two simple things happen at the same time carries the dogmatic possibility of magic… maybe.
Some obvious examples…
While the hero fights and argues through the plot, she’s falling in love with her side-kick.
While the caped hero fights the embodiment of evil, the two titans discuss mutual back story: “Philip, you’ve changed…”
Maybe that was Eddy Murphy.
Here is a subtle example of “writing two things”:
In front of a huge crowd the hero is screwing up a speech she’s been worried about for weeks. She’s getting some numbers wrong, mispronouncing a bigwig’s name, and having a sugar crash because she’s a borderline diabetic who just ate half a box of donuts in the throes of back-stage anxiety. She’s living a fear that’s worse than the fear of death for some of us: the fear of public humiliation. While this is happening, someone has switched out her power-point presentation on programmed trading and replaced it with pictures of starving children from rural Africa. She’s trying to stop the slides, but her enemies have complete control of them.
The reader feels your hero’s horror and at the same time the reader feels his/her own strong compassion for starving children. Two things felt at the same time.
OK, I guess that wasn’t subtle. Let’s try again…
The hero is hiding in a small cave on the beach at night, shivering and dying of hunger. He’s sneaking a look at the pirates not so far away who have a big fire going, a dog and a pig roasting, an endless supply of rum. He hears a squeak beside him in the rocks and sees the cutest little mouse looking at him with those innocent child-like eyes and those tiny, almost human hands working at his whiskers. The hero takes off his coat, throws it over the mouse, crushes it in his hands and eats it raw, tail and all.
Your reader feels the hero’s hunger and hates the callous injustice of pirates. At the same time, similar feelings for the mouse arise against the hero. Finally this conflicted feeling is met by the repulsion of killing and eating a raw mouse.
Still not subtle. Dang. Maybe…
Your hero is giving his dog her favorite dish. She gobbles it down wagging her tail and glancing up with the heart-warming smile of a chocolate Lab. But the delicacy she’s eating smells like rotten fish. (Two things: two opposing emotional perspectives at the same time for the same thing.)
I’m not a rap fan yet, but… The best rap music has two simultaneous “melodies,” in my opinion. The interestingly rhythmic (spoken) rap section echos in my tiny mind as the intervening melodic (sung) chorus floats by.
One head, two things. It’s almost as if our brains had two hemispheres.
M. Talmage Moorehead