Creating Emotion on the Page with Oscillation
Updated: Oct 6
Like so many other writers, I fell in love with reading at a young age. There were many things that drew me to words, including my love for fantasy and for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. But the main thing that drew me to books, which still draws me, hopelessly, to them, was the exploration and validation of gray areas, especially regarding feelings.
I’ve always been a big feeler. And, often, my emotions are so diverse and so tangled that I have difficulty defining them. My thoughts tend to vacillate between polar opposites—like desperately wanting to be both seen and unseen—and when I was younger, I did not see this oscillation reflected anywhere in the world, except for in books.
Although I encountered oscillation in novels, for a long time, I didn’t have a name for it. I only knew that when I read about characters grappling with their emotions, going back and forth, thinking one thing and doing another, I felt that deep sense of relief that comes when we see ourselves in someone else. I felt not so crazy. I felt understood.
Now, as a writer, I often think about how I can structure my stories so that other readers might get this same feeling.
I first became aware of oscillation as a structural tool two years ago when reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia. After being asked why readers of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series find it easy to identify with the two main characters, Lena and Lenu, who are characterized very differently, Ferrante responds: “What you call a difference is an oscillation innate in the relationship between the two characters and in the very structure of Lenu’s story…When Lila’s pace becomes unsustainable, the reader grabs onto Lenu. But if Lenu falls apart, then the reader relies on Lila.”
This moving back and forth, this ebb and flow, affects the reader in a very particular way. It is like a whisper, turning the reader’s head this way, then that, so that the reader feels as if she has control over where she is looking and what she is feeling, but really, it is the writer, going back and forth in a very deliberate manner.
Ferrante uses oscillation as a way to transition between the storylines of her books’ two main characters, and it also works on a thematic level, as the story’s core is the undulating relationship between two women.
Essentially, oscillation makes your reader feel something, and then makes her feel the exact opposite in the next clause, sentence, chapter, or section. It isn’t a tricky plot game, and this isn’t some quick tip about how to get your readers hooked and flipping those pages like pancakes (though, that might well happen…a girl can dream, right?).
On the contrary, oscillation mirrors the way our emotions fluctuate and the instability of dichotomies, like good/bad. It’s kind of like fiction’s version of the counter argument. When done well, it builds the reader’s trust and establishes emotive tension.
As you are drafting your novel, I would urge you to consider ways in which you can use oscillation to keep your readers engaged. Below are a couple of ways to do this.
1. Alternating POVs/storylines
Alternating POVs and storylines, whether by chapter or section, is a great way to build tension in your novel. As your story vacillates between two characters and their points of view, your reader will be given a chance to identify with both characters.
If your characters are living very separate lives, your reader will be motivated to read in order to discover how and when these diverse POVs will collide. And if your characters are at odds in some way, your reader may begin to ask herself, whom can I trust? With whom do I identify? Often, unless you are in the POV of your villain (though, even then, it is possible and, I dare say, kind of cool), she will identify with both characters and their conflicting agendas, pushing your novel forward and complicating feelings for the reader (in a good way).
2. Alternating timelines
It’s also possible to use oscillation to explore two different storylines—one in the past and one in the present.
I’m thinking about novels like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Julie Buntin’s Marlena. In these novels, there is a back and forth between the present and the past, the past encroaching and shedding light on the present, which mimics, I think, the way memories surface when we go through particular hardships in our lives.
3. Oscillating emotions
Allowing your characters to feel conflicting emotions adds depth and realism to your work.
In Paul Harding’s Enon, the narrator struggles to cope with the death of his young daughter. As we watch him grapple with his grief and memories, we witness the surfacing of many conflicting emotions.
While remembering one of the most elaborate houses in his town, a house by which he often walked with his daughter, the narrator admits, “Mrs. Hale’s house prompted my deepest desires to provide for Kate [the narrator’s daughter], as well as my deepest resentments about wanting such material wealth.” The wealth that the narrator witnesses—ornate, beautiful clocks and a rare orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system)—fills him with wonder, as well as jealousy and shame. These conflicting emotions make the narrator seem like a real, breathing person.
In real life, no one is static. Our emotions bend and change and contradict themselves. Our characters’ lives deserve no less.