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Writing Emotion into Your Page: Section 2

We’ve all heard the phrase that less is more, right? We’ve all learned to show not tell, right?

The thing with showing, though, is it’s not always cut and dry. I look at it as making the reader feel what my characters feel. If I’ve accomplished that then I’ve done my job of showing.

Usually I’ll have readers who get it and I’ll have some that don’t. No matter what I do, I can’t guarantee a win all around. Whatever. I’m fine with this.

Here’s what I do:

I look at a scene and I give that scene its emotions. If it’s anger then every thought and description that I give should bleed anger. What I try not to do is repeatedly “show” anger by telling my readers the physical aspects of anger. Ya know, like, “Every muscle was tense. She gritted her teeth. She clinched her fists. She blah, blah, blah.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things and yes, they’re way better than that old school tell of, “She was angry.” But that’s not what I’m after here. I’m after making my reader feel what I want them to feel. I’m the puppet master and my readers the puppets. It’s my job to manipulate them.

Putty in my hands, right. ;-) It’s a powerful feeling and IMHO, one you should indulge in as often as you can when writing.

Right now in my edits, I’m working on feeling loss. What I chose to do will likely bring praise from those that “get” it and lots of “she-just-doesn’t-understand-that-I’m-trying-to-help-her” from those that don’t “get” it.

The thing is I balance every scene on some kind of emotion. It’s how I write and it’s the most important thing to me when it comes to my work. I can sometimes ignore some very important things that I should do just so that I can pull an emotion from a reader.

I wanted my readers to feel empty, because that’s what my characters are feeling. So I stripped the scene down to bare bones. What it reads now is shock and emptiness. (I hope)

This scene will run very close to being tagged as distant. Those that read with only the intent to nitpick will probably feel as though I pulled back. But those that trust me and let themselves sink into the story should feel empty during this scene. I say “should” loosely because I’m hoping I did what I wanted to do.

An example of this being used perfectly is Joss Whedon when Buffy’s mother dies. He stripped that scene to nothing. No music, no overdose of emotion. It’s just silence. It’s just the empty feeling of loss. He then very slowly adds in those day to day sounds that we all take for granted: a wind chime outside the window, a neighbor’s dog, schoolchildren in the distance, laughing, pushing the point home that life will go on.

I “got” his work on that scene, and I thought it was the most beautiful piece of art that I’d ever witnessed. It’s no wonder that when I finally got an opportunity to try this technique out on paper that I jumped at it.

You may be asking me why I’m sharing this. Maybe you've already tagged me as "cocky" and quit reading a long time ago. If you're still around then here's the why of it. :-)

I think every writer should, of course, pay attention to the little details and I think every writer should follow all that crafty little advice on scene building and writing. BUT, I think every writer should do their very best to manipulate the crap out of their readers’ emotions every chance they get.

Why? Because, every time, they’ll love you for it all the more.

Thoughts? Comments? Complaints?


BUT, I think every writer should do their very best to manipulate the crap out of their readers’ emotions every chance they get.

Why? Because, every time, they’ll love you for it all the more.

So true. That, and it's people and emotions that we, as humans, relate to. It's what we connect with. And whether we realize it or not, we're always seeking to connect with something. That's why emotion plays such a big role in books and movies and music. It's why we're always looking for personalities in animals and giving them names and seeing human emotions in them. It's why we're always trying to give personification to inanimate objects like cars or stuffed animals or other things. We have emotional connections to them, or, more correct, to the personification we've given them. Emotions, at their very core, are universal. Something we all share and can relate to. And that is what gives them so much power and that is why when you give emotion of any kind enough important in your writing, it will have more power. It's not the plot or the super cool idea so much that people connect with and remember when they read a book as it is the characters and the emotions they illicit in the readers.
And I say, "So true to you too." :-)

When I look back on books that I loved and those stories that still haunt me, it's always the books that made me "feel" the most.
I love how you consider these things and put them into words. I read many short story repeats to study the emotional craft in them -- those stories which can pull emotions out of me, which have my chest tight with longing to see things work out for the MC...that's what I want to be able to do, as well :)
I want that so badly myself. I think my greatest stride as a writer was the day I began to truly study other writers and the way they did things.

There was a time my head was so full of rules that I couldn't do anything but find error in everything I read. It was horrible. I mean, I was counting lys and looking for passiveness in everything. I think, had I kept down that road, I would've ruined myself forever.

Edited at 2009-12-15 07:50 pm (UTC)
I agree.

Also, when we trust our readers to fill in some of the blanks for themselves, it makes for a much more powerful book or story, don't you think?
Definitely! Letting the readers fill in the blanks makes for a good discussion book too. Everybody loves a book that they can plug their own personality into and then discuss with others.
Hi Meredith, as a beginning writer and someone always willing to learn, can you post an example for me?
I surely can. :-) Do you have a particular emotion you'd like used?
You were talking about sadness, how about that one. I'm working on a section with guilt so your example will show me if I'm getting it right or not.
Hm, I can't use the scene I was talking about because it has a huge spoiler in it, plus taken out of context I'm afraid it'd fall flat. Also, I was working on feeling empty and to me guilt is a heavy emotion.

If it were me and I wanted to use this same technique for guilt I would choose to concentrate on the heaviness of the emotion with my descriptions. Try having your character notice the dark colors surrounding them instead of the lighter ones. When they walk they will drag. Everything about the scene would be heavy and suffocating. If your reader is picturing these things then it will be easier for them to feel the guilt. You're more than welcome to private message me your scene and I'll take a look at it for you.
Sweet! Thanks. I will probably take you up on that.
I'll be looking forward to it!
I love emotions. I love making my readers experience my character's emotions. I do think sometimes rules have to be burned in order to allow your reader to feel. Let's face it, people express happiness, loss, joy, depression in various ways. There are no rules (of course I would like to submit the no hitting me in my nose when you're mad rule).

If it takes stripping down the page to capture the emotion, so be it. I know I have done my job well when my beta reader says, "I was breathless after that scene" or "I kept rubbing my heart, such pain" . . . Good. So was my character.
LOL! I hate it when I get hit in the nose. :-/ Takes all the fun out of making the person mad in the first place, doesn't it?
Exactly. It takes the anger to a different place. One in which I don't feel so superior. There's no fun in that. ;)
What less is more, show not tell? Huh? Okay so I've at least heard that much but it is harder then it sounds...or maybe that is just me. Thank you for this lesson on emotion and manipulation. :) You're awesome.
Heh, I knew my mad-manipulation skills would come in handy some day. ;-)
I agree (I was linked here via jongibbs completely. I've noticed that saying how the character feels bodily or having a character slam a door really isn't enough. If the reader isn't feeling the emotion at that point, then it's really just "telling" still. I find I don't necessarily get to this stage in my first writing (some scenes yes, others plot is more the concern, and sometimes in the initial writing I'm not even sure what the emotion is yet), but I have to in the editing. And when it works, you feel it, and the reader has no escape. Thanks for the post!
Some scenes flow so easy for me and then others it takes me at least 20 passes to get right. *shakes head* Ya really gotta love to do this or it'll drive you insane.