"Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation." ~ Geoff Dyer
Books are about what happens and why. But what keeps us turning pages is our desire, our need, to know how the protagonist feels about it and how those emotions will make her respond.
Think back to when you were a kid. What books kept you up with a flashlight under the covers? What books lately have kept your heart racing long after hubby was snoring happily beside you? Chances are, it wasn’t just high-action and shoot-em-ups. For me, at least, that compulsion to find out what comes next isn't the result of chases or explosions, it comes more from emotional resonance, from an MC whose response is honest and prompts her to make decisions that lead to new complications and new decisions. That’s when I fall in love. THAT'S when I connect.
Unfortunately, that’s also the kind of thing that's hard for me to write. Emotionally resonant scenes demand honesty from me, the writer, not just from the characters I create. In these scenes, I have to spill myself, bloodied and aching, onto the page. I hate that, but the more I write, the more I realize that as I go deeper into my character, I can tell the story better and start to do it justice. Are you the same way?
So how do we go deep? Let’s start with a fictional character--I'll call her Penelope--and look at the different ways we can show her emotion in a scene.
First, there’s the old standby: Penelope felt X. Or Penelope was X. Replace X with any overused adjective here: sad, happy, disappointed. Disappointed is a great word to end with, because that’s exactly what the reader will feel with this approach. It’s a cheap cop-out, and it’s weak. Let’s dig deeper.
Peeling away an extra layer, we find the physical response: Penelope’s stomach clenched. Her teeth chattered as her hand tightened around the knife. Okay. A little better. I don’t know about you, but I wrote that off the top of my head a second ago, and I already want to know why Penelope is holding a knife and why her stomach is clenching and her teeth are chattering. Is she scared? Is she cold? Is she angry? Now *I* want to go deeper.
Present Conflicting Emotions
Experts tell us there are really only twelve universal emotions: interest, surprise, excitement, joy, love, sadness, fear, shame, guilt, contempt, pride, and anger. Most of the time, we feel some combination of those.
In fiction, producing conflicting emotions is good. That’s when we’ve done our jobs and created inner tension. At the very least, by combining more than one emotion, we are making the character’s response more interesting and original. And we’re giving ourselves room for deeper exploration.
Think Beyond the Present
To capitalize on the opportunity created by Penelope’s physical response, as a writer, I need to think beyond what’s happening in the present story to what has happened in Penelope’s past that would affect her response to the present situation. What makes her afraid? What memories does she have involving a knife? Why would she be holding it instead of calling the police? And we want to think about the future. What does she want? What's her secret emotional need?
Knowing a character’s emotional triggers and memories not only lets me further the needs of my plot, it lets me pull in snippets of memory to deepen how she feels. Now her stomach clenches, her teeth chatter, and her hand tightens on the knife, because all she can think is how when XXX happened to her, she swore she would never let herself be XXX again.
Breathe It to Life
Once I know something more about Penelope, I can deepen the emotion in the scene further still by involving her senses. What does she see, hear, feel against her skin? What key detail can I use to symbolize or underscore what she’s feeling and what I want the reader to take away? What metaphor ties into the emotion and adds greater meaning? A spider spinning a web? A locket that reminds her of her mother?
Seven Ways to Show Emotion
Ingrid Sundberg did a phenomenal post last week on ways to show emotion based on From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. Paraphrasing and adding to the techniques Ingrid cited, I can put my example in context. To convey Penelope’s emotion convincingly to the reader, I can include:
- an unseen or physiological response (stomach clenching, breath coming faster).
- a visible or external response (teeth chattering, throwing something).
- a thought about future goals, dreams, or consequences.
- internal or direct dialogue questioning or responding to the situation.
- a memory connecting to deeper emotion in the past.
- a detail that symbolizes memory or emotion in the present.
- a physical response to indicate a decision or acknowledgement of future action (hand tightening on the knife in decision).
Penelope was scared and determined not to let the zombie touch her.Into:
Penelope’s stomach clenched. Her teeth chattered, but her hand tightened on the knife. No way was the zombie going to touch her. She wasn’t about to become one of them, one of the soul-sucking monsters that stopped caring about their own families and started hurting them, killing them, instead of loving them.
She couldn’t bear to look at the zombie’s face. Its features were too familiar. Even the scent of it sickened her, the mix of sweet perfume and decaying flesh. Waving the knife out in front of her, Penelope hooked the kitchen chair with her foot and pulled it skittering toward her to use in self-defense. But then the light glinted on the locket around the zombie’s neck, and Penelope remembered picking it out at the jewelry store with her sister Amy--remembered Amy’s small fingers later, cutting the photo to put inside it and, even later, dangling it on the chain and saying, “Put it on, Mommy, Penope and I picked it special for you.”
Through the tears that blurred Penelope's eyes, the single word ‘Mother’ etched on the locket was clear and awful.
“Mom, please,” Penelope whispered. “Please don’t make me hurt you.”Now, that isn't a great example. I deliberately picked a zombie because it was the thing I could least relate to emotionally. But you get the idea. The deeper you dig, the more emotion you can raise.
Eschew the Cheap and Easy
The trick with emotion is that it's easy to go overboard. Melodrama has many definitions. In it's simplest terms, I think of it as the drama that comes as a result of taking the easy way out. Something in which the emotion isn't earned or justified, or where a semblance of emotion comes from situations or words that have been used so often they have become cliché.
What is or isn't cliché is also difficult to define. It's another of those I'll know it when I see it situations. Personally, I usually find I have to throw out the first thing that pops into my head when writing a physical response. For example, the stomach clenching? Probably needs to go. What do you think?
It's also important to remember that we rarely need to use every tool in our emotion arsenal. Overwritting is another sure way to go from drama to melodrama. In writing emotion, less is almost always more. The deeper the emotional response, the more time and more tools we can use to show what the character is feeling, and the reverse is also true.
Keeping this Side of the Line
To keep melodrama from creeping into your manuscript, try to avoid:
- cliché’s or responses that we’ve all read before in many other books.
- scenes and characters we’ve all seen before with only the names changed to protect the writer.
- characters who are too clearly good, facing situations or characters who are too clearly evil.
- situations where we can’t understand what’s going on enough to feel for the character.
- writing that tries to drive emotion using words or pacing instead of showing us an emotional situation.
- broadcasting the characters emotion at every stage of the story until we’re so bored we don’t care anymore.
Digging deeper for emotional response has multiple payoffs. Not only do we connect to the reader, but we discover fascinating things about the story and the characters. Thinking deeper is when the alchemy happens that turns writing into magic, and words into life.
What about you? Do you find it hard to write emotion? Do you have any tips that got you over the hump? If so, please share! Oh, and do jump in and critique my example. That's what it's here for! Or write one of your own and share it with us.
Also, the winner of last week's giveaway of The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is.....
Congrats Nerissa! Expect an email from Cam with details on your prize!
For more information on writing emotion:
- Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpont
- Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction)
- Bijoy H. Boruah, Fiction and Emotion: A Study in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of the Mind
- Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream
- Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions