Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cry Me a River

A lady in my writer's group posed the question recently: Is there a secret formula to capturing emotion? She continued, I know in an action scene you're supposed to keep your sentences short and tight so that people feel like they're reading as fast as the action is happening. Is there a secret like this for scenes you want to be emotionally powerful?

Her questions got me thinking. I had never thought about it before. But the answer I came up with (and I believe there are many elements that contribute to a scene being emotionally powerful) was that I think the same rule of "showing" and not "telling" applies with emotions as well. There is nothing more frustrating to me then when an author says something like, "she was very scared" or "she was very happy" as part of their narrative. It feels as though the author is trying to tell me how I am supposed to be feeling in that moment. And if I don't feel "scared" or "happy" I feel like the author is trying to force me to. Even if the character is crying a river of tears, I am not moved unless I have been given reasons to be. I would much rather hear thoughts or body language or setting being described (and then she can cry if appropriate). Take the following excerpt from "Harry Potter: And The Chamber of Secrets" as an illustration of my point:

He was standing at the end of a very long, dimly lit chamber. Towering stone pillars entwined with more carved serpents rose to support a ceiling lost in darkness, casting long, black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the place.

His heart beating very fast, Harry stood listening to the chill silence. Could the basilisk be lurking in a shadowy corner, behind a pillar? And where was Ginny?

He pulled out his wand and moved forward between the serpentine columns. Every careful footstep echoed loudly off the shadowy walls. He kept his eyes narrowed, ready to clamp them shut at the smallest sign of movement. The hollow eye sockets of the stone snakes seemed to be following him. More than once, with a jolt of the stomach, he thought he saw one stir.

Note, that JK Rowling never once told us how Harry was feeling. She didn't say he was terrified or nervous. But I felt both of those emotions because of how she described not only the setting, but what Harry was doing or thinking. How his body was reacting to his surroundings made me imagine those things (like a jolting stomach) and added to my discomfort as I read.

This is just one of the suggestions I had. What about you? How do you capture emotion in a scene?


  1. Honestly, I have a horrible time with this, especially with facial expressions. I always feel like I'm repeating the same reactions. After all, how many ways is there to say "his eye are blue" or "he looked at me?" UGH! Reading those short 3 paragraphs from Harry Potter makes me cringe because its such good writing. I think I'll go play with the delete button on my computer now. *sigh*

    Oh, great post, by the way. LOL

  2. I have the same reaction to being told emotions in writing as I do to that picture: "What's wrong with him?" ;)

    I think you've really hit on this with the example from HP. I've read a similar analysis in my favorite resources for this issue, Alicia Rasley's articles "Emotion without Sentiment" and "Emotion is Physical"

    From "Emotion without Sentiment": Don't forget the first rule: When the character cries, the reader doesn't have to.That is, if all the emotion is spelled out in the scene, then there's nothing for the reader to DO, no interaction, no addition. The reader becomes a spectator, not a participant. The WHOLE SCENE creates the emotion, not just (or even primarily) the character's point of view. The character doesn't have to fully experience or acknowledge or recognize the emotion--this is the READER'S experience. From "Emotion is Physical": I realized that humans have a shutdown mechanism on their emotional engine. That's what allows us to get through that talk with the funeral director about Mom's coffin when all we want to do is go home and cry. And this mechanism comes into play when we read something that is highly emotional, that is, moreover, trying to get US to feel emotion too. We have an instinctive need to distance ourselves from the pain.An odd aspect of reader identification with the character is that... well, you have to leave room for the reader to feel emotion, and if the character is over-emoting, then there's no reason for the reader to help out.

    But this doesn't mean going to some extreme of non-communicative non-feeling. Rather we'll let the character subtly act out the emotion, let the action be evocative rather than truly expressive. Go for subtext-- let the whole scene create a sense of emotion, because if it's the entire scene, the reader has to put the parts together to feel the emotion. Remember, interactivity is the great goal of crafting POV.
    Both articles are great—they go through some specific techniques and examples to accomplish this.

    Oh, and lest I forget: and

  3. Great post KAsie! It just deleted my holy honkin huge one but I have to run to bed! I just wanted to say thanks for giving me something to think about! Jenni

  4. Creating emotion can be tricky, but I agree 100% with what you said, and great example. I also think the quote Jordan relayed is key. So often we feel emotion because the character is not getting an outlet for theirs. To use another Harry Potter example, think about Prof. Umbridge. Everybody HATED her vehemently. And I don't think it was only because she was such a nasty character. I think a lot of it had to do with fact that Harry wouldn't or couldn't do anything about her horrific punishments. He suffered them in silence and wouldn't let anybody help him, so we as readers felt the anger building as well.

  5. Wow! Everyone has such good points! Course I have to agree with Christine. This is still hard for me to and I think I need to permantly attach my finger to the delete key as well!!

  6. Christine, this is why editing is so important. The first draft is to get the story out, the second and third and forth and fifth....drafts are to polish it. :) I think some aspects of writing come more naturally, some we have to work at. Dialogue comes really easy to me, but description makes me feel like I'm ripping my teeth out. Practice, practice...I've been looking at my emotional scenes with new eyes after this question was posed.

    Jordan, excellent resources. Thanks. I had never really read anything on it, so I'm glad to see those two examples. They helped a lot. It's one of those times where I went, "Yeah, exactly, what they said." LOL Thanks for sharing. And yes, poor Dawson, his crying face made me laugh. That's how I feel in overtly emotional scenes in books too. I just want to laugh.

    Jenni, I'm sorry the blog ate your brilliant comments. I will imagine them in my mind and revel in the greatness that I'm sure your comment contained.

    Candi, so true about Prof. Umbridge. Hated her! And yes, when the character doesn't or is not allowed to release their emotions is when I feel the most emotion.

    Nikki, don't leave your finger on the delete key for too long. :) I'm editing write now and I'm so surprised how much more I've been willing to delete with a few months separation from my book. New eyes and more experience. Sigh. The learning never stops.

  7. Great post! I need to remember this when I'm editing my ms.

  8. Thanks, Kristy. Aren't there so many things to remember when editing? Sigh. So much work.

    And Nikki, I meant "right" now. Not "write" now. Although I guess both apply. :)

  9. While we're on the subject, I must say that synonyms trip me up all the time too!! I type there when I mean their, and write when I mean right! I get so frustrated because I see the correct word in my head but when it gets on the screen it's the wrong one!! Anyone know why this happens? There's got to be a technical term somewhere. If not, I say we make one up. It will make me feel better if I have genuine disorder!! LOLOLOL!

  10. My comment earlier sounded a bit sassy. Guess that's why I got the nickname, eh? Truth is, I'm just frustrated with my book. I've gone through it so many times I want to burn the darn thing. I've even sent it out to have others edit and make comments, thinking a fresh perspective would help. Most of them were good, others sent it back bleeding red ink. I guess I just need a big fat contract to validate my talent. Like who doesn't want that?

    Anyway, this is a great post and I love all the comments. They've really helped me look at my writing objectively.

    Did I mention you guys ROCK? I love being a part of MMW.

  11. Great post, Kasie. I have struggled with this time and again. It is a difficult balance to find, but I think when an author can it is SO worth it. Also... JK Rowling... absolute genius. :)

  12. Nikki, I agree, let's make up the that disorder. We'll call it WIRM. Like a real worm it slithers in unnoticed and when you finally do see it you're disgusted. Our WIRM will stand for: What I Really Meant. In other words, I said "write" but WIRM was "right" or I said "your" but WIRM was "you're". LOL I have a major case of WIRM. (that sounds a little gross doesn't it? Oh well)

    Christine, you didn't sound sassy at all. I was totally relating with you. I was like, you're telling me. I have so much work to do. :) LOL

    Jenn, I know, it's hard to measure up when I'm reading JK Rowling. She's awesome. She's like my "how to" book. We'll all find the balance. It's all about polishing it until it shines. I don't think even JK Rowling doesn't have to edit.

  13. I loved this post Kasie. Right now i have been struggling with point of view for my WIP. But I haven been reading Gone with the Wind. I love the way Mitchell writes. But when i read your post I totally thought og Rhett Butler. His emotions are never over written. She is very subtle to describe his reactoins and the look in his eyes, or the something more that Scarlett just can't grasp. And somehow my heart breaks for him because his love and hurt is always so obvious to me.

    Yeah I'm weird, my heartbreaks for someone who can't admit he loved someone. Those to just need to get over their pride. Anyhow. Great post.

  14. I'm in the "show not tell" boat, too. Great ideas, everyone!



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