Friday, November 19, 2010

The Two Easiest Ways To Kill Emotion In Your Writing

by Scott Rhoades

This is the third post in a series about emotional writing. You'll find the first two here and here.

Emotions create the story behind the plot and give your story meaning. There are two easy ways to kill the emotional content of your story, both common, especially among inexperienced writers.

1. Use Abstract Emotional Nouns and Verbs

Stories thrive on emotions like love, anger, joy, hate, sadness, and fear. The easiest way to kill the emotion in a story or scene, though, is to use any of those words when describing your character's emotions.

The problem is, most words that describe emotion are abstractions. Abstract nouns and verbs are always weak. Often, they have too many meanings to do any good for your story. Take love, for example. You can use the same word to describe how you feel about your family, your car, a favorite TV show, your pet, an enjoyable school subject, your friend's dress or hair, or a kind of cheese. In each of those examples, the word love has a different meaning, with different associations. Do you really feel the same way about Gouda cheese as you do about your baby? Your husband, maybe, but your baby?

Even kids know that abstractions don't really work. "I love my car," I might say. How is a kid going to respond to that? Of course: "Then why don't you marry it?" It's an absurd idea, marrying a car, but a lot of you married somebody because you loved that person. It's the same word, so what's the difference? Well, you can't marry an object. That's just nuts. Fine. I love my grandmother. She's a person, but it's crazy to think I should marry her because I love her. It's a different kind of love than I have for my wife.

But the word is the same in all of those cases, even if it means different things. When we write, our job is to convey the real meaning, a character's real emotions, in a way that makes the reader share those feelings. Merely saying your character loves somebody or some thing isn't going to do it. Because love is an abstract word, it has too many meanings.

In college, a writing professor gave us an assignment to write a love poem without ever using the word love. This was difficult for a lot of us. Several of the resulting poems substituted other abstractions that fell short of their goal.

Why do abstractions fail to communicate their real meaning? Because they are "telling" words. They are weak words, and they are often accompanied by their weak buddies. Take the following:

Never had he felt such joy.

This doesn't mean anything, really. It tells you something, but it does it weakly. Abstractions like joy often require weak to be or to have verbs, and commonly bring other weak filter verbs, like felt, that tell something and show nothing, and thus put distance between your reader and your characters by failing to help the reader share the character's feelings.

When you edit, look for abstractions. Wherever you can, replace them with concrete words and actions. Show the character's emotions. Your character can "love his car." That tells me something about he feels about his ride. However, if he's constantly buffing it, wiping off dust, looking at it in the driveway from the closest window, or if he sits in it and reads or listens to music or whatever, and if he stresses whenever his wife drives it, that shows us how he really feels about it and leaves no question, as well as showing us some things about his character, his priorities, and what drives him.

When you see an abstraction in your work, kill it. Replace it with concrete words and actions that show us what the abstract word can only hint at.

2. Wallow in the Sentimental

Emotion is effective. Sentimentality is affective.

Sentimentality is exaggerated emotion, usually without purpose. Sentimentality is often created with abstractions, but taking any emotional content too far and exaggerating it puts you at risk of wallowing in sentimentality like a pig wallows in mud. Like "like a pig wallows in mud," sentimentality is cliched.

One way to avoid sentimentality is to list the possible reactions the character might have to show the emotions you want your character to feel. Then, cross out the cliched reactions, like the pounding hearts, raised eyebrows, the clenched fists. Tap into your own emotional memories to create realistic reactions that make the reader feel the emotions you're trying to describe. When you show real emotion, you eliminate the need to pile on the cliches to try to convey the way the character feels, exaggerating the reactions and creating sentimentality.

How do you do this? No real surprise. Again, you use concrete nouns and verbs to describe concrete, meaningful reactions.


Writing effective emotions comes down to the same thing as any other effective writing: use strong nouns and verbs to show instead of tell.

1 comment:

Julie Daines said...

Awesome post. Really helpful and good advice. Also right along the same lines as what I was thinking of posting on Monday. So, thanks for that.