Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Emotion Weaving

By G. L. Simmons
Copyright 2008 by G. L. Simmons, All Rights Reserved

"To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

by William Wordsworth

It happens. You're flowing along with a story, dodging the sword swipes, whispering advice to the hero, and trying to stop the villain from getting away with it all, when wham, you're side-swiped by emotion. It is an emotion so real, so intimate, that you have to put the book down. You know just how the character feels, you had the same thing happen to you and it took you months to get over it. And as you're sitting there, feeling for the character and feeling for yourself, you find yourself drawn back into the story.

But this time when you open the book this time, it's different. This time it's personal.

What you just experienced is the power of emotion. Emotion is one of the strongest tools a writer can use in connecting to the reader, but it is also one of the hardest. Why? Because emotions are extremely personal things.

We are trained from a very young age to recognize emotions in ourselves and others. "How are you doing today?" "Fine, thank you for asking, and you?" "Oh, the same." Just in this normal conversation, there is the subtle shading of emotion that we can all recognize. Some scholars have even gone so far to say that it is necessary for survival to recognize emotional moods of others.

So everyone is an expert in emotions, and everyone has a different opinion about emotions, and everyone is right. Now you can begin to see where the problem lies. People have different expectations for how emotions are expressed. Some people like it all laid out for them. "I feel (insert emotion here) over (insert cause here)." Other people expect that a single sigh that breaks a long period of silence will be perfectly interpreted as, "I need someone to tell me that they love me, but I need for them to do that without me having to ask them."

I will call those the two poles of emotional writing: the explicit and the implicit. To write emotions effectively, you have to balance the two poles. Ironically, this is also linked to the writer's favorite dilemma of show versus tell, scene versus summary. I will also let you know my bias from the beginning. I am heavily on the implicit side of this equation.

I like to watch an author take a character's single glance back in Chapter 1 and slowly devolve into a wreck by Chapter 20 at the decision that they made when they walked away. I like to call it the slow burn method: the accumulation of details, instances, and moments of authentic life that work their way all around the emotion until all that remains is the giant gaping hole of emotion that the reader falls into and feels.

I can also, however, appreciate the use of explicit emotions. Sometimes this can be the most effective way of conveying emotion. One clear-cut example that leaps to mind is Stephen R. Donaldson's novels. There are no subtle emotional moments at the end of the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Everything is laid out raw at the feet of the reader, and we can either accept that the main character is truly feeling these things and join the experience, or not.

So what is a writer to do?

The first thing to do is identify the type of emotion you are trying to express. This is simple, but I can attest to forgetting this step many times and having to go back and fix the mistake later.

The "how" to express emotion is always entangled in the "what" emotion that is being expressed. We won't go into the "why" of that emotion. The "why" is a decision only the writer can know, why this emotion must be expressed in this story by this character.

Once we know what is being expressed, whether rage or happiness, sorrow or longing, then we can come up with ways to cue the reader into the emotion. For the explicit emotions, this is the final step. "John was mad, red roses on a red blanket waving in front of a red bull mad, and there was no way he was going to let this go. Ever."

For emotions expressed implicitly, it's more about what is said or done. So taking the example of poor John again, "John sat down next to her and stared down at the water. His hand started toward hers but jerked away and he clenched it down beside him. There was no other sound but his heavy breath, in and out. Carrie took a deep breath and turned to look at him."

For me, the most important thing to remember is that even though emotions are internal, they have a physical outlet. When I am stuck trying to express an emotion, I rattle off the five senses. Do I have something visual? Do I have a sound? Is there something being touched or not touched? What does sorrow taste like?

Another important fact is that we rarely feel one emotion at a time, and therefore our characters, too, should feel more than one emotion. So in the case of John and Carrie, John is mad, but is he also sad, grieving at a loss of trust? We rarely segue smoothly from one emotion to another. It's normally a burst of raw emotions which we then slowly work our way through, understanding exactly what just happened to us and why.

And sometimes, depending on the depth of the emotion evoked, we don't even bother. We just wait for time to sand the emotions smooth so that when the memory returns, we are moved to a state beyond tears.    

Works Mentioned:

Title: Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

Author: Stephen R. Donaldson

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 9780006473299


Title: Wordsworth; Complete Poetical Works: With Introductions and Notes

Author: William Wordsworth

Publisher: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 0192810529