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."
of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
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
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
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
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
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.
Title: Chronicles of
Author: Stephen R.
Complete Poetical Works: With Introductions and Notes