When you’re describing a setting, it’s important to bring the scene to life. Part of bringing a scene to life, though, is to explore how your character feels about the setting.
I was watching American Idol once and Randy Jackson said something that you will hear over and over again when anyone discusses any art form, yet he said it simply enough to make it profound. He said, “The purpose of a song isn’t just to show off your skills, go through the riffs and croons, it’s to transmit emotion to the audience.” You have to make them feel, in order for the experience to be genuine. This is true in painting, it’s true in singing, and it’s true in storytelling.
Transmitting emotion isn’t hard. It can be done by fairly inept writers whose only skill seems to be in building interesting characters and conveying scenes just enough so that the reader is transported. Any bestseller is doing it. But you can take it to a higher level.
Ultimately, with every pass, every rewrite, you need to ask yourself, “Is this the right choice of words, images, and scenes to make the reader feel what I want? Have I selected the right details?”
Please note, some of you may argue with this. There are those who believe that stories should transmit ideas. Others will say that their purpose is to transmit culture. I will argue strenuously, though, that in order to transmit ideas, ideals, or culture, you must first transmit emotion—love, fear, longing—to the audience. Why? Because without experiencing powerful emotions as a catalyst, the reader will not recall the ideas that you’re seeking to transmit even a few hours later. Emotion is the catalyst that fixes an idea into permanent memory, as current research is showing.
So how do you transmit emotion?
Part of the key is to recognize that everything you describe—a room, a car, the local park—is colored by your character’s mood. So you pick details that reinforce the desired emotion.
In one early writing exercise, I was asked to describe my living room in a paragraph. I did. I talked about the sun slanting in through the windows, washing everything in gold. I wrote about the daffodils my roommate’s girlfriend had left for him on our table.
Then I was asked to describe the same room, only after having just returned from my best friend’s funeral.
Which details will you describe? Which do you leave out? A room that seems sunny and warm one moment, suddenly becomes dead and gray the next. The daffodils on the kitchen table now seem brown and desiccated at the edge of their petals. The fly on the windowsill looms larger than the sunlight. The jumping spider sidling toward it now seems the centerpiece of the room.
Emotion fixes certain details over others. Have you ever had a conversation with someone that you suspect dislikes you? You hear all of the nuances in his or her voice. You recognize when you’re being disparaged. Yet the person standing next to you doesn’t catch it at all. They’d report the conversation differently.
So in order to write a scene, you must first transport yourself emotionally. You have to feel what your protagonist—the lens through which the story is transferred—is feeling, and then report the details that he or she would emphasize, using language that transmits the emotion.
For a nice example of how this is done, look at the opening page of Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River.” In them, a fire has recently ravaged a forest, and the land is thick with black grasshoppers, which a fly fisherman uses for bait. Notice how “black” is repeated, which nicely reveals the inner blackness that, Nick, the protagonist, is feeling.
Some authors in the literary tradition insist that you should “show” emotions, not tell. So they choose details that reveal the inner emotions of the characters, as Hemingway did.
Of course, as an author I recognize that not all of my readers will be sophisticated enough to understand those clues. The reader might be too young or too distracted to recognize them. Or maybe for some reason—certain cognitive issues—the reader just isn’t skillful at hunting down those clues.
So is it all right to actually “tell” the reader how the character is feeling, too? For example, is it all right to say, “Jenny just loved Nate?”
It’s pretty weak, and the more that you do it, the lamer it sounds. But I would argue that it is all right, if you don’t lay it on too thickly, or too directly.
For example, instead of having Carolyn recognize that, after just one date with Nate, she’s in love, you might have her humming at work the next day, and have her co-worker say something like, “Sounds like love.” That gets the message across just fine.
In the same way, internal dialog can reveal a great deal about your character’s emotions, without being too “on the nose.”
If you do decide to write about emotions directly, make sure that you reinforce them. You can’t just say that Carolyn loves Nate, we need to see justification. Maybe she likes the way that his lips barely curl up under his cowboy mustache when he sees her. Maybe she likes the way that he stammers and takes off his hat when he tries to talk. Maybe she sees the loneliness in his eyes, and it echoes her own inner void. Maybe it’s the smell of Wrigley Spearmint gum on his breath, every time she meets him. Maybe it’s the way that he talks about his ranch in Wyoming, and the tenderness in his voice when he speaks of his polled Hereford prize bull, and his dreams of creating a “real herd.”
Simply put, as you create your setting, try to imagine how your protagonist feels about you setting, and then put your emphasis on the details that best depict that emotion, that scene, and bring both to life. Have fun with it.
Tomorrow I'm having my Write that Novel 2.0 workshop in Indianapolis, and I'm still open to last minute sign-ups. All you need to bring is a notebook or laptop to take notes.
Then next week, I will be in Atlanta teaching a Greenlighting workshop that you can still sign up for.
This week all of my writing workshops are 25% off on MyStoryDoctor.com
We've kicked off a new StoryBundle, a NaNoWriMo Bundle with six books on writing for whatever price you want to pay, or twelve books for $15. Some money will be donated to charity. Two of the books in the bundle are my writing books, Million Dollar Outlines and Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing. Check out the bundle here