How Should You Write Emotion?

How to write emotion

I’m not sure, but I suspect that writers and other artists tend to be emotionally volatile.


In part, I believe that we create in order to try to express ourselves using heightened communication—our art. Yet there is a danger in trying too hard to express emotions. In some cases you may overflow and in others you may be far too dry. How should you write emotion? Let me explain. . . .


If you look at people, some are more susceptible to strong emotions than others. There is a wide range of temperaments. On one end, some people are emotionally dead inside, while others are stoic, on toward the middle-of-the-road types, and then to those who are highly emotional, often to the point of being ravaged by their moods.


Certainly you know people who are constantly in tears—tears of joy one moment, tears of nervousness the next, tears of despair in another.


As we write, I suspect that we try to express the world as we see it. In other words, those who are emotionally dead inside will portray protagonists who are very much like themselves, while those who are emotionally charged will try to portray people with rich and powerful interior lives, and both can be a problem.


I recall reading an author many years ago who had a scene where his protagonist’s mother is killed in a bombing attack on his apartment. The protagonist’s response? It might be summed up as, “Good thing I wasn’t home.” Seriously, I closed the book shortly afterward. The protagonist was dead inside, and I believe that the author was much the same. It just wasn’t me.


On the other hand, if an emotionally volatile writer pens a story, they will try to make every incident explosive. Writing a letter to apologize for missing a grown son’s birthday will drive the protagonist to tears. Opening a bill will fill them with dread. Everything is just over the top.


Now, it may be that if an author is emotionally volatile, he or she will attract an audience of people who are similarly affected. Like speaks to like. So the author’s protagonists would probably seem very “realistic” to others who are emotionally volatile.


The problem comes when the author tries too hard to arouse emotions. Very often emotionally charged authors will describe emotions at length, using metaphors in an effort to get them across. So we’ll get a lot of lines about a mother’s loneliness, perhaps, something like. “The silence of the house settled upon my heart like a dead weight, two hundred pounds of granite, crushing. I wandered from room to empty room, the padding of my feet the only sound, except the occasional creak of the house settling. The living room was so empty, like a tomb, never to be filled again, I realized. The last of my children were gone, and I missed their happy voices. Tears streamed unbidden down my face, raining on the plush carpet.”


I don’t know about you, but this just turns my stomach.

There are four problems that arise when an author tries too hard to express emotions.


1) The author often resorts to purple prose, so that descriptions of emotions become lengthy, with every noun and adverb having multiple modifiers. So you get things like, “A heart-wrenching scream broke the air, like white doves exploding from a cage.” Thus, the whole document becomes bogged down with emotive descriptions.


2) The author will often transition from one emotion to another too quickly, so that a character is laughing in one sentence, crying in the next, and petrified with fear in the third.


3) The author writes maudlin prose, which is overly tearful. Hence, you get multiple crying jags in every chapter. This is a huge problem.


I recall Orson Scott Card once mentioning that you should be wary about letting your characters cry. When they cry on the page, it creates an emotional release for your reader, so that the reader doesn’t cry. In fact, the more that your protagonist does cry, the less your reader feels.


Scott recommended that you let your protagonist be a bit more stoic, take a beating, and let the reader cry for him or her. Now, I think that there are times when your protagonist should cry, such as when his mother gets atomized by a bomb meant for him, but I think that we should keep the tear count to a minimum.


4) The author writes mawkish prose. A mawkish tale is defined as “sickeningly sentimental,” very often in a contrived way. In a mawkish tale, the author goes to extremes to try to arouse emotion by creating unrealistic events or sequences designed to arouse strong emotions. They’re consistently over the top, and of course they describe each emotion ad nauseam.


The truth is that if you want to arouse strong emotions in a reader, it’s really very easy to do. Simply create a realistic, honest scene that would arouse the emotions.


For example, let’s say that you want to create a powerful death scene for a character, Lisa. She dies in a traffic accident. Do you need to describe the “horrifying sound of metal grating on metal, like a bomb going off in a crowded cathedral”? Should you describe “the hot copper odor of her precious lifeblood as it streams from the gash in her neck”? Perhaps we talk about the dread and sadness that she feels as she imagines the life that lay ahead of her, the life that she’s losing?


Not really. All that you have to do to arouse the emotion is to describe in very simple terms exactly what has happened. Let her bleed out with dignity. If you’ve set up the scene properly, by creating a character that the reader loves, then the scene will be emotionally charged anyway. As you relate tiny details as they happen, it lengthens the scene, makes it more real, and allows for greater emotional release for the reader.


But excessive prose that talks about the tragedy and emotes over it? It’s all garbage. The extra words actually get in the way, diminish the emotional impact of the scene.


As the poet T.S. Eliot taught, you as a writer can only lay claim to emotions that are supported by the facts of your story. He said, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (Emphasis mine.)


Thus, Eliot taught that Hamlet was an artistic failure because Hamlet’s emotional response to the incidents was too exaggerated.


He might be right, though certain psychologists could argue that Hamlet was simply responding to internal forces that were too much for him to handle. Still, I’ve seen plays of Hamlet that left me rather cold simply because it felt like “too much” emoting. Writing emotion requires care because too little or too much can turn away a reader. Whether or not emotion in writing seems genuine depends upon the protagonist as well as the reader. There is a balance which the author must find.



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