A popular post from May 2010
By Julie Wright
As I promised Curtis last week, I am going to cite a few examples of emotionally potent writing. As Curtis suggested, all opinions are subjective, but some opinions are more universally agreed upon than others.
My first example of good emotional writing is from Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The scene where Katniss is awaiting the results of the reaping is a perfect example for emotions and for showing not telling. Katniss has done everything in her power to keep her sister Prim out of the games. Prim has only one entry, whereas Katniss has a whole bunch. So she experiences a visceral shock when she hears Prim's name called out. The chapter ends with Katniss hearing Prim's name. And the next chapter begins with Katniss's reaction. But it doesn't say anything abstract like shocked, stunned or surprised. It goes into a little backstory of the time Katniss fell ten feet out of a tree and her physical reaction to that fall, where her body went into a state of shock. She described how her body felt, from the muscles to her legs, to her stomach, to her mind. She used many of the five senses to describe that fall.
THEN she likened all that feeling to the feeling she now had with Prim's name and watching her sister step up, confused and frightened to take her place in the games that would surely kill her.
While reading that scene, the reader FEELS the same shock that Katniss feels. We are part of that story in every way. We are watching our little sisters (even those of us who don't have little sisters) walk to their deaths. We want to scream, we want to cry, we want to do exactly as Katniss did and yell out, "Take me instead!"
That is emotionally powerful writing. That is showing not telling. That is making the reader participate in the story, rather than merely observe the story.
Last week, a commenter made the observation that writers (especially new writers) assume that writing from the heart and infusing emotion means to say she was sad, he was angry and other abstract things like that. The commenter is absolutely right. Abstract emotion doesn't make the reader feel anything. There are ways to show emotion without resorting to telling, or worse, getting drippy with sentimentality.
It's hard to put everything there is to know about writing emotions in a blog but real fast a major thing to avoid is:
She sat on pins and needles waiting for the mail to come.
This is an attempt at showing she's nervous or anxious, but it fails. It's a cliche that is as abstract as saying she was nervous. Avoid cliches. Avoid the phrases like she loved him more than life itself or anything that even hints at dripping in sentimentality. That makes readers roll eyes and does not encourage them to keep reading to the next page.
Another example of good emotional writing is from Janette Rallison's How to Take the Ex Out of Ex Boyfriend. She opens the book talking about the social rankings in Cinderella's world and how even though Cinderella was with the prince, it doesn't mean that the courtiers and other ladies are glad to have her there. She isn't like them. She's a commoner and doesn't deserve to be with them. Then it gets brought back to the main character and how her dating this amazing guy and having him accept her doesn't mean his friends and their girlfriends will accept her.
The reason why this is good emotional writing is because everyone at some point or another feels like they don't fit in. The audience can relate to the situation of being out of their element and they immediately sympathize with the main character. You want your readers to feel the main character's emotion. In order to do that you need to:
*Create an experience that is relatable to the human condition.
*Maintain a character's motivation so the reader understands WHY the character makes the choices they make.
*Use the five senses.
*Be concrete; avoid the abstract.
*Include internal thoughts. I personally think this is important in helping readers understand and get inside the main character's head. Consider a time when you were having a conversation. Yes your dialogue reveals a lot of what you're feeling, but it can't reveal all. Because sometimes we don't say what we mean. And sometimes we feel things that we aren't willing to say out loud. How am I supposed to know if your character is furious at her boss, when her entire conversation shows me otherwise?
There is a lot more, but alas, I need to get back to my own writing. I wish you all great success with yours.