Emotion And Stories

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith. This month, we discuss the importance of emotion in narrative.

SYDNEY

As a writing mentor and manuscript assessor, I can often tell who has been to creative writing class. Apart from other telltale signs, these writers leave out emotion. They think they have to show it, not tell it.

Mr DarcyThis is a tricky area. In some instances, an action will indeed reveal how a character feels. But the writer has to make sure that it does, and that it shows it strongly enough. For example, if a character is responding to an insult, they might redden and glare. But what if the character is having a reflective moment, thinking over some revelation that overturns their assumptions? In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes such a moment for Elizabeth Bennet, after Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his relationship with Wickham and his actions concerning Jane and Bingley. Miss Austen knows an action won’t cover it. Not even a series of actions. The reader needs analysis of how Elizabeth feels, and how her feelings evolve from angry rejection of Darcy’s version to confused acceptance. That means emotions have to be named and thoughts described. If they aren’t named, the reader won’t know what she feels, and won’t be able to feel with her.

JENNY

Yes, I agree. Readers need to understand how the character feels, and many writers leave it out, in pursuit of showing, not telling. I used to fall into this trap.

EmotionsFor example, maybe our character Peter is in an unhappy marriage, or hates his job. So the writer quite rightly puts Peter in difficult and provoking situations – perhaps he fights with his boss or his wife walks out on him. With something this crucial, it’s important to indicate Peter’s internal thoughts and emotions. There are a variety of ways for Peter to respond to his spouse leaving. He might be angry, resentful, relieved, scared, liberated, or a mix of these. It’s risky to let readers fill in the blanks until Peter’s character is well established. My editor once said you run another risk too. If the writer doesn’t emphasise Peter’s feelings, readers might think he doesn’t care – might think the event washed over him, leaving him cold. So it’s important to show reactions. Otherwise characters might be misunderstood. But don’t overdo it!

There are various ways to indicate how characters are feeling. Internal physical sensations are the classic ‘show’.

Emotion.jpg‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry couldn’t breathe. A cold stone settled in the pit of his stomach. This child had meant everything.

Then there’s body language – physical gestures, facial expressions, actions etc.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry’s fingers trembled. The glass lurched alarmingly, spilling wine down the front of his trousers. He cried out. This child had meant everything.

And sometimes it helps to flat out state the emotion, for clarity.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry raised his hand, as if he might ward off the terrible news. Disappointment fell like a physical weight upon his heart, crushing it. His marriage, his kingdom – his very honour as a man – depended on the arrival of an heir. This child had meant everything.

emotion 2As readers, we are on a search for feeling – for a quickened pulse and a brighter pallet of colours than we find in everyday life. To feel, we need an emotional connection with the characters. I believe it’s the place where all good stories start.

SYDNEY

Aren’t you clever! There I was thinking Anne and Henry were two everyday Australian people – and they were THAT Anne and Henry!

Yes, reading is meant to be an emotional experience. It gives us access to other ways of living life. We’re meant to identify with the characters, especially the principal POV – although we’re free to identify with any character we choose to. I often think about the smaller characters in a novel, like Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and her foolish insistence on threadbare wisdom. Poor Mary is the daughter who came after Elizabeth, their father’s favourite. Mary is also the one who signals Mr Bennet’s disillusionment with his marriage. He loves the daughters he had when he still loved his wife, and keeps his distance from the daughters of his disillusionment. Of the younger three, Mary is the one who feels it most strongly, and competes with Elizabeth in the only way she can – through her efforts to be “wise” or intelligent. Poor Mary, I’ve always had a place in my heart for her.

Emotion 3.jpgAnyway, describing your character’s emotions closes the gap between reader and character. Without that emotional content, the reader is forced to stand at a distance from the story, is forced to think the story, not feel the story. Thinking it is a lesser experience and lets the reader off the hook before they’ve got anywhere near it. Emotional investment is a vital ingredient in that much-desired quality we call unputdownable.

BB14

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