A brief note before getting into the meat of this post. After seeing my traffic plummet to the single digits for entire weeks, I’m been trying to get this site optimized for search engines and generally trying to make this site more visible. It’s incredible just how much there is to learn and I am considering creating a new page on this site with a guide for newbie bloggers so they don’t make some of the mistakes I did while setting up their blog. But that won’t come to pass till I get through the backlog of posts I have planned for the main topic of this blog which is speculative fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, New Weird, and all things fantastic and mind expandingly imaginative. Speaking of which, it’s time to get to the real focus of this post and talk about writing about emotions.
As I’ve said before, part of the aim of writing is generating emotional response in readers. Two important sources of emotion are theme and writing convincing characters who are going through difficult and trying situations. The former is a bit more pervasive and under the radar and has more to do with what your story is saying about a subject. Is your story saying that victory is fleeting and that disappointment is inevitable? Then you can imagine the kind of emotional response you’ll generate in readers. But theme is a slow release mechanism that builds over time. It’s cumulative and results from the events of the story as it progresses. As such, it can be a powerful tool for leaving the reader with a particular feeling. However, to even build a theme you need actions and these should never be neutral.
Before getting into some of the technical aspects about writing, I’d propose that writing about emotion requires writing with emotion. In a way, writing and acting are very similar. When acting, you inhabit the character. Method acting takes this idea to the extreme. You become the character so completely that it almost becomes your identity. You think as the character thinks and see the world as the character sees it. Daniel Day-Lewis is famous (or infamous) for taking his roles to the extreme. But I think we as writers can learn a lot from this style. And we don’t even need to break any ribs to do it. When writing an emotionally charged scene, I would suggest trying to actually feel what you are writing. There are two reasons for this. First of all, with the charge of the emotion will be reflected in the words you choose. Let’s say your character is livid. Maybe he’d found his job has been given away to the snooty upstart or she has been beaten to a major discovery. If you really feel the emotion of anger, you might notice all kinds of words coming into your head associated with what your feeling, how you are directing your aggression, the kinds of angry thoughts you’re feeling. The second thing that getting into character does for your writing is a result of the first reason for going all in: sincerity and authenticity. When you write what you feel, readers will feel the intensity, they will pick up on the genuineness of what you have said and they will feel it as well. They may not even realize what has happened on a conscious level. Sincere writing has a tendency to pick up a reader and carry them along like a leaf on a strong wind. This plays in heavily with helping the reader with his/her willing suspension of disbelief. If you can help them truly believe your characters’ actions, they will be drawn in to the story and likely stick with it till the end. How does one convey emotion effectively though?
Like so much else in writing, there probably isn’t just one way of doing something so I can only tell you the way I do it and hope that it may be helpful to you as well. Part of it is letting go. I know that isn’t exactly helpful to hear but it certainly helps me. When I stop thinking about form and technique and just let the emotion tell me what to say next, I can manage to bang out a scene much more quickly and effectively. So for the first bit advice, I would suggest not thinking too much about it. But that’s not all that satisfying is it? I suppose not so here’s something that might be a bit more concrete.
We can think of emotions in four ways when it comes to writing and in general. There is the physiological, the affective, behavioral, and the cognitive. The physiological aspect deals with the visceral, bodily manifestations of an emotion. In sadness, you might feel ponderous and slow. You might feel aches and pains that have no biological origin (i.e. no wounds). Or in ecstasy, you will feel your heart racing, light headed, and great energy crackling though you. The affective dimension deals with the feeling of the emotion. This is difficult to relate without directly referencing the emotion itself. In other words, if a character is relieved, an affective description might be, “Relief ran over him like cool cloth.” Affective really is just what you feel. The behavioral aspect is just as it sounds. What does your character do when in the grips of an emotion? Does she take it out on others, host a party, play darts, shake, hug? This dimension also incorporates the extremely important act of speaking. How does she express in her own words what she feels? Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she keeps it all inside. Maybe instead of shouting from the rooftops, she stands back with a slight smile on her face. The cognitive aspect deals with the thoughts that arise from the emotion. For instance, let’s say a character is in love. You could describe how he sees the world. He might see the world as benign and wonderful. He may feel like nothing in the world could bring him down. This aspect is more indirectly conveyed through what you choose to describe. Since first and limited third person allow for more in-depth examination of the character’s internal states, you as the writer need to choose which details will essentially represent your character’s mental state and thus convey the character’s emotional state by extension. Ideally you should try to incorporate all three facets to create a believable, gripping description. A lot of people say show but don’t tell which I agree with. You should say, “Elaine was sad,” and leave it at that. But naming the emotion isn’t a black mark on your record as long as you incorporate at least one other dimension into the description. And never forget the importance of dialogue in conveying what a character feels.
As always, comments are welcome and I’d love to hear about your thoughts on emotion and how to convey it in writing.