Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5
In a workshop the other day we were talking about the best ways to convey strong emotion in your written work. “The goal,” I said to a student, “is to evoke emotion in the reader, not to tell the reader that the writer or the character felt emotional.”
Emotion is difficult to write about. Words like “sad, mad, happy” are abstract; they convey information but not experience. It’s important to remember that the word “Feeling” can refer to either emotion or sensation, and one very effective way to describe emotion is through the physical sensations produced.
If I write, “As if by its own volition, her fist began to curl and clench. Her face grew hot and her arm cocked back, readying itself to punch; she willed it to remain at her side,” a reader will understand palpably the character’s anger because they will have an experience of it.
If I write, “A wounded bird is trapped in the cavern of my chest,” a reader will have a more vivid experience than if I just said, “I feel sad.” The former offers a particularity of sadness that, while not literal, a reader can imagine. Figurative language (metaphor, simile, things not literally true) can be a powerful technique to convey emotion: “It always seemed to be raining outside his bedroom window.”
While we want the character or poetic persona to be emotional, and the writing to evoke emotions in the reader, the author should try to keep their emotions out of it. A rule of thumb is that the more an author’s emotions are present in the work, the less room there is for the reader’s emotions. Part of the reason for this is that the author may be doing all the work for the reader, telling them how to feel, which leaves no space for the reader’s engagement in the work.
Another pitfall is sentimentality, which I would describe as “received emotion.” That is, as writers, we lapse into the expected feeling. Grandma has died and everyone is sad. This is nothing against Grandma, but life is more complex than that. Grandma has died and I feel guilty that I didn’t bring her groceries every week like I promised I would. Or Grandma has died and I never had the courage to come out to her. Or Grandma has died and I’m so relieved I won’t have to smell the liver and onions she cooked anymore. Or I never really liked Grandma all that much anyway. The reader has nothing to learn from the easy sentiment, but much to learn from the complex truth of human emotions.
An additional technique writers use is the “objective correlative.” First identified by T.S. Eliot (though he was not the first to use it), this is the strategy of describing an object as a way of conveying the emotion of a scene: A couple is in trouble, their relationship is coming apart. Rather than offering an analysis of their dynamics, the author sends them out for dinner and one of them orders a steak. But the meat is over-cooked, it is dry and can barely be chewed, indigestible. The steak correlates to the feeling about the failing relationship, but the author keeps us focused on the inedible steak. The reader feels the character’s disappointment, frustration, hunger unsated, all without resorting to interpretive language that tells rather than shows. So much can happen with that steak: the character can eat it until they feel sick; they can throw it on the floor; they can use it to provoke an argument with the waitress.
In Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, she argues that literature both requires us to use our emotions in order to understand it, and at the same time literature educates and improves our emotions as well as our ability to cope with them. Readers of poetry and literary prose are looking to have their emotions aroused; it is one of the great benefits of literature to provide a mirror of one’s inner life and a safe place to externalize it. Writers cultivate the skills to facilitate this emotional experience for the reader.
Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
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