Thursday, September 4, 2008

Emotion--- less is more?

I'm giving a workshop on writing emotion, and I'm wondering what you all think. I suspect "less is more" really works here; most of the scenes that bring me to tears are underwritten, without emotion words.

But these passages are usually at the end of an emotional set up-- that is, the author sets up the emotional situation so that I know what the stakes are, and then there's the moment of emotional release. It's like writing a comic passage, which I guess makes sense-- amusement is an emotion too. But you set up the situation and postpone the punchline until the laughter is ready to be released.

Anyway, how about a couple of examples of 'that moment of release," and no, I don't mean that kind of release. :) I mean a paragraph you mean to elicit tears in the reader. Why does it work? What did you do to achieve that?

And do you think that if you the writer cry as you write it (come on, admit it, we all do), that's a good sign (or not) that the reader will be as affected?


Anonymous said...

Here is an example from one of the novels I'm trying to sell (hah!):

His father waited in the front row of seats, staring at the podium; on it stood a lonely microphone and two vases of white flowers. He glanced aside. 'Got the rings, son?'
Cory held up the box.
His father gave a sheepish grin, making the skin around his eyes crinkle. He put an arm around Cory's shoulder. 'I'm lucky to have you. I'll be lucky to have both of you. I love you, Cory.'
Cory didn't meet his father's eyes.
His father's left hand was bare; he had taken off his other wedding ring, the one that had his mother's name inside.
His mother... In the past two weeks she had barely left his thoughts. His mother sitting in the garden, a blanket over her knees. His mother in the kitchen, seated on her high stool, cutting vegetables. His mother, hollow-cheeked and giving a weak smile, in her hospital bed. Somewhere in the room behind him, a nurse was lighting the eight candles on Cory's birthday cake. He remembered the smell of the burning match. He remembered staring at his mother's bone-thin hands while the nurses sang _Happy Birthday_. Those hands were holding a present, but trembled too much to give it to him. Those hands he had touched for the last time three weeks later, the skin cold.
That was only two years ago.

I'm not going to be so arrogant to presume that it's brilliant and it does work, but I have to admit I can never read this without crying.

I try to use strong visuals when setting up emotion, situations a reader can picture. Juxtapositions, like the happy-sad feeling of a boy celebrating his birthday a few weeks before his mother is about to die. I'm hoping that readers can imagine how horrible that would be.

Totally banned from my vocabulary is the phrase/combination VERB in EMOTION. Like 'He cried in anger' or 'She frowned in confusion' or similar. As far as I'm concerned, these are just ick, ick, ick.

I think if you try to evoke an emotion, you should avoid naming that emotion in the narrative.

Of course you should cry while writing your own stories. If not, how can the reader be expected to feel anything?

Edittorrent said...

I think that the focus on the hand is strong and concrete-- emotion should be in movements and objects, the way it is in real life. We really do endow things with emotional significance (wedding ring!), so that works better for me than emotion WORDS, which are necessarily a step removed.

Anonymous said...

Read Gone With The Wind. Just pick a page, any page. If Ms. Mitchell had followed even half of the "advice" I see on blogs, she never would have been able to write such a great book.

The emotion in that book is strong, yet lots of it is simply words after the action, and lots of times Scarlett is "removed" from the reader through such cues as "she thought" and even "she felt."

Anonymous said...

I don't have an example to give you, but I think mikandra's is well done.

When it comes to emotion, its important to remember that emotions are essentially a response to a stimulus. If the writer wishes to elicit an emotion, he or she need only detail the stimulus. The character's additudes (and the reader's, as well) will provide all the meaning that stimulus needs to evoke the response.

In other words, emotions are best served by the "show, not tell" maxim.

Liane Gentry Skye said...

I've been known to overwork the emotion, and I'm so grateful for this post. So, where *is* this workshop? :D

Below, a passage that has given me a particular amount of trouble:

She steps into the downstairs office where their son has spent the last three days watching the opening credits to One Hundred and One Dalmations, over and over again.

Interrupt the flow, and there'll be hell to pay later. So barring the presence of blood or fire, the credits roll, twenty-four seven.

They live hostage to a fifty-seven pound dictator

“What are you crying about now?” Byron asks.

It’s not his question that breaks her heart. It’s the delivery that does the deed, the impatient clip of consonants.

She wants to tell him that she's in mourning, but her tongue sits like stone in the well of her mouth.

She can taste the bitter heat of wasabi and soy sauce that another woman will kiss from his lips tonight, ignorant of the circumstances that drove him to escape in her arms.

She wants to tell him what she knows. But even if the words did break free, what difference would it make? Loving their son back to life, caring for him had consumed the last remnant of the woman Byron fell in love with twelve years ago.

Where had the girl who once righted her lover's world with a plate of strawberry pancakes gone?

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Very nice, mikandra!

Genella deGrey said...

I cry when I'm emotionally attached to the character - I relate to them, I feel for them, I know what they want.

The "Less is more" factor doesn't seem to make a difference if I'm invested. :)

As for crying while I write, and if that plays a part in the reader crying - Well, I'll find out when my first book is released later this year.