Friday, January 8, 2010

The reader feels... maybe more

Just another thought about emotion. Well, two.

Sentimentality has a bad rep. JD Salinger (I think it was him) said, "Sentimentality is giving more tenderness to something than God would." The notion is that sentimentality overdoes the emotion, and a particular kind of emotion (tenderness), kind of gooshy and soft.

Writing sentimentality can be counter-productive, as most humans have a built-in defense against feeling too much. They don't actually want to be reduced to a helpless puddle of tears, or be driven to laugh out loud in public. They sure don't want to be depressed or scared, in life or by a book. So they will probably resist mightily any too blatant an appeal to pathos. If you want to make your reader feel, you might have to be sneaky.

But there's the question-- say you have spent a lot of time on the purpose of making the reader feel, and realize you might have alienated the reader (if you do "too much"), and also might be dismissed (as women novelists have been for time immemorial) as "sentimental" or "purple". I would suggest that there's another method, and that's to present the emotion more obliquely, through scene design and careful selection of words and setting and objects, never "on the nose," never direct-- and never clearly in the words or thoughts of the character.

See, this is a danger of deep POV, that the seductive ability to BE the character can actually get in the way of the reader feeling any emotion the character doesn't feel. In fact, sometimes you want the reader to feel other than what the character feels. For example, one of the more excruciating story moments in my memory is the infamous "Spock in love" scene from the original Star Trek. (The tv show, I mean.) Spock is under some spell or illness or something-- I forget the details because I don't WANT to remember, it's too awful-- and gets all emotional and falls in love and laughs! Laughs! Mr. Spock! I still remember with utter horror that he was trying to entertain the lady and so dangled by his knees from a tree branch. (I can't tell you how horrible this was. It's like seeing your parents having sex.)

Point is-- Spock felt Happy! He didn't feel humiliated. Yet the scene inspired this viewer to feel humiliated, so much so that decades later, she remembers that as more humiliating even than her own humiliating experiences in high school.

There will be times when you want the reader to feel something-- humiliation, dread, pity-- that the character is not feeling in the scene. So it's not just about making the reader feel what the character is feeling. (And, in fact, some characters are not going to feel anything-- but the reader still can.) Sometimes you want the reader to know (if not feel) what the character is feeling, but feel something else or in addition. That's when you have to go beyond mere replication of the character's feelings. Something else has to be added to inspire the reader to feel the additional emotion. The totality of the scene, all the elements that go into making the scene, can inspire emotion in the reader.

In fact, partly, I think, to get away from the "sentimental" and focus more on the intellectual, much literary fiction these days strives for an almost emotionless presentation. The prose often has a flat affect (c.f. Cold Mountain's lack of quote marks), and emotional events are often shown obliquely or after the fact or actually undercut (as in Lethem's Chronic City, where SPOILER! the only emotionally affecting character turns out not to exist). This is not to say that the stories don't inspire emotion, but the reader might have to interpret more than with a pop-fic book. Often the characters do not express much emotion, or downplay it, and so emotion must come from other elements than the narration or POV.

That's the second point-- the more "sophisticated" way of creating emotion is oblique, off-sided. I don't think most of us want to go for the completely flat presentation, but we can learn from the lit fic novels (let's think of some authors-- Lethem, DeLillo, Alice Munro-- some right to mind) where the narration is about as far from "sentimental" as it can be. What emotion there is in those novels is usually presented more through the events and scene elements (setting, sequence, action/reaction) than in the words and dialogue.

Nothing wrong with emotion, of course, far from it. Fortunately, popular fiction has always gone for emotion. That is, the authors see emotion as part of life and part of literature and not the enemy of thought, etc. But interestingly, with today's very sophisticated readers, the oblique presentation of emotion through scene design and other elements can be more effective as it doesn't set off that cynical, self-protective "sentimental" alarm. So -- keep in mind that many lit-fic novels err on the "almost sociopathic" side of the emotion line (once a crit group used that "almost" description of a scene of mine-- not that I still dwell on that or anything)-- but some of the better lit-fic novels do have things to teach us about how to design almost "around" emotion, as I think that might well inspire the reader to -feel- the emotion. And this more oblique technique (which you can find to more affecting effect in many good pop-fic novels-- showing, not telling, emotion) uses action, scene design, props (objects that convey emotion somehow), and character body movement rather than emotion words to transmit the emotion.

So -- long path to a short point-- think about whether your purpose in this scene is to tell the reader, or even show the reader, what the character is experiencing emotionally, or is there more? Are you trying to do that AND inspire that and/or some other emotion in the reader? The two aims might require different techniques, and actually work against each other-- vivid internal monologuing by the character might put the reader off.

This is hard. :) But (natch, I'm teaching a class on emotion next week) let's think of some examples of scenes where the reader is led to feel a different emotion than the character.

I don't know why "humiliation" always comes to mind, but there's the scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett "proposes" to Rhett (gown made of curtains, remember), and the reader has a sense of dread, knowing that Rhett is going to get her back for her earlier rejection of his advances.

Other scenes?


Wes said...

I don't know if this hits the mark, but I have a scene in my WIP where my MC is trying to raise capital. He is proud of his accomplishments in his first trading venture, and he has a condescending feeling to the bookish banker. He makes many mistakes in his presentation to the banker that he is not aware of, but the reader will catch them (I hope). The MC walks out empty handed, not knowing how many amateurish mistakes he made.

Is that the concept? Don't hesitate to say no.

Edittorrent said...

That sounds right, if the reader feels dread or embarrassment-- something the character doesn't know to feel. :)

Dave Shaw said...

I think the episode was 'This Side of Paradise', and Spock was infected by spores from weird alien plants. It was a season one episode, and not one of the better ones. Its main redeeming feature was Nimoy beating on Shatner - er, I mean, Spock beating on Kirk. >;-)

Phyllis said...

In one of my all time favorite short stories, A Nice Place to Stay by Nedra Tyre, this is used to great effect. The narrator is a very poor woman who gets barely along by nursing people for food and a bed. Her description of poverty inspires compassion because she's not fishing for pity. She's in fact cheerful. When she finally finds her nice place to stay, a home, and raves about the luxuries of the place, our compassion deepens even further because no person in their right mind would see the place in a positive manner.

I don't want to spoil the end, the story's too good for that. Go out and find it for yourself.

Anonymous said...

How about the British version of The Office where the boss's image of himself as the life-of-the-party entertainer leads to some truly humiliating moments (not quite as excruciating to watch as Spock laughing, but close!)

Kayelle Allen said...

This came at exactly the right time. I have two characters in a highly emotional situation, with a cliff hanger ending to the chapter. I'm trying to decide whose POV to use for the next part, and I usually go with the one who's experiencing the greatest emotional impact. One has just learned he was not only adopted, but was also purchased as an infant in a ploy to retain landholdings. I had used a different character's POV to reveal the info, and thought I should switch. It didn't feel right, because the pain would be so deep. I see now that some distance may be exactly what I need.

em said...

I've done this! In my current WIP the hero withholds certain things he's learned because it would embarrass the heroine. It's this eventual embarrassment that causes him to propose to her because he knows that once this comes out no one will want to marry her.:)

Anonymous said...

THere's an author out there that I won't read anymore because her heroine's embarass the hell out of me. They just go so far--to far for me.


Sylvia said...

I remember Spock swinging from that tree! It was excruciating, it really was.

I've just read The Killer Inside Me and that story is told in a dead-pan, 'that's just the way it is' sort of way while the whole time I'm wincing in horror. I think that crossed the line right into sociopathic, though.

The Corrections was full of this, wasn't it? I loved the layer upon layer and that we saw so much more than the POV character at every stage. Is this the same thing?

sanjeet said...
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kanishk said...
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