Writing about emotion worries writers because it’s so easy to lapse into sentimentality. The secret is restraint at every level. Whatever moved you, artfully conveyed, will move your readers.
We’ve talked about how showing has more power than telling. Showing also allows a precision that telling lacks. The vocabulary of description is huge; the diction of human emotion is limited and limiting.
The first step is to get yourself out of the way. If you narrate in the first person, you will inevitably start adding adjectives about your own feelings. If you show what you saw and heard rather than experienced, you stimulate readers to respond in ways that mean more to them.
Think for a moment about monster stories and movies. The least effective ones, the least scary, show you the creature over and over in close-ups, lots of fangs and claws and red eyes and slobber and blood. The really scary ones never show the whole monster, except for maybe a shadow or a shape or one arm torn off at the shoulder. Readers make up their own monster out of what they’re really afraid of.
Showing works best with a little framing and small details. Set the scene and then zoom in on telling details. A telling detail conveys meaning and impact to readers, like that “one arm torn off at the shoulder” I just mentioned. Beowulf ripped it off Grendel.
Where do you find such details in real life as opposed to epics? They’re all around you. You look for them while you gather, and you mark them in your notebook (“TD,” maybe). You won’t put detail in a piece unless you get it into the notebook. If you don’t capture it in the notebook, you might not see it in the first place. Some writers see more and better than others because they’re tuned up to look for key details.
Because writers worry about emotion, we tend to find sources to talk about it, and we end up with their doing a lot of telling, and our doing very little showing. What people say is also a telling detail, and needs the same rigorous selection and omission.
Narrative conveys emotion best because it involves detail and speech and action. As V.S. Naipal puts it, “Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”
Let’s take a look at a passage with the potential to drip with sentiment, describing two shelter technicians euthanizing a dog:
Nancy Hill cradled the small tan dog against her body for several moments, then tenderly placed him on the stainless steel table.
The 3-year-old animal with sad, liquid eyes looked quizzically about the strange gray room.
“I love you,” Heather McKee whispered, inserting a syringe filled with pink liquid into his right leg. Hill cried as she stroked the dog’s back and spoke to him tenderly.
The animal gazed into the eyes of a stranger. A moment later his head flopped to the side, eyes frozen open.
Life was over for the nameless terrier-labrador mix, but the cycle of suffering for those who had to kill him was only beginning.
Borderline sentimental because of three words: “sad” and “tenderly” twice, but otherwise restrained. The narrative focuses on actions, captured by strong verbs. The writer selects the key details: “stainless steel table,” “syringe,” “pink liquid,” and “right leg.” Heather doesn’t tell us how she feels; we hear her tell the dog. We almost get inside the dog’s mind: ”looked quizzically about the strange grey room,” and “gazed into the eyes of a stranger.” Almost.
“Almost” is the key to writing about emotion. And it helps to have a good restraining editor to keep you from flying over the edge.
[What’s your experience with writing about emotion?]