In Evoking Emotion in Writing Part 1, I talked mainly about evoking emotion by showing the effects of it instead of just telling us about it.
In Part 2, I touched on the fact that emotions aren’t pure. They’re usually a combination of a vast array of emotions.
Well, in Part 3, this last installment (for now) of this little forray into writing about the way characters feel, I wanted to talk about being careful not to overdo it.
You have to find a balance, especially when you’re portraying strong emotions like anger or love. Anger and love can be overwhelming if you pump them full of sap.
To this day, there are parts in movies that I can hardly bear to watch because they’re so uncomfortably sappy (usually in the Twilight movies, not in the books though). There are parts in books that I skim over because the language and the situation and the actions being written about are so over-the-top that I just get sick of it.
Now, I did state in Part 1 that I am not an emotional person. So that might have something to do with it. But I still believe you can do too much when it comes to heavy emotionalism in writing.
How do you find the balance?
The best example I can give is to read good romance. They will usually give you good examples of both love and anger. And if you find yourself squirming because it’s too much, make a note and try to identify what it is that’s making you squirm.
For me, in some of those crazy romances, it’s the overly long descriptions of the guy or the girl. They just go on and on with crazy terms like ebony hair and ivory skin and azure eyes. Ugh. Maybe a little is okay, but too much is too much. Just get back to the story!
Dialog can be too much too. If all your people are doing is bantering back and forth and it serves no purpose and doesn’t advance the story and doesn’t reveal anything about their characters, get rid of it. I have skimmed over so many conversations in romance novels because it simply doesn’t interest me.
Okay. An example of portraying emotion without being sappy about it?
First example that comes to mind is Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And this probably breaks all the rules that I just laid down because it’s mainly exposition, but by the point you get to read Mr. Darcy’s letter, you already know what Elizabeth’s opinion of him is – and then to have his letter contradict everything she believes so completely? Wow. I remember crying when I read that part. And I don’t cry in books.
Second example—well, it isn’t a book. It’s a movie. But I was thinking about what a beautiful example it is. It’s a small scene from the movie Ever After, with Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott. It’s a minor minor scene with virtually no dialog at all. But every time—every time—I see it, I bawl because it’s so beautiful. It’s the part just after Danielle has risked life and limb to save Maurice, the elderly servant, from being sold. She returns Maurice to his wife and to the other servant woman in her family. The whole scene is emotional. It doesn’t really advance the plot, but you get a glimpse into a truly joyous moment in the lives of four people who don’t really have a lot to be joyful about.
Two parts stand out to me: Maurice’s old wife runs toward him on skinny legs with her skirts hiked up as far as they’ll go. She can barely walk but she’s toddling toward him at top speed. The other woman servant, a life-long friend, can’t get her skirts up and she’s having to hop as she runs toward them. It’s the combination of joy and enthusiasm and relief and gratitude and sorrow and loneliness and hopelessness that makes the whole scene work. And I’m certain that it would be very difficult to capture in the written word, but I know it has to be possible. (I’ll let you know when I figure it out.)
One final thought on portraying emotion: look for an uncommon method of depicting it.
A good example is this: How do you show that a man loves his wife? He brings her red roses, right? But wait. What if he’s resorting to a cliché to get her off his case about something? That doesn’t show that he loves her.
Instead, establish in the story that the wife loves the beach. Have her mention that she hasn’t been to Florida in ages, or she weeps over a picture of her grandma playing with sand at the beach or something. And then have her wake up one morning and find a child’s sand bucket outside with a bucket of sand from the beach her husband/significant other brought back for her.
That kind of effort is either love or insanity. And there may not be much of a distinction between those.
Unusual methods of demonstrating love stick with us because they make us think.
Notice in all of these examples, you have to build your characters and your story and your plot and your setting first before you start putting emotion into it. Because emotion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Emotion is something we experience in response to an outside force.
You can’t just tell us that your character loves someone. Or that he or she hates someone. We need proof to back it up.