On April 6, 2017, Writeforfun wrote, I love to explore people’s emotions when I write – love to – to the point that, as I look over my stories, I realize that the majority of my writing is spent detailing what is going on in characters’ heads. I enjoy writing because I get to put them in dangerous situations or scar them emotionally, and then explore all of the conflicting and interesting emotions they experience (my favorite characters to write are those who are sensitive about something). That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
Anyway, it’s so much fun (for me!) but I realize that it often overshadows the action and other important details. Has anyone else had that problem? How do you rein yourself in from including too much emotional exploration? I try to cut back on the detail I’ve included… but it’s too interesting to me to give it up! How to find a balance between what is going on in your story and what is going on in your characters’ heads?
And Christie V Powell wrote, I like using the action and plot to show the emotion–possibly in the present, possibly with a mini-flashback. Usually when someone is feeling emotional, there is a specific image or phrase in their heads (if I’m in the car and afraid, I probably have an image of a car wreck in my head). I like “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as an example–I think I “inherited” some of his style and only recently noticed the connection. He uses short sentences, even one word sentences, and line-breaks for emphasis. His main character Brian’s survival story is both inside his head and in action, as he develops the attitude to survive as well as the ability.
Here’s a section from my WIP that includes a more emotional moment, but it also pulls in a little plot, a secondary character, and some backstory:
“Had anything to eat yet?”
Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out of Keita’s mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.…
At last he asked, “This your first meal in a season?”
“Thereabouts,” Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.
The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.
Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.
Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract’s eyes widened. Waste of food was sin.
Song4myKing weighed in with, I don’t generally get too detailed with emotions – I stem from a fairly stoic family :). I generally rely on memory flashbacks and things like songs, and on external details like body language. I lean toward the observable, not by a decision as much as by what I’m comfortable with.
But I do have a problem showing too much of the thought processes when a character is trying to decide what to do. I guess I feel I have to make the decisions understood, but I think I go overboard. It’s like I can’t leave any stone un-turned. I try to show every angle the character might take.
I was taking a writing class when I wrote Ella Enchanted. Every week, our beloved teacher, Bunny Gabel (now retired), would select a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book from two or three students and read them to the class for discussion. She never said who’d written the piece, and the person whose work was read wasn’t allowed to say anything, not even to ask a question. The idea was that if the words on the page didn’t communicate what the writer had in mind, no amount of explaining could help.
*SPOILER ALERT!* If you haven’t read Ella, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs:
Bunny read the chapter after Ella’s mother dies, and everyone said I hadn’t gone nearly enough into Ella’s sadness. I remember thinking resentfully, Her mother just died! Duh! Of course she’s sad!
But I revised, and when I did, I recognized the improvement.
It isn’t true that Ella would have to be sad. She could be angry. She could blame someone. She could be numb. She could even be happy, depending on the kind of mother Lady Eleanor had been and the kind of girl Ella was.
I was converted by that experience. When something important happens, I always go into my MC’s feelings about it. When something minor happens, I sometimes do, too.
I was converted as a reader, too. If I’m reading a novel and the main character seems not to be reacting emotionally, I notice. If this character happens to be stoic and I know that about her, then I want at least an indication that emotions are concealed but churning. Stoic or not, if her reaction is delayed by even a few paragraphs, I notice that too and wish the author had managed to move the feeling up.
Same goes for thoughts. Decisions seem abrupt if I’m not told the reasons behind them, and characters seem wooden, robotic.
Merely telling the emotion doesn’t do it for me, either. Emotions, if they’re significant, call for showing, another lesson I absorbed, this time from an editor, which. I wrote about years ago in a post called “Fear of Flat.” Christie V Powell’s dropped bowl is a good example of such showing. Often, we can nail the feeling by including something physical: tight throat, squeezing stomach, etc. For a character–other than our POV MC–who is gripped by powerful emotion, we can have another character describe his reaction: his expression, voice quality, stance. We can search online for images of facial expressions, like “sad face,” “angry face,” something I’ve done many times. When I look at a photo of a sad person, I see details I wouldn’t think of purely out of my imagination.
By now you’ve realized that I, too, love to delve into feelings!
But of course it’s possible to overdo. I agree that we don’t want to overwhelm our story and bring it to a halt. However, if we enjoy writing about feelings, I think we should let ourselves go in the first draft. That’s the “have fun” part at the end of every post.
One way to contain our emotions-writing, in any draft, is to use time or setting or other characters to get the action going again. We can deny our character the opportunity to wallow in feeling. Suppose our MC Melanie has just discovered that her best friend, Janice, who has passed herself off as an orphan, has two perfectly good parents and three siblings. Melanie has believed herself to be the only one who cares about Janice and has lavished energy and sympathy on her. She feels betrayed, foolish, furious, and possibly several other emotions. She wants to rant and pound her pillow and go into her closet to scream. And we want her to! But we’re aware of our propensity to dive in head first, so we put her in a car with her family when she finds out the truth. She can’t let herself go there. Maybe her younger brother wants to talk about something or play a game. Her stomach can churn; she can take it out on the brother, which will have consequences that move the action forward. For the rest of the day or week or until the two confront each other, her feelings can simmer, but circumstances keep the story moving.
The example above involved setting–a car–and other characters–Melanie’s family, especially her brother. Time can do the job, too. Melanie makes the discovery about Janice five minutes before she goes on stage in her local community theater. She has to finish getting into her costume, take a last look at her lines, and get to the wings in time for her entrance.
So if we engineer the arrival of our emotional triggers, we can contain them.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Write the confrontation between Melanie and Janice from Melanie’s POV. Make it emotional for both of them and show the feelings of each, one from the inside, one from the outside.
∙ Interrupt the confrontation with something urgent. Continue writing. The feelings remain, but they’re background.
∙ Your MC is learning to be a mountain climber. The stakes are high. She will be part of a team climbing to the realm of the sentient snow leopards who have wisdom to impart that can save her family. But her balance is bad, and she isn’t progressing as quickly as she needs to. She’s frustrated, frightened, angry at herself, but giving into these feelings is a luxury she can’t afford. Write the scene.
Have fun, and save what you write!