Swallowing the Wallowing

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!

  1. I have the same problem as WriteForFun!! I get really carried away when I’m writing emotional scenes and I find that I go overboard. I have the same problem with drama, and I find that I’m never giving time for myself (as the reader) to catch my breath. Also, Christie V. Powell, I LOVE ‘Hatchet’ and I write similarly to that as well, using punctuation as emphasis.
    Thank you for this post Mrs. Levine. It is REALLY helpful!

  2. Bookfanatic102 says:

    I find that I have a lot of dreams where in my head I am writing a story and narrating it as I go sometimes there are characters acting it out and sometimes there aren’t it’s kind of weird does anyone else do that too?

  3. To be honest, I’ve never had the problem of my writings being too emotional. I have the problem of them not being emotional enough, haha. I think it’s because I get overwhelmed with ideas and have trouble planning out the plot and character’s personalities before I start writing, and it ends up sounding fake.

  4. Hi! Great post; I will use this advice in my future work for sure! I have two questions that have been bugging me like crazy lately. If any of you have suggestions, they would be GREATLY appreciated!

    1. Before I started writing my story, I knew my MC was going to be VERY feisty. She doesn’t let anyone push her around, she stands up for what she believes in, and in the end she is a critical part of the 1830 Paris Uprising. She’s basically like Katniss Everdeen but living in olden days France.
    The story starts when she’s 12 years old. At first, she’s a spoiled little girl who’s living off her rich mother’s fortune. Then her mom dies and she’s sent to live with some distant relatives who turn her into a maid a la Cinderella. She has no control over the situation, and she sounds SO weak. She just thinks nasty things about her new guardians. She stays there for four years before she finally escapes (and then she’s homeless and penniless). That’s when her survival mode suddenly kicks in and she becomes this scrappy street thief. But there’s such a jump between the two stages. I can’t seem to make it work.

    2. Another story of mine is based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The story is set in a fantasy version of ancient China. All the characters have traditional Chinese names. Snow White is called Xiaoyu and her prince is Yang. But I’m really having trouble keeping the dwarfs’ names straight. There have to be seven of course, and I also don’t want the prince to be confused as another dwarf. Do you have any tips? Thanks.

    • So, for your first question, you’re trying to jump from sarcastic but passive to scrappy and feisty. It seems like she just needs goaded from reacting to proacting. What would motivate her to make that step? It’s not authority or bodily harm or freedom, or she’d have acted before now. If she’s unwilling to help herself, maybe she’s willing to help someone else. Perhaps she meets a new friend or becomes a mentor-figure to someone younger. Perhaps she sees someone else beat incredible odds and she realizes it’s possible. I’d suggest doing some brainstorming: my favorite way is to write on paper stream-of-conscious until I’ve ironed out what I’m doing. Ask yourself what’s stopping her from being proactive before and what will finally urge her on. You might also want to consider how you make this character likable in the beginning, because passive characters are hard to sell.

      I’m not familiar with Chinese names, but what about starting them all with different letters? A B C D E F G, or some other pattern: all colors, all increasing in length, or some other pattern that helps you keep track. I read a Chinese fairy tale where seven daughters were named One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven. If the dwarves have similar personalities, they might not need names at all.
      This is completely the wrong style, but I’ve thought it would fun to name seven companions Juan, Drew, Lee, Thor, Clive, Seth, and Stefan (say them out loud–they sound like numbers).

      • Great ideas, Christie V Powell! You always have great tips for my writing crises! I will definitely brainstorm some more and see what I can come up with. And your seven characters’ names are genius!

    • Your character could have tried to escape or rebel before, but she (obviously) wouldn’t have succeeded – and maybe there was horrific punishment. Maybe if there’s another character involved, someone younger like Christie V Powell suggested, and your character’s rebelling is hurting that person. That may cause her to stop. Maybe, since your character’s realized huge displays of rebellion won’t work, she could do small things to make her guardians’ lives difficult, things that couldn’t be traced back to her (like, I don’t know, hiding someone’s left shoe under the bed right before they’re about to leave – a situation that could plausibly have happened on its own and also inconveniences her guardian). Maybe she only stays in the house/situation BECAUSE her friend/mentee is there. Maybe she spends time making connections with the neighbors’ servants and gaining the support of the other ones in her own household so she has help when she finally does escape, and a support system in her future activities (I would assume having a strong support system is important when one is staging an uprising against the government).
      (Hey, there’s a stream-of-conscious for you, I guess.)

    • Song4myKing says:

      Are your dwarfs all fully rounded out characters, with distinct personalities that you want the reader to recognize?

      If not – if they all or nearly all operate as a group – name them very similar names (rhyming, or same first letter, etc.). This associates them as a group, so if the reader sees a name, he knows this is one of the dwarfs, even if he hasn’t memorized the names. Also when he comes upon the name Yang, he’ll know automatically that it’s not another dwarf.

      If you want, one dwarf could be the unusual one, the spokesman, or comic misfit, or whatever. He could also have a name that is unique from the others. I remember a song we used to listen to when we were children. It was about five pterodactyls named “Teeny, Tiny, Tony, Tommy, AND … Frank.” Also, a real life example – my cousin and her husband both have names beginning with “Jo,” and they named each of their six children with names beginning in “Jo.” But, since their oldest is named after his father, they have always called him by his very different middle name to avoid confusion. Once I mistakenly called him by his first name. After I was corrected, I teased him that I was so used to the sound of the other names, that it was his first name that slipped out. He told me pointedly, “I’m different.”

  5. (I’ve posted this elsewhere…but I really love how helpful and supportive this writing community is, so I’ve decided to post it here too. Also, I accidentally commented this on the last post, instead this one, so I just pasted it here. Sorry for the repeat question.)

    There’s a history of alcoholism in my family, like in many others, and while I personally don’t believe drinking is wrong, and I don’t mind if other people indulge in it themselves, I don’t think I ever will and I hate drunkenness. I’ve seen the people it’s ruined and the families it’s torn apart and I hate it.

    I’m writing in a time period where realistically nearly everyone who had access to alcohol would be drinking it. But I really really really really don’t want to glorify drinking even so.

    Does anyone have tips on writing that sort of thing without demonizing alcohol, but also without glorifying it?

    • Bookfanatic102 says:

      You could write it where the people live in a world of terror and drinking is their only way to get away from it but they don’t like getting drunk but they don’t like terror even more. (sorry if that’s kinda confusing)

    • It could be sort of like England’s Tudor period, where pretty much everyone drank large quantities of ale, but it was much weaker than modern beer, and being “a drunkard” was frowned upon.

    • Song4myKing says:

      You could start out with it as simply a part of the setting; a normal part of the culture. Then throughout the story, show glimpses from time to time, as the setting allows, and let some of those glimpses show the negative side. If you don’t want to really address alcohol as part of your theme, leave it as incidental details, like you might mention new leaves in a story that happens to be set in springtime. Letting some of the details be negative would help keep it from undue glory. To keep from demonizing it, don’t make your antagonist a raving drunk, and (if it would be reasonable for the times and personalities) you might consider letting a good character drink in moderation.

      If you don’t want to leave the alcohol in the details as part of the setting, you could bring it out front into the conflict by letting one of your characters, MC or otherwise, actually get drunk enough to make poor decisions affecting the direction of the plot. (But remember that someone under the influence still needs motives for acting – even if their motives might be different than they are when they’re sober).

  6. I was writing a story and when I wrote about 5 pages , then I rewrote it making it better, then when i read both versions to a relative she said the 1st version was better. Should I listen to her or ignore her ? help!

    • Ask her specifics. What was better about the first one? In general stories get better with future drafts–or at least, the prose does. Are there certain big changes you made that she likes?
      Also, if this story is significantly longer than 5 pages, you might want to wait to show people until you’ve finished it. Your beginning might change a lot, and you never know where the story might end up taking you.

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