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Writing Emotion: is less more, and how do you make it real?

Back when I posted about how showing and telling should co-operate, not compete, a commenter said this:

I struggle with showing my main character's emotion, over-complicating things in my attempt to avoid signals and abstract nouns. I'd love to pull off a reserved first person narrator, one you feel for, while she's trying to hide her pain even from herself, but so far not succeeded.

I know what she means.  In theory we all know that Less is More (except when it isn't) but how can you be sure the reader doesn't just understand, but really feels what's going on with the character ... even when the character would hardly put it into words him- or herself? In theory we know all that Showing emotions may work better than Telling them, but three pages of trembling hands and flushed faces? We English, at least, by tradition express everything from agony to ecstasy with a mild not too bad ... but now every sentence seems to be stuffed with dramatic metaphors and elaborate adjectives.  Why is it so hard to write just enough to make the character's emotional state come alive on the page, and no more than enough?

1) First, remember you may not need to make explicit what the emotion is at all by abstract nouns, or signals (which are Telling pretending to be Showing) or anything else. As Jerusha Cowless explained here, it's possible to evoke someone falling in love without even the character themselves being conscious of it, or thinking about themselves at all.

2) Passages like the one Jerusha quotes keep to material events and physical things, but by way of tremendous control of point of view. This is where writing the first draft is something like being an actor: you need to be inhabiting your viewpoint character's personality so deeply that the scene you imagine emerges in words on the page which embody that character's experience, without labelling the emotion outright at all.

3) You may need to write out the emotional content, as it were, to get to the heart of it, and to find the critical path of one thought leading to another. And then you'll probably want to cut drastically, trusting your reader to read their way along the path that you've constructed so carefully to lead through the action of the character's thoughts to wherever you want us to end up, emotionally speaking.

4) Tell the facts in plain words, but use metaphor to do the heavy lifting of evoking the pain, and resist the temptation to explain or gloss it. I still remember a piece by Joely Richardson, describing her grief at the death of her sister after a skiing accident, as having your head in the jaws of a monster who's shaking your whole body to and fro.

5) Work with psychic distance. Get in close: convey the situation through the character's eyes and consciousness, let their voice - their take on everything - colour how we perceive that everything, as Sayers does with Harriet's watching Peter in Gaudy Night. But you can, alternatively, pull right out: give us the bare facts, and if they're potent enough we'll intuitively fill in the gaps all the more vividly because we've filled them with our stuff.

6) Make sure that you've set things up solidly well before hand: if we already have a powerful sense of how much the job matters to her mental well-being, then Anne's fury and fear, on discovering Bella's professional betrayal, will be ours as well and you won't need to fill it out much. Similarly, if we've picked up Colin's orphanage-bred insecurities, we'll believe in how devastated he is by Alec's mild flirtation with a prop forward on the rugby pitch.

7) Think about how your viewpoint character might describe what's going on with him or her to someone they love and are close to, but want to protect. Your frail, much-loved granny is the person you always went to with your troubles as a child, but now you don't want to burden her with the whole story of your breaking heart; your wife's PTSD nightmares; your Kafka-esque dealings with social services about the services your disabled son needs ... So you say, tight-lipped, "Well, it's being a bit complicated" and "The nights aren't so easy, but the sun always does rise in the morning" or whatever. (Or am I just being English again?)

8) Find a touchstone to get into the right mentality. Stephen, in The Mathematics of Love, has fought his way through the Napoleonic wars: he has PTSD and doesn't know it. My touchstone for his voice in his letters was a (doubtless stereotyped) RAF fighter pilot, making jokes about a wizard prang, and how it was a shame that Hamilton bought it on only his third sortie. My touchstone for his narrative voice was what he might nowadays have said to the woman he was writing those letters too. Even then I had to add his nightmares, which he never speaks of at all, and there is that option: find another form for the things your character won't even say to themselves.

9) Remember that one of the saddest diary entries in the world is by Mary Shelley: it says for that day, "Found my baby dead." That was all she could manage to write, but it's not just because those words are so potent that we need no more, it's also that the economy of words itself speaks of her state of mind and heart. Readers are very good not just at reading into the gaps, but at intuiting emotion from the size of the gaps. In my own work a page which is very full of emotion will often also be full of white space: I work the line-breaks as hard as I work the words.

p.s. If you'd like to have a more personalised and concentrated dose of the Itch of Writing approach to fiction and non-fiction, the next Itch of Writing Workshop Retreat, is taking place on 15th-17th May 2015. Click through for more details.

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