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The importance of emotion in narrative

Every month Sydney Smith and Jennifer Scoullar discuss some aspect of the writing craft.  We welcome your questions and comments. In fact, we would really like to hear from you! 

 

SYDNEY: As a writing mentor and manuscript assessor, I can often tell who has been to creative writing class. Apart from other telltale signs, these writers leave out emotion. They think they have to show it, not tell it. 

This is a tricky area. In some instances, an action will indeed reveal how a character feels. But the writer has to make sure that it does, and that it shows it strongly enough. For example, if a character is responding to an insult, they might redden and glare. But what if the character is having a reflective moment, thinking over some revelation that overturns their assumptions? 

Jane Austen writes such a moment for Elizabeth Bennet, after Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his relationship with Wickham and his actions concerning Jane and Bingley. Austen knows an action won’t cover it. Not even a series of actions. The reader needs an analysis of how Elizabeth feels, and how her feelings evolve from an angry rejection of Darcy’s version to confused acceptance. That means emotions have to be named and thoughts described. If they aren’t named, the reader won’t know what she feels, and won’t be able to feel with her.

 

JENNY: Yes, I agree. Readers need to understand how the character feels, and many writers leave it out, in pursuit of showing, not telling. I used to fall into this trap.

For example, maybe our character Peter is in an unhappy marriage, or hates his job. So the writer quite rightly puts Peter in difficult and provoking situations – perhaps he fights with his boss or his wife walks out on him. With something this crucial, it’s important to indicate Peter’s internal thoughts and emotions. There are a variety of ways for Peter to respond to his spouse leaving. He might be angry, resentful, relieved, scared, liberated, or a mix of these. 

It’s risky to let readers fill in the blanks until Peter’s character is well established. My editor once said you run another risk, too. If the writer doesn’t emphasise Peter’s feelings, readers might think he doesn’t care – they might think the event has washed over him, leaving him cold. So it is important to show reactions. Otherwise characters might be misunderstood. These are various ways to indicate how characters are feeling. Internal physical sensations are the classic ‘show’.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry couldn’t breathe. A cold stone settled in the pit of his stomach. This child had meant everything.

 Then there’s body language – physical gestures, facial expressions, actions, etc.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry’s fingers trembled. The glass lurched alarmingly, spilling wine down the front of his trousers. He cried out. This child had meant everything.

And sometimes it helps to flat out state the emotion, for clarity.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry raised his hand, as if he might ward off the terrible news. Disappointment fell like a physical weight upon his heart, crushing it. His marriage, his kingdom - his very honour as a man - depended on the arrival of an heir. This child had meant everything.

As readers, we are on a search for feeling – for a quickened pulse and a brighter pallet of colours than we find in everyday life. To feel, we need an emotional connection with the characters. I believe it’s the place where all good stories start. 

 

SYDNEY: Aren’t you clever! There I was thinking Anne and Henry were two everyday Australian people – and they were THAT Anne and Henry!

Yes, reading is meant to be an emotional experience. It gives us access to other ways of living life. We’re meant to identify with the characters, especially the principal POV – although we’re free to identify with any character we choose to. I often think about the smaller characters in a novel, like Mary Bennet and her foolish insistence on threadbare wisdom. Poor Mary is the daughter who came after Elizabeth, their father’s favourite. Mary is also the one who signals Mr Bennet’s disillusionment with his marriage. He loves the daughters he had when he still loved his wife, and keeps his distance from the daughters of his disillusionment. Of the younger three, Mary is the one who feels it most strongly, and competes with Elizabeth in the only way she can – through her efforts to be “wise” or intelligent. Poor Mary, I've always had a place in my heart for her.

Anyway, describing your character’s emotions closes the gap between reader and character. Without that emotional content, the reader is forced to stand at a distance from the story, is forced to think the story, not feel the story. Thinking it is a lesser experience and lets the reader off the hook before they’ve got anywhere near that hook. Emotional investment is a vital ingredient in that much-desired quality we call unputdownable.

 

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She has written The Architecture of Narrative, soon to be published by threekookaburras. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.

Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and the romances, Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin). Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at: www.jenniferscoullar.com.

Comments (1 Comment)

Jennifer, in reading your second example, that of flattened emotion, I feel more connected to Henry; i can see him riaising his hand and I get the feeling of the weight of disappointment and I’m interested in the urgency of his need for an heir.

Posted by Thea Calzoni on March 03, 2016

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