“When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages – a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers. Breathing it in, I glance through a few pages before returning each book to its shelf.”– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
There is so much bumf out there about how to write about emotions.
Whether it is writing about your own emotions as a form of therapy, or describing emotions in creative works, someone somewhere has got something to say about it.
The most important thing about writing a great story is to transport a reader to the mind and world of a character or, in some cases, several characters. If a story lacks empathy it becomes less engaging because we want to be able to relate to this world that’s been created, we want to recognise ourselves in these people we are reading about.
I don’t agree that we have to necessarily like every character in a novel, or even sympathise with their plight, I don’t think it’s even important for a reader to like any character in a novel; they can hate them all if that’s how they feel, the important bit is that it makes them feel something. They can identify emotions and relate on some level.
I have a friend who doesn’t like to read contemporary fiction and would much rather read science fiction, for example, because it is a complete escape from her every day world. However, even at the heart of these novels, we can identify basic human emotions.
But how can a writer describe these emotions? How can we keep a reader engaged in the story without hamming up the tear-jerker stuff?
While researching this topic, I came across a blog that described how to describe emotions in fiction writing:
An abstract noun is the labelling of a cerebral concept that is not solid and cannot be seen. Emotion words fall into this category. Examples of abstract emotion words are: guilt, fear, love, sadness and grief. These words have such broad meanings and associations they are impossible to get a fix onto. Overuse of abstract nouns of this nature can leave the reader suspecting the writer cannot make the effort to write exactly what is meant by this word. Like passive writing, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, inclusion of too many emotion words will have a detrimental effect upon the writing.
In short, emotions should really come under the category of “show, don’t tell.” It’s not a good idea to merely say, “He was sad,” or “she was angry,’ because they are inherently vague concepts and tell us nothing concrete about a character. It’s more of an authorial opinion and adds nothing to the character.
Instead, try this. Think about how we recognise emotions in other people. How do we know people are happy, sad, or angry when they don’t tell us? What’s happened to make the character feel a certain way? How does this manifest itself in their behaviour? Is it reflected in their appearance? For example, a sad person might be unkempt and have no pride in appearance, or they might be the opposite. They might hide behind a mask of make-up or expensive clothing to fool others into believing they are OK.
Is it how they view the world or other characters? Are they hostile towards others, or perhaps they are too loving, needy? Is it an emotion they want to keep hidden? Perhaps it only occurs during certain times of the day, month, and year, like an anniversary. Perhaps the character can’t stop thinking about this particular emotion – take love, for example. Does the character busy themselves with other, more trivial tasks, such as work, to distract from feeling a certain way? Does it work? Or does the emotion creep in?
Another great way of expressing emotion is to write the internal dialogue of a character. What do they see? What triggers the emotion? Are they reflecting on a scene that has just come before?
Personally, I think its fine to put a little bit of “tell” in there when you’re writing in the first person because we have access to the character’s thought process. Andy, my central character, uses a substitute she spots in a park to project her emotions on to. She decides that they are similar and goes on to explain why.
How do you write emotion in fiction? Do you struggle? Do you pick up on your own emotions during the writing process? I know I do. I recently wrote some of the below in my journal and altered it to fit how my central character would feel about a similar situation and how she might describe that emotion.
I never really thought about what it’s like to be lonely. Not properly. There has always been someone around. My life has never been truly silent. The house always creaking with the sounds of windows and doors. I wanted to be alone, just have some space of my own and quiet so all my thoughts didn’t rattle around in my brain like scrabble tiles, and I could try to make sense of them. I wanted to do it without someone else telling me what they should say.
I’m sitting on a bench in a park I don’t know. It’s not like the parks back home with their little patches of green and designated kid’s playing areas – slides, climbing frames, those little hopper things with giant springs that go back and forth, and toddlers on swings screaming to go faster – this one is big, sparse I think the word is, just an endless stretch of unkempt lawn, balding in places and overgrown in others. A couple of people walk dogs around the edge, just walking in one loop after another and never straying from the path.
Kyle’s playing with Spike, I can see them in the distance, chasing each other around and laughing. Every now and again Kyle picks Spike up and swings him in the air and I can hear Spike screeching, delighted and a little bit fearful.
I thought I might feel like that. That I’d come here and everyone would be happy to see me, that they’d want me stay. They’d welcome me with open arms in to their homes and lives because I was family and they missed me. If I’m honest, I wanted them to say it was all my mum’s fault, or my dad’s, so I could get rid of feeling like I’ve done something wrong and shrug it off like old skin. In my head it would go like this: they’d tell me that everything – the thoughts and nightmares – are all in my head, things I’d made up to fill the gaps that they hadn’t.
In reality all I feel is darkness. It’s black in the pit of my stomach. If you were to cut me open you’d see it swirling, this black hole, threatening to swallow me from the inside out.
I pull my coat tightly around me, its cold now and we’ve been here for a while.
There’s an old man on the bench across from me. He’s wearing his loneliness like a comfortable suit. I can see it in the way he dresses: old fashioned, smart, a pallet of greys and browns, nostalgic for another time or another life, maybe.
He totally owns it, you know, as he sits out here in the open. There’s no cover, no pretence of nearby friends or family, no newspaper open on his lap or book in his hand. He’s not like me. He doesn’t keep well-rehearsed words under his tongue, doesn’t make out that his life is going the way he had hoped, nor is he over-dramatic in that way some lonely people are, always weeping and moaning like you see on those shows like This Morning or whatever, where they tell you how to feel better if you just wear that certain shade of lipstick or go to the bingo or take up salsa dancing. You just keep buying stuff and saying stuff and watching stuff because its supposed to help, its supposed to make a difference.
The man, in his drab clothes, is honest. I wonder how long it took for the black hole to take over.
He looks over at me but he doesn’t smile. He doesn’t need to.
I’m starting to think that its is a bit like belonging to a club. All the members recognise one another but we never talk because part of being in the club is that we suffer in silence.
We regard each other only with quiet recognition – the man and I – because we can both see the darkness in each other’s eyes.