Saturday, March 25, 2006

workshop notes: describing emotions

Sometime ago, I conducted a writing workshop (I know, the cheek!). Here are a few reminders listed concerning describing emotions.

Maintain the Tone

Tone is the general feel of the particular piece of work. It is one of the most important yet invisible components of excellent writing. Once it is established (usually somewhere close to the beginning), it is vial that you maintain the tone, keep up the flow.

If emotion is an integral part of your work, then the general integrity of each portion, chapter, vignette or the entire piece itself must carefully regarded in terms of it being consistent.

Remember that the flow is not necessarily always one level (in fact, an unchanging tone can be detrimental). It is possible to make subtle shifts that introduce shades and textures. Likewise, it is possible to introduce dramatic shifts (that the reader must be prepared for) without disrupting the overall tone.

You need to be consistent but not overpowering when describing emotion. Rarely do you state the emotion directly (X is angry. Y is sad. Z is horny.) – unless your intention is to compete with an elementary school level writer. It is better to write around it, describing, rather than just stating. Show, do not tell. And to do that, you need to access one of a writer’s most potent tools - vocabulary.

Learn to describe feelings in different ways beyond simple “telling” description (because, yes, “X is angry” tells me that X is angry, but I don’t feel anything about that – so what?). Advanced techniques: use concrete imagery, use abstract imagery, refer to a previous experience, restate the obvious in words that seduce or transform the maudlin into the wonderful/exotic, be brief, be long, be clever, be direct, use rhythm, use repetition, use shock, use quietude – on other words, use everything in your toolkit that you feel will appropriately contribute to building and maintaining while keeping it readable.

See Beauty in the Negative

Anger, envy, hate, betrayal, lust and all the other so-called “negative” emotions are all part of the human experience, emotions held in common to some degree by everyone who ever walked the face of the earth. They are yours to mine as much as the “positive” ones. Do not fear them, face them, tame them, use them.

Small is as good as Big

Not every emotion is as huge as full orchestra. Keep in mind that the small ones (e.g. quiet desperation) can be as powerful to write about.

If you write about a single emotion, remember that it has degrees and nuances. Love, for example, has many different levels. So do anger, frustration, hate and hope.

Consider weight, impressions, overall feel and “energy levels” towards the goal of writing a piece that is “balanced” on its own terms.

The Challenge of Point of View

First person is the easiest of the three POVs to write; in fact, everyone writes in first person almost as if by default. Try third person because most likely your future work will involve characters you create whose stories are told in that POV.

But having said that, notice the power of “I”. There is impact because there is the impression of intimacy, of breaking the barrier between reader and narrator (or author).

Writing True

Be true. If you choose to write about a particular emotion, be certain to maintain the internal consistency (not just of tone) of the character.

Do not flake out.


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