9.15.2016

Emotions on a Rein

When a writer is struggling to capture what a character is feeling inside, he is advised to bare his soul. How you do this can take various forms, but today I’ll choose a favorite device: a writer’s journal. Employing one is useful if what you feel, say, about your father’s lifelong neglect is chosen as an issue that plagues a character. Out pours a torrent of feelings about dear old dad, maybe two single-lined pages, and chances are, they turn out to have a bitter edge. Nice, you think: bitter equals tension, and tension drives novels forward.

Before the material is transferred from notebook to computer, commonly during the next day or two, a censoring process kicks in. You read what you wrote, and maybe it seems too personal—if your father ever found out the terrible things you wrote about him, he’d be crushed. In this case, I would wave my hands and say, “Keep it!” 

Yet what if much of it seems sophomoric? As a sex, men are unskilled in detailing their emotions in real life. Just ask any woman for her opinion about this. So while I applaud the effort of certain male authors, I don’t want to find myself cringing for another reason: the stuff is banal. 

How do you tell the difference? The first tipoff is if you read a sentence and feel you have read or heard a similar sentiment before, such as “Granted, he had to work hard to put us through school.” I’m sorry, but don’t a lot of fathers sacrifice for their children? You’re trying to be original. If you want to cite the reasons for neglect, think of interesting ones. “When he did come home, he had his mistress on his arm—even had her sit down to dinner once with us!” 

A second warning bell should be length. You do need to pile up sentences in order to build to a height, but how many words are you expending to reach what height? If you cite four different occasions when his traveling for work meant your hysterical mother denied you use of a family car, don’t you think the reader gets the basic idea after the first one, or at most the second? And was not being able to take the car that big a deal? 

Emotions are important, but they function like any other story element. The more economical you are with the ones that don’t matter as much, the more the novel fills with essential material. Once you gain confidence that you can express a character’s feelings, make sure each one is compact enough to deliver your best punch.

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” 
—T. S. Eliot

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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