Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing Emotion: How do great writers do it?

I just finished two books by Eva Ibbotson, that, had they been written by anyone else, would have been awful books. They're clichéd, predictable love stories, verging on shmalzty, but Ibbotson's writing transcends the limitations of her plots and creates quite delightful stories that I would happily reread.

I noticed that she develops her main characters' relationship without using the word love, or at least, using it very sparingly. I've noticed the same thing in other writers that I particularly enjoy: they seldom say their characters feel angry or sad or embarrassed or frustrated. (The words that we want our toddlers to use!) They don't tell us how the characters feel: we figure it out for ourselves. Here are a few of the techniques I've noticed for showing, not telling emotions.

Physical sensations: the technique that first comes to mind, probably. The butterflies in the stomach, the quivering knees. It's useful that we all tend to feel emotions the same way; the trouble is, it leads to cliché if it isn't done right.
Lissar felt a tiny tremor begin, very deep inside her, deep in her blood and brain, nothing to do with the chill in the air.
"Deerskin--" he began.
"No," she whispered. Louder, she said, "We should go back to your party." The tremor grew; she began to feel it in her knees, her hands, she twisted her hands in her glittering skirts. 
That's from Robin McKinley's Deerskin, a book full of terrible emotion that makes the reader feel everything that Lissar experiences. Notice how the action of twisting her hands in her skirts reinforces the anxiety we feel in the tremor.

Metaphors: to avoid cliché, use metaphors that no one else has used. (Easy, right?!)

A fear such as she had never known began to stir deep in her, send chill, thin roots through her blood, her mind.
This is Patricia McKillip, in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, using a metaphor to describe a physical sensation.

Gestures: actors know that the smallest movements can convey the largest of feelings. The head nods, or bows, or turns away. The hand reaches, or clenches, or drops. A gesture can also be a small symbolic action: the students standing on their chairs in Dead Poets' Society. Giving significant objects to people is a greatly useful gesture. Here's Ibbotson in The Reluctant Heiress:
And carefully, absorbed like a child, she picked the small, flecked barely scarlet berries and held them out to him. Wild strawberries--the most prized, most fragrant, and heart-stirring fruit in the world.
"In Sweden," she said, rising to stand beside him and speaking very seriously, "they have a word for a place like this. It's called a smultronstalle. A 'wild strawberry place.' A place like that is special, it's the most special place there is."
Guy looked down at the berries she had tipped into his hand. Their scent, subtle yet piercing, seemed to overwhelm him with its sweetness.
The strawberries are an object, and a metaphor (think Tess of the D'Ubervilles), almost a cliché, really, except that strawberries can never be clichéd. The giving of the strawberries is a gesture. Think of what Suzanne Collins did with this very gesture at the end of The Hunger Games. The 'wild strawberry place' is also a nice metaphor, and she is offering the place to him in a gesture that's separate from the offering of the strawberries.

Actions: You don't have to tell us a character is angry if they do angry things.
The light dawned, furiously, like the glare from an atomic fireball. But screaming, swearing and throwing things would be counterproductive. She gripped the chair arms so the men could not see her hands shake.
This is from Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign. This one small paragraph uses an angry metaphor, but not to describe the character; it uses the word 'furious' but, again, not to describe the character; and it uses the physical sensation of shaking hands. The actions an angry person would do are invoked, but more cleverly than just "she screamed" or "she felt like screaming"; as a bonus it demonstrates her character that she views these actions as "counterproductive." Gripping the chair is a small action but it conveys the great emotion held barely in check.

Objects: gestures and actions are always more powerful when there's an object involved, and the object  can end up symbolizing the emotion evoked by it. Again from A Civil Campaign:
She touched the left side of her bolero, tracing the now not-so-stiff shape of the paper she kept folded there. Miles's letter was not the sort of thing she cared to leave lying around for anyone to pick up and read, and besides . . . she wanted to reread it herself now and then. From time to time. Six or twelve times a day.
The letter is an object that symbolizes Miles' love; keeping it in her jacket and rereading it are actions that indicate her response; touching the place in her jacket where she keeps it is a gesture. (This is another love story that hardly ever uses the word 'love.')

Scenarios that create the emotion in the reader: ideally every time your character feels an emotion, the reader will feel it too. Do I feel angry when you tell me "I'm so angry, I could scream"? Not really. Do I feel anger when you describe to me in detail what that jerk of a guy said to you when he broke up with you? Yes, because I'm there with you in the situation.

Robin McKinley is really good at this:
There was thunder in her ears, and before her eyes were the walls of a small round room hung in a dark stained pink that had once been rose-colored, and the dull brutal red was mirrored in a gleaming red pool on the floor where a silver-fawn dog lay motionless; and there was a terrible weight against her own body, blocking her vision, looming over her, blotting out the stars through the open door, and then a pain, pain pain pain pain
Some things grew no less with time. Some things were absolutes. Some things could not be gotten over, gotten round, forgotten, forgiven, made peace with, released.
--she did not quite scream. "No!" she said. "No! I cannot." 
Notice how the rhythm of her sentences, her repetition, alliteration, build to create in the reader the same horror that Deerskin is remembering.

Other characters noticing the physical signs of the emotion in the character: omniscient narration is useful because it allows for the very Shakespearean technique of revealing a character by showing how other people see them. Here's Ibbotson again, this time in A Countess Below Stairs:
Pinny, watching Anna, had seen her turn almost in an instant from the kind of thing one expected to find under a pile of sacking after an earthquake or a famine into a radiant and enchanting girl.
Much more effective than saying "When she heard the news, Anna's despair suddenly turned into joy." And a great metaphor, too. Here's another Ibbotson one:
But it was necessary now to curtail this interview before his mind registered what his eyes were already seeing: a weary child leaning her head against the side of the truck as though the weight of it was suddenly too much for her to bear. [. . .]
Boris, coming out a few minutes later, found Tessa still leaning against the truck. Not crying, just standing there with the wicker basket lying at her feet.
Here two different characters view the action--or gesture, really--that depicts the physical sensation of weakness. Much more effective than saying "she felt weak," and far better than saying "she was devastated at the way he spoke to her."

Dialog: Writers often feel that they have to tell us how a line was spoken, whether it was "sadly" or "resignedly" or "cheerfully," but ideally it should be obvious from the words themselves.
"That damned doctor asked me to visit the wounded. Then he trotted me out in front of all those broken-apart men as if to say, 'See, here is the [Prince]; losing a hand hasn't bothered him.' As if I were a sacred relic to restore them and they could then jump out of their beds and lead happy lives forever after. [ . . . ] Well, I patted everyone of them on the shoulder like some sort of priest, and then I went outside and threw up."
This is from The Queen of Attolia (knowing who spoke the line would be a bit of a spoiler, so I redacted it). Here Megan Whalen Turner uses just a few words to convey the tone of voice: "damned" and "trotted." There's no need to add, "he said, bitterly." It helps that the scene he describes arouses emotions in the reader, and the action of throwing up at the end makes it very clear how he felt about the whole thing.

The next time you are reading a book and you find yourself tearing up, or clutching the book in fear, or throwing the book down in anger, stop and reread, and figure out how the author made you feel that way.

Feel free to share any good quotations in the comments!


  1. I can see I'm not yet reading closely enough. Maybe that's for the third read-through? First is plot, second is the writing in general, maybe the third to watch the details of the how.

    Yes! on Ibbotson. I have a few of her books. They feel simple and childish but resonate in my heart while leaving my brain alone. Very strange, the feeling, but she conveys a non-American sensibility through all that, by what's left out of the character's thoughts, and which fascinates me.

    I saved Miles's letter to Ekaterina and it's been on my PDA/Clie/iPhone since the book came out. Brilliant writing and a proper apology while spewing anguish all over the page. I love it and reread it often.

    1. I love Ibbotson's books for younger readers, like Which Witch (so funny!), but I was blown away by Journey to a River Sea. I think that's still my favourite.

      I have a real book of A Civil Campaign, and it opens naturally to the page with Miles' letter. Yes to the brilliance. I don't have it in front of me, but Ekaterina's response to it: "It wasn't just honest, it was naked. Every sentence that didn't begin with 'I' began with 'but'." (Another little lesson on using grammar to convey emotion!)

  2. Wow! I'm a bit behind, I just read this Kim. Terrific post. I wrote a post on emotions yesterday, I wish I'd seen yours!

  3. Wow - thanks for this very thorough post on creating emotions. I can see I'm going to have to do some revising of my WIP!