Saturday, January 05, 2008

Writing Emotions VISUALLY

Art by Luis Royo

Writing Emotions VISUALLY
Visual writing is when the reader can SEE your story unfolding in their imaginations just like a movie.
  • Non-visual: It was a dreary day.
  • Visual: Icy rain slithered down the window glass from an iron gray sky.
This is more commonly known as SHOWING vs. TELLING.
  • Telling: It was a dreary day.
  • Showing: Icy rain slithered down the window glass from an iron gray sky.

“What’s wrong with just…Telling them?”

The problem lies with Reader interpretation. Abstract (poetic) words and ideas rely on the readers’ interpretation of what those words mean to them personally.

For example:
She was woefully depressed.

  • How does Big Bird act when he’s woefully depressed?
  • How do YOU act when you’re woefully depressed?

Is there a difference? -- Well yeah, birds molt, lose all their feathers, when they’re depressed. When you were woefully depressed, did you lose all your feathers? (Do you have feathers?)

If your definitions and the reader’s definitions don’t match -- you're screwed. In other words, the moment you and the reader come to a strong enough 'difference of opinion', they'll stop reading and put the book down, never to pick it up again. Do it too much and the reader will stop reading ANYTHING by you.

Think I'm exaggerating?
-- Get on one of the book/author fan-lists and ASK. (I did.)

So, how do you SHOW emotions in Writing?

According to Dianna Dorisi-Winget in “Let’s Get Physical!
... fiction writers must employ description that accurately expresses a character’s feelings.

She’s not talking about flowery, sentimental, poetic words, AKA: purple prose, she means describe the physical characteristics of the emotion you’re trying to convey.

How does one DESCRIBE Feelings and Emotions?

Emotions appear as Body Language. It’s as simple as describing the character’s body language in addition to describing what they feel physically. Don’t say: “she was sad,” describe the way her tears feel as they run down her cheeks, and the way her heart feels in her chest.

According to James Scott Bell in his article “Leave Them With Hope”:
…the author must experience the emotion and describe (the emotion felt) with the five senses, write it as he “feels” it”.

The trick,” Dorisi-Winget says, “is tapping into your ‘emotion memory.’ Get beyond the pounding heart and clenched fist.”

Emotion Memory is simply remembering how you felt when you were experiencing the emotion your character is going through.

Let’s go back to Depression…

Do you remember what you felt like physically when you were depressed? That’s what you write. Now consider what depression looks like… What did you do when you were depressed?

Hold that thought because 
this is where Characterization gets Tricky!
While depression pretty much feels the same for everyone, how people react to it is another whole bowl of kimchee. Depression affects different people very differently. Some get very quiet, some get violent, and hurt others, (picking fights) some only hurt themselves, (cutting). Some eat a lot of food, some stop eating altogether. Some throw loud temper tantrums, yelling at anything that gets too close, and others refuse to say even one word.

How would YOUR character actually React? 
Describe the feelings AND the actions. Show them being depressed in all their torrid glory.

Don’t TELL it: 
She was woefully depressed.

SHOW it:
She leaned to one side against the wall with her shoulders slumped, staring at nothing at all. Her eyes burned with tears that wouldn’t fall. Every beat of her heart seemed to take more effort than it was worth, but somehow, it just kept beating. She was long past pain and well into numb. If only she could stay there, and never feel anything at all, ever again.

Believe it or not, TELLING the reader what the character is feeling is not nearly as effective or powerful as SHOWING them.

    • Write a scene where you tell what the character is feeling and doing using as many flowery words as you can.
    • Write the same scene describing what the character is doing and feeling.
      By the way, it’s perfectly okay to use one or two flowery decorative words in addition to your physical descriptions, and in Dialogue; internally, or out loud. When used to flavor Descriptions, it gives what you are describing emotional impact. When used in Dialogue, it gives your characters flavor.
        • Hand both versions to your beta readers and see what they think.

          Looking for a Cheater’s Guide to the physical characteristics of emotions?

          The Non-Verbal Thesaurus

          More on Writing Emotions?
          Emotion: The Bite That Hangs On

          The following is for those looking to get published.
          If you’re just writing for fun and not profit, feel free to skip this part.

          Is this advice
          Cramping your Literary Style…?
          “What about all those flowery literary phrases that everybody else uses?” 
          AKA: “But 'Insert Famous Author' does it, why can’t I?”

          Who is everybody else? Are they alive and still publishing books, or dead?

          Once upon a time, literary writing was how one got published, so naturally that’s what they teach in college. I got news for all you literary students going to class to become fiction authors: That stuff won’t get you published any more.

          Outside of poetry, and high-brow literary journals, the only stuff in the Literary style being bought by the general public -- and publishers today, are Classics. We’re talking stuff that were originally called Torrid Romances, (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre…) Pulp Fiction, (Sherlock Holmes, HG Wells’ novels, Dickens’ novels…) and Penny Dreadfuls (Dracula, Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe’s works…) Stuff that was published a hundred years ago or longer; stuff that was NOT considered Literary in their day; stuff by authors that are currently DEAD.

          "But! But! But what about the great literary authors still alive today...?"

          London Times
          Publishers toss Booker winners into the Reject Pile
          Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale

          "...Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

          None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best.

          Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.

          Only Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, expressed an interest, and that was for Middleton’s novel. She was unimpressed by Naipaul’s book. She wrote: “We . . . thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.”

          The Rest of the story...

          As I said before...

          Outside of poetry, and high-brow literary journals, the only stuff in the Literary style being bought by the general public -- and publishers today, are Classics.

          "So, how come Anne Rice can get away with her florid and rather literary style of writing?"

          Consider this, no matter what she writes, or how she writes it, she’s going to sell a million copies -- because she’s ANNE RICE. She's already proved to her CORPORATE publishers that she'll make them money with her style of writing.

          Is your name Anne Rice?

          No? Then, you’re just going to have to follow the publishing house rules -- just like the rest of us not-quite-famous authors.

          When you can sell a million copies on just your name alone, you’ll be able to write any gosh-darned thing in any gosh-darn way you care to because absolutely no one is going to argue with an author that can sell a million copies with their name alone. Don’t want an editor? No one will argue that either; just ask Steven King and Nora Roberts.

          In short, if you want to be published in this day and age, forget the expensive literary writing courses. Take a nice cheap class on commercial copywriting because that is the style of writing publishers are looking for today.

          Isn’t that for Advertising…?”

          Yes, it is. Think, what does Advertising do? It delivers its message with as much emotional impact and persuasive power as it can jam into One Sentence or less.

          • Got milk?”
          • The incredible, edible, egg.”
          • "The Quicker-picker-upper."

          Copywriting teaches you to deliver the most amount of information in the least amount of words. Just think what that style of writing could do for your fiction! It’s done wonders for mine.

          Morgan Hawke
          Parts unashamedly raped from:
          Create Emotion, Not Sentimentality, in Fiction
          By Vivian Gilbert Zabel


          1. As always, I love and make great use of your advice in all the writing I do - this is a great example of writing advice many people can use!

          2. I bought your book, The Cheater’s Guide To Writing Erotic Romance, while recouping from surgery. Your sharp-tongued advice gave me many points to ponder on and learn from. I even blogged about it.

            Thank you for sharing your experience and astute expertise.

            Skylar Sinclair

          3. Hey Maura!
            -- I'm so glad you found this helpful. Writing Emotions is still one of the toughest things for me to do. (I think it's 'cause I just don't use all that many. Drama-free life, ya' know?)

          4. Hey Skylar,
            -- You found my Cheater's Guide helpful? Excellent! Most of that stuff I had to learn the hard way, through trial and error. Even so, it's not the be-all end-all of storycraft, merely another set of tricks to add to one's writer's tool kit.

            You blogged about my 'Guide'? Really? Send me a link! Please?

          5. I always love your writing advice-I found it before I got my first acceptance-and after I read pretty much everything I could find with your name on it-and I just thought it was amazing. Thank you.

          6. Thanks Morgan for the awesome advice. Emotion is rough for me to write. If I could make it all action, all the time, I think I would. LOL.

          7. Excellent blog. I've been told more than once "show, not tell" but your explanation was the first I actually understood. So thank you very much!

          8. I found your blog while looking for plotting help and I have to say you've helped immensely. You have great articles on your site. Thank you.


          9. Love your blog. I have a real problem cutting down on floweriness, and I love reading it too - Anne Rice, etc. LOL But yeah, that is not what is asked for right now, so, I guess I have to let it go.