1. Xoey
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    Xoey New Member

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    Portraying emotion in writing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Xoey, Nov 23, 2014.

    Hi, this is my first thread, so sorry if this is all awkward.

    So I've been having some trouble portraying emotion in my writing. I don't mean dialogue or body language, because I've pretty much got that down, but the style and tone of the words. How do I make it so that the MC's thought process and tone of my writing sounds more melancholy or furious or elated? Does the sentence structure need to change?

    Thanks!
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sentence structure CAN be useful - short and choppy when the character's feeling angry or excited, longer and smoother when the character's relaxed.
     
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  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think it would be easier to help if you could give us a couple of examples. Any specific sentences that have been giving you particular trouble? Quote them, and let us know what emotion you're trying to portray, and maybe we can brainstorm a bit.

    This will probably be okay in this section, if you stick to only one or two short quotes. Anything longer would need to go into the Workshop, and as you're a new writer, you've got a few criteria to fulfill before you can post there. But a sentence or two here would probably be within the rules, and would help the discussion? If not, somebody can slap me with a wet noodle and I'll slink back under the porch....
     
  4. Xoey
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    Xoey New Member

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    Okay, so here's one of the pieces I've been having trouble with.

    "Before I could say anything else, before the grief kicked in, I walked over to the kitchen, behind the counter that faced the couch, and placed my hands on the surface, breathing heavily."

    My character just found out her lover had died, and she's not necessarily shocked (the lover was in the army, after all,) but it's still unexpected and devastating to her. I just feel like the paragraph doesn't show her feelings as well as I'd like them to.
     
  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    How did she find out this news? Did somebody tell her this face to face, or did she hear it on the news, or read it in a letter? Sometimes the interaction can help as well. You say 'before I could say anything else' which implies there is somebody else in the room with her?

    Also, is there something significant about the couch? She places her hands on it. Does it have some connection with her lover? Or does she have no idea why she walks there and does that? Sometimes people who get bad news do strange things, handle familiar objects, just to keep looking normal while their whole life grinds to a halt inside.

    It would help a little bit to know what kind of person she is. Is she the kind who keeps everything bottled up? Is she the sort who gets hysterical? Is she a really emotional person, or more matter-of -fact? It helps to have a handle on a personality to do this sort of thing. People would all react differently. You could start with yourself. If you got bad news that somebody you loved just died, what would you do? Some people would scream. Some people would leave the room immediately. Some people would just freeze and stand there, almost as if they hope the bad news will just go away.
     
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2014
  6. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the "show, don't tell" advice would apply here to fix this problem.
    If you're in your character's head, you don't have to say, "Before I could say anything else, before the grief kicked in."
    I'm not even certain you need all the explanation about the counter and the couch.

    You could say something like,
    No. That wasn't possible. I gasped for air. I tried to concentrate on each breath. It just couldn't be. John was careful. He just said last night that he was going to call me tonight. We're meeting in Wilmington next week. I felt my elbows stiffen and my hands grasped the back of the couch. I shook my head and looked back at [General Smith, or the computer screen or letter or whatever method she found out this news.]
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, for me, the counter and couch are distracting. What's the character actually feeling? What's she focusing on. Probably not furniture.

    I think the "before" is a bit distancing, too. The joy of first person is how immediate it makes things, so use that!

    "Before I could say anything else, before the grief kicked in, I walked over to the kitchen, behind the counter that faced the couch, and placed my hands on the surface, breathing heavily."

    could be:

    I couldn't speak, couldn't even think. I was behind the counter, somehow, and braced my hands on it, trying to find something stable, something that wasn't off balance and strange and just plain wrong. John was dead? I tried to find air, but my lungs wouldn't fill properly.

    Or whatever. The idea is to be less analytical, more emotional. You can edit for clarity, but for the first draft just try to get inside the character's head and feel what she's feeling.
     
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  8. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's how close people are to you that makes the death tragic. My mother died years ago from cancer and I knew she was going to die and roughly when. It was devistating at the moment I found out, maybe more so because I knew it was coming. Having someone's lover die who is in the military should not make it expected or easier. You need to think of how you felt at time of great emotionally distress. Look up grief and you'll see the many facets of it's progression.
     
  9. Xoey
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    Xoey New Member

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    Alright, I think I understand what you're trying to say. Thanks, all of you!
     
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  10. GingerCoffee
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    Welcome to the forum. And my compliments to the good advice in this thread.
     
  11. jannert
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    Hi @Xoey - I kind of dropped off this thread because it was getting to be near midnight here in the UK and I was off to bed. But lots of good advice has come in.

    For me, it's difficult to engage with this, because so much depends on context, such as what your main character is like, what the relationship between herself and her lover was like, even perhaps if she had other people depending on her just now, etc.

    I'd give you two tips that I think are important.

    1) Get into THIS character's head. Avoid cliches, and figure out how THIS woman would feel. Not just sad, but sad about what exactly? The loss of their close relationship? The loss of a sexual partner? The loss of the potential to have a child with him? The end of an era for her? The feeling that nothing will ever be the same again? And maybe she's angry too. Not just angry, but angry about what? Not just devastated, but what precisely has she lost? Not just him, but what does the relationship mean to her? Have they argued about him being in the military, and has his death proved her right? Or is it the opposite - he never wanted to be there in the first place and she goaded him to stay, and now HE'S been proven right?

    Or maybe she's just numb, and putting all her emotion aside to deal with the practicalites of a death in the family? Or was he her secret lover, and now she has to pretend in public that she has no interest in him at all? (I watched that happen to a friend of mine, once, and it was harrowing indeed. She never recovered, really.) You see how much can impact on the reaction to a death. You should figure out what your character's angle is. Combine her likely initial reaction with her personality type and their shared history and see what you get.

    2) Don't be afraid to over-write emotional scenes. Get it all out there. Be melodramatic, be hysterical, be fierce, be whatever. Over-write like mad. You will go back later on and pare it down, but make sure the kernels of strong emotions have been captured, so you'll have something strong to work with. Don't edit yourself while you're getting it out there, or get hung up on word choice or anything like that. Feel free to let go and wallow.

    And good luck!
     
  12. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It's hard to say without an example. Word choice and sentence structure are both important in whether you successfully convey the desired emotion, but then isn't that all writing is about? Word choice and the way you put those words together? So the statement I gave above is hardly helpful hahaha.

    Since you asked about melachonly, here's Hunger Games' opening:

    When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My
    fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only
    the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had
    bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she
    did. This is the day of the reaping.

    I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in
    the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up
    on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks
    pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still
    worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a
    raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.
    My mothe
    r was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

    First of all, the other side of the bed is cold - cold is an interesting choice of word. People associate sleep and bed with warmth and rest - usually positive things - but it is cold. That's an immediate contrast, and based on the complicated associations of sleep, the choice of such a simple word as "cold" I think is striking. It's just cold. Plain, simple cold. And everyone knows cold, and everyone knows a comfortable bed should not be cold. Add on top "When I wake up" - it implies someone left her. The fact that there's the other side of the bed that she's registering as "cold" means she didn't quite expect it to be so (as is confirmed in the very next sentence). Someone left her - this adds a sense of loneliness, and emphasises "cold" - "cold" now has more than just one meaning.

    The familiarity of the situation in the sentence "She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother" - implies it's happened before. Implies it's often that she wakes up alone with the bed cold, often that Prim often has nightmares. This sets the tone for the story and the atmosphere - they live in a harsh world. The next sentence "Of course she did" emphasises all this - the matter of fact tone of that phrase implies a certain resignation or acceptance, which implies the narrator's character. The narrator doesn't whine, she doesn't complain, she doesn't become frightened - she's tough and as cold as the world around her. "Of course she did." It's just a simple fact, not particularly worthy of further thought. This acceptance of suffering again sets the tone and makes it colder. It's important that this phrase was short. Simply: "Of course, she did." Nothing more. The sudden short sentence changes the pace, makes you pause, and makes the reader pay more attention and feel the full impact of what she means with just 4 words.

    The next sentence is also strategically short, forcing you to pay attention - the reaping is the explanation for why it's so "obvious" that Prim should have had nightmares, implying that the reaping is something horrifying, despite the word "to reap" is often a positive word. The contrast of how the word is normally perceived versus what it means to the narrator herself piques the reader's interest - what is the reaping? This sense of mystery creates a sort of foreboding too.

    Anyway I can't be bothered to analyse the second paragraph too now lol, but you get the idea. It's not just about sentence structure, although structure can affect pacing, which in turns affects the way you feel a certain passage and also what the reader pays attention to. I think more than anything, it might well be the different associations we naturally make with words, and what you're really doing is playing around with that. Not so much the words but how a cluster of words actually play off of each other.

    Like the word "cold" should have been ordinary.

    But "I wake up and the bed is cold" - there's something wrong with that and we sense it right away, because we know the bed should be warm when it's been slept in. Suddenly "cold" becomes an odd word that makes you think and implies a certain emotion. You associate it with a situation - what happened that the bed would be cold? What happened that someone left the narrator? Because if the cold was expected, there probably wouldn't be such a comment. You'd probably go straight into, "I wake up and my husband's already gone to work." Technically this line can mean the same thing - but the emphasis now is different. You know here your husband's gone and it's to work - both very ordinary things that don't necessarily imply anything's gone wrong. But "wake up and the bed is cold" - even if you know why the bed is cold, maybe it really is just your husband has gone to work, that's not what you notice. What you notice is the cold. It implies how the character's feeling because that's what she's paying attention to.

    For example, "I come home to an empty house."

    Home should be warm and welcoming - home sweet home, right? - But it's empty. And the emptiness is emphasised by virtue of being noticed. Why is it empty?

    But if I wrote, "I come home and everyone's out."

    Well, people have gone out of the house - what's so unusual about that? Even though technically the two sentences aren't saying anything different.

    But if I wrote, "I come home and everyone's out. Again. No one in the living-room to ask, 'Hey, how was work?' No one in the kitchen with the kettle already on. I take off my shoes and slump in the living-room, switch on the TV. Nothing good on either."

    I wrote that in under one minute so if you think it's crap, ah well forgive me all right? :p But the word "Again." One word. Bam. AGAIN. It implies, yes, there's a family here and yes, people being out is ordinary - in fact, it happens too often. I play on that sense of wishing there's someone in the house with the sentences that come afterwards. Because when you come home and you have a family, you normally expect your family to be present. You expect your wife to be home, or at least your children to be around. It shouldn't be everyday that there's no one home, ever, when you get back from work, assuming a regular 9-5 work shcedule. Again, it's the associations you make in certain situations, and then I present to you something that you didn't quite expect within that situation. It unsettles people, and that creates the feelings.
     
  13. Hop
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    I usually try to create a cacophony of emotions and slow the pace down for especially important plot points of the story. (Think when a movie slows down and a character tries to take everything in.)
    Bear in mind this is hastily slapped together and it infers a lot on your short passage.

    "Then it hit me, and before anything else the world slowed down. I stumbled in a haze to a familiar place looking over the living room and placed my hands on the cool counter top. As I gazed over the couch all the corners folded upon me in agony, grief, despair, and horror all at once. Then with each breath a numbing sensation swept over me."

    Mostly just take a bit of time to convey the devastation. Especially if you want to convey a lot of emotion in as short span of time. At the same time if the character is in the middle of some action packed sequence then this should just be glanced over at the moment.
     
  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Your passage doesn't work because if you look at it, aside from "breathing heavily" (which is weak anyway because of the adverb), there's actually nothing in the passage that tells me how the character is feeling. Saying "before the grief" tells me she should be feeling grief, but that's the classic telling rather than showing, and in this instance you really have to show, not tell so much.

    Why does it matter that the counter is facing the couch, also?

    Why does it matter she's putting her hands on the counter surface?

    These are unnecessary details that seems a bit out of place, to be honest. You make it seem like walking to the kitchen counter is of great significance, given that you go to great lengths to emphasise she goes there before the grief and before doing absolutely anything else. Yet there's no significance that I can see. If it is significant, you haven't conveyed it. If it isn't, then cut it altogether. This is the moment when everything needs to zoom right in to the character and her emotions. All other details that don't contribute to that moment and heighten the sense of grief should be cut.

    Cut to the chase. Start right in with the grief. Something like this:

    I walk over to the kitchen counter and lean on it with my hands, only I can't think. I can't breathe.

    ^ and after that line is where I would start throwing in details, like a coffee cup stain on the surface that reminds your character how much her loved one loved coffee, or how she used to tell her loved one off for never using a coaster, or some other little detail that relates to the loved one. Usually when a loved one's died, everything reminds you of her.
     
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2014
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  15. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Whenever I go into a scene knowing I want to portray an emotion I look to my surroundings to see if I can have it do double duty. I love Mcck's Hunger Games example - that's the writer using the surroundings to tell you a powerload of information that is packed with emotion.

    Over the summer I had to put down two dogs that were aged 13 and 14. It was extremely difficult ( I do better with animals than humans. ) On the drive to the vet, I held the pug in my arms. He was very sick and wheezing. I was crying but I kept thinking back on the time I had brought him home as a puppy and held him the same way in my arms.
    The very same day as I was getting ready to feed the other dogs - I took out three bowls. Looked at them, sighed and put one bowl back.

    Maybe you can incorporate something into the scene that triggers a memory or link to the boyfriend like Mcck suggests above - An object, something significant.
     
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  16. aikoaiko
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    I'm sure it would also help if you put yourself in the character's position. What would you do if your lover just died? What would you say, think, or do in response to terrible news like this? How would you act? I've found as a beginning writer that when I can't think of the mechanics of a scene (emotionally) I can usually overcome it by putting myself in the character's place. You will still need to edit and work it over a few times, but the human element will be in place and everything should feel more real.
     
  17. Mr Orange
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    The way to portray emotion in writing is by ceasing to try and portray emotion in writing. You can't do it with arbitrary stylistic flicks - emotion has to be the thing guides you and the reader through the sentences, the style, the observations. The emotion is what will stop you from falling into the gaps between the words. These posts are helpful, sure. But compare a piece of prose to a car. What these guys are doing is giving you the wheels, the axles, the chassis etc, giving you everything you need except the engine that will make the thing MOVE.

    It's not something that can be taught. My advice to you is nothing more and nothing less than try to feel the emotion. Try to "be yourself". It's 1 of the easiest things to say, but 1 of the hardest thing to do. Strive for honesty and integrity. Claw your way up the side of emotions using words, using them like pick-axes. Aim to put a unique spin on the words - it's the dynamic interplay between words that often elicits an emotional reaction.

    Failing all this, go out and get some more experiences. Break yourself apart for the pleasure of picking up the pieces.
     
  18. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of course, there's technique to using a pick-axe effectively, and thought required in making things 'unique'.
     
  19. Mr Orange
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    "Thought", "technique"...yuck. Why bother trying to intellectualise this stuff? Thinking is a sure-fire way of becoming the architect of your own misery...Thinking...technique...it's all a form of needle-d**k cowardice that scrambles the emotion you're trying to convey.
     
  20. BayView
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    I notice that your words are spelled conventionally, and you're using quotation marks to convey meaning, and you've gone so far as to star-out two letters to keep yourself from typing the word "dick". These are all all techniques. When you first learned them, you thought about them. Now apparently you've internalized them to the point you don't even realize you're using them, but that doesn't mean you aren't, and it doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good idea to think about other techniques you could use in order to convey your emotions more strongly.

    But, really, I'm surprised you're on a writers' site at all. Shouldn't you be off bleeding onto a keyboard somewhere? Going to a site dedicated to talking about writing? It just seems like such a circle-jerk for a pure artist like yourself.
     
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  21. Mr Orange
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    I'm not so much a pure artist as a pure bastard. I retain that you can't be shown how to write. Some1 tells you how to write, you become a poor translation of that person. You become a flunkey of their thought. Took me 10 years to teach myself how to write. 5 years spent reading, learning to discriminate between good writing and writing that seems as if it was shaped using a very dull blade. The next 5 years I spent writing, all the while consciously ignoring everything I'd ever learnt, or taking everything I'd ever learnt and doing the opposite.
     
  22. jannert
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    The art of storytelling, in whatever format, is manipulation. It's not spilling your own guts all over the place and attaining personal catharsis (which can actually put readers off) it's manipulating your readers to feel what you want them to feel. That takes technique and practice ...and experience and empathy and language and and and and....

    Experiencing emotion yourself is a great place to start, but that doesn't automatically translate into good, emotional writing. You have to get the hang of creating images that make people feel what you want them to feel. Finding the words to conjure up these images takes a lot of effort, time and practice. As @Mr Orange points out, it takes a long time, and a lot of study and testing ...informal or otherwise. I think other people can teach you about certain aspects of writing, but unless you want to become a carbon copy of somebody else, it's ultimately a loner's game.

    You can't go wrong if you read a lot, though. I mean read other good (and bad) fiction. It helps you get a subliminal feel for what works and what doesn't.
     
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  23. Mr Orange
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    Manipulation, of course. The skill of writing is in toggling the variables. The more you read, the more you learn how to twist, turn, revolve, dance with the things. You learn the mechanics of the game, and develop an individual style that represents the rolling accumulation of experiences and inclinations that make you you. O.K, sure, fine. What I'm talking about is the driving force behind the decision-making process, the nebulous anchor that drags your writing on a particular tangent and mottles it with stylistic consistency. That thing, whatever it is, the human agency, is where the gold is at. Without that, you're just a child playing in a sandpit.
     
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  24. jannert
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    I agree with you about the force behind writing, @Mr Orange, but I'm not entirely sure what your position is, regarding this thread. I think the OP was trying to discover how to convey/portray emotion. That is a technique. Most of us on the thread are trying to help her by suggesting techniques that might work for her. A bump of an idea that comes from somebody else can often trigger a lot of unique thinking in an individual.

    You might want to invent the wheel yourself every time, because your unique wheel could be a lot different than somebody else's. But then again, you may just end up with ...a wheel. Round rim, spokes and a hub. Essentially the same kind of wheel that everybody else has. If your goal is to roll down a hill, somebody else's kind of wheel might help you do it with a lot less hee-haw.
     
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  25. Mr Orange
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    What we're dealing with here is a difference in perspective. You're championing time-hardened literary techniques - chopping and changing sentences in a mechanistic fashion to engage the aesthetic. I'm championing prising those techniques apart to let a little bit of breath get out of there. I think that your perspective is at best wrong, and at worst dangerously uninspiring. Writing is not like rolling down a hill. You roll down a hill to roll down a hill. You don't write a book to write a book. You write a book because you got something to say.
     
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