Monday, January 30, 2012

Put Down the Eye-liner.

In the art of fiction, characters become very real to the reader. They love, they hate, they laugh, they cry. Even though they live in a two-dimensional world, that of words on paper or images on a screen, the characters live in three dimensions in the reader's mind. They love, they hate, they laugh, they cry. How can the author let the reader know how the character feel?

Stealthily, says Ben Marcus, writing for Wordcraft in the January 21, 2012 Wall Street Journal. You don't show the character having an emotional reaction, and you don't state that the character is feeling an emotion. If you do, you risk letting the reader feel manipulated, and nothing kills the relationship between the reader and the character faster than the feeling of manipulation. You show emotion by not showing it. Just describe the sadness of the situation and let the reader infer the emotions.

I don't quite agree with what Mr. Marcus states, but I do agree with what he is trying to say. New writers do put too much emotion in their stories. Too much emo, as the teenagers like to say. Too much drama. Why? It's not because new writers are trying to hit the reader over the head with emotions, or to manipulate the reader's feelings. For the most part, the new writer is merely trying to describe the depth of emotion that he himself feels.

Emotion in a story, however, is a lot like Chili powder. To make a dish taste good, you should add some, but for heaven's sake, don't throw in handful after handful. Don't upend the bottle. Don't even think, "one pinch makes the dish good, so a palm full will make it better." A little spice goes a long way.

A little emotion goes a very long way.

Mr. Marcus seems to argue that the writer shouldn't put in any emotion, but that would be like chili without any spice. And there are stories where the characters move through events, seemingly untouched, very wooden. Those stories leave the reader quite detached. Bored.

The trick, no, the art, is to put in just enough emotion, and to blend it into the story so that it doesn't seem to be there. Like spice, it adds to the flavor, but does not stand out on its own. Don't describe how a characters feels--but say how the character thinks about an object. Give the character responsive actions, such as, "He turned the picture facedown and did not look at it again."

Am I an expert at this? I think I'm getting better. I picked up a novel I wrote decades ago and found that the first few chapters dripped emo. The main character might as well have circled his eyes with kohl and auditioned for a role in a Japanese manga. Too much emotion. I've been slashing it out right and left.
Leaving room for something that all that emo was drowning out--tension.

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