RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #29

The Emotion Issue – Fight for Your Characters Rights Not To Fight (All the Time)

Several years ago emotion was a topic on Beth Hill’s excellent self-editing (and then pay her for professional polish) site. I just did a search and these articles are ones I found useful. Particularly the one on buffer phrases we might use subconsciously or to sound writerly that put distance between us/readers and characters. Here’s The Editors Blog Link.

I am not in favor of dialogue tags unless it is impossible (or being too lazy) to avoid them. Dialogue tone should set the stage, and action tags (often reading like a director’s instructions) are somewhat better until they become, as in parentheses, directorial. Or use none at all, but that’s a personal opinion.

However, and here’s my big but, characters are actors. Without a snuffle or a sneeze where did the Kleenex come from? How did the picture of the scene develop? How was the purse/door closed? How are they sitting? All clues to the emotional state of characters and the visual imprint of the scene.

What do we do if ‘said’ doesn’t cut it and enough adverbs to fill a Nancy Drew mystery are, by personal mandate, prohibited? First, DO NOT ASK AN EDITOR. Why? because as much as they preach emotion the first thing they want to do is remove it unless it is blatant “show.” Emotions are also in a touch, a simple gesture just as much as a fist or a shout. I know this because of two pretty obvious internet editors.

Here is a line from Dan Alatorre – They sure touch a lot for strangers. About one woman pulling a strand of hair from another’s face, fixing a fallen dress strap through the process of discovering that they are both married to the same man. Two subtle references in 2200 words, about a budding relationship, is too much? In Dan’s defense, my take is that he likes his female characters flirty and depth free with long hair they can toss. A lot.

Next is Beth Hill, who offers great advice on her blog. But I sent her a manuscript, too. Usually, she wants twenty pages and page 200 or so. All I had was a doc file, sent the whole thing. Weeks go by. I ask did she get the manuscript? Oh yeah. Read the whole thing. Sends me suggested edits and one of the first things she says is – Rather than filter actions through Deanna and her senses, consider going straight for what (the supporting character) is doing. How Deanna feels is the heart and soul of the document and why Beth hooked into reading all of it to see where it went. Edit it out? No thanks.

I agree that felt, saw, heard, noticed are filters in some instances, but not all. Without sensory input, our characters run the risk of becoming robots. Try this –

She felt/touched/held her hand over/checked/ the stove for heat. We get into detected and some other synonyms and we begin to distance our character from the event with vocabulary. How did she touch it? It depends on the scene, but touch, felt etc. bring you into it. Hardcore no filter would have “she determined the stove was cold.” How do we know? “She reached out, the stove was cold to her touch.” Emotions, senses, large and small show us character and tell a story.

It all depends on what we’re writing.

Here’s a good one – based on one work of mine someone asked me about a character. “Don’t you ever get pissed off? Doesn’t he ever get pissed off?” “Sure,” I said, “but he’s a space case piano player and slugging people is not his style, nor is it good for his vocational health. If you want violence here’s a gothic spy caper with lots of gratuitous violence.”

Now, for the tip. The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi. Some of it is redundant but it’s an easier read than the body language texts and it’s searchable. And it’s a lifesaver when “Punched” and “Screamed” are too much.

Fists and shouts, violence and emotional extremes and graphic erotica are not all there is. The devil is in the details. We should give our characters lives, and tone, not just temperaments.

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Phil Huston


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