Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Human Emotion

My daughter and I were having an argument last evening, (no screaming and yelling, mind you), but we raised our voices at each other while she was holding her baby. At seven and a half months my granddaughter’s expanding her horizons daily. Upon witnessing our disagreement she broke out in tears. Inconsolable tears! Sobs!

We calmed the baby down and had her back to her smiley-self in no time. I can’t remember what the spat started over, and either can my daughter, some inconsequential thing. We felt like a pair of heels, making our precious sweetie cry, I can tell you that.

I was trying to fall asleep last night and began to consider human emotion, specifically the more extreme versions, and how anger can turn into rage, melancholy into out and out depression, and mere infatuation into full-blown obsession.

As a writer, I concern myself with writing true emotion, without resorting to melodrama. We are constantly instructed to show, not tell. It’s preferable to depict the character’s mindset rather than lamely describe their feelings.

For example, one should never write:
Jane was angry with her boss for scolding her in front of a client.

A preferable way to show how Jane was feeling would be:
After her stern boss scolded Jane in front of a client, she punished him by adding sugar to his coffee with cream, although he had demanded Splenda.

While we are absorbed in our fits of emotion we don’t stop to analyze how we are feeling right there and then. In fact, most of us digest our tragedies in bits and bites. It will take months, even years to process what happened to us, to grapple with the effects. The same goes for three-dimensional characters. They grapple. Some act out in destructive manners. Some may suffer, but endure by coming to terms with their pain. Addicts are people with overwhelming, unresolved grief. In an effort not to feel that unresolved grief they drink to excess, or take drugs, doing their best to stuff the feelings back down inside. In an attempt to end suffering, they add even more heartache into the mix.

Extreme emotions don’t always manifest in obvious action. It’s tempting to write:
Jane fell down on her hands and knees after the doctor delivered the news that her baby died on the operating table.

Chances are; a woman having just heard such horrifying news might react with disbelief as opposed to sorrow; a self-protection of sorts kicks in. I have witnessed such behavior first hand. A better version might be:
The doctor took Jane’s hand in his, and said softly, “I’m so sorry, Curtis didn’t make it. His heart gave out.” Jane shook her head, pulled the doctor’s hand close to her chest and squeezed tight. “No,” she said. “That’s not true. It can’t be!”

The truth of the matter is, there’s no right or wrong way for anyone to act or react at any given time. We are all individuals and differing emotions bring out differing reactions. The trick is to illustrate the depth of our characters in such a manner as to keep the reader convinced. That’s our job. Not an easy one by any means. I write and then I re-write, bearing all this in mind. Did I do the best job conveying how the character felt? I constantly ask myself this question.

Nothing irritates me more than when I’m reading along and feel as if I’ve read those same words a thousand times before. Predictable is not good. Memorable characters do memorable things.

What is the most extreme emotion you’ve ever felt personally?
What is the most extreme emotion you’ve ever attempted to write about?

All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.


Journaling Woman said...

I have felt grief clear through to my bone marrow. Is that an emotion?

I have tried writing about grief but seemed to not be able to do it properly. I don't think I can write about love either.

Am I a sad sack or what?

Joanne said...

I think it's important to keep the emotions as real as possible. Readers can see through the melodrama, and less is more in portraying, sometimes. It's good to leave a little to the imagination.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

This is great! Thanks, Elizabeth, for showing us how to show this.

Hmm... the most extreme emotion I've ever depicted. Rage... anxiety/panic attacks. Those have been fun!

Oh My Goddess said...

I have written about betrayal. It helped me to get a little distance, and brought up the actual feeling a little too much - almost like reliving it - which did not feel great.

Helen Ginger said...

I've felt grief in the loss of a loved one. Probably the most intense emotions I've written was rape. I didn't show the rape, but got the emotion across with two words, repeated three times by the victim.

Straight From Hel

Alix said...

What is the most extreme emotion you’ve ever felt personally?

What is the most extreme emotion you’ve ever attempted to write about?

I am fiercely pro-life. I discovered that fact after exercising my right to pro-choice in 1983 and then immediately regretting the decision. An irreversible decision I've had to live with since I was 25 years old. I wanted to reveal that truth in my Honest Scrap post the other day, but erased it. Some things are much too personal to admit.

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

My answer to both of your questions is the same...grief.

Though love is the opposite most powerful emotion...sometimes even that can not overcome the grief.

I held my late husband's hand and prayed with him as he suddenly passed away. I've shared his story many times and each time I feel as if I've only begun to express in words the powerful emotion of grief.

Jan Morrison said...

As a therapist I deal in emotions every day. I ask my clients to choose from - mad, sad, glad and scared. All the rest are sophistications, or thinkings. I believe I felt all of these in there most intense forms - the physical affect is what is usually surprising as you point out with the demise of poor wee Curtis. Our characters aren't always emotionally literate so it helps to write about their confusion about what they are feeling and thinking. It is hard and really what else besides describing the furniture or the scenery are we doing?

Jemi Fraser said...

Most extreme for me: grief.

One of my characters had held in emotions for a long time, so when she blew it was a combination of frustration, anger, guilt & desperation. Lots of fun to write :)

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Emotions are tough to write without resorting to hackneyed phrases. I've written about love, grief and envy, all of which I've experienced. I've discovered when trying to capture emotions that less is more.


L.T. Elliot said...

The most extreme emotion I felt was when my sons were born. The most extreme I've wanted to write? Grief turning into madness.

Great post. Very thought provoking.

Dan Holloway said...

Fascinating. Year Zero's new anthology, 13 Shadows Waiting For Sunrise (out tomorrow free at ) is focused on just this question - how can a writer express pain.

You are absolutely right at the end - memorable characters do memorable things. But not necessarily extreme ones. The very most powerful emotive passages are not those where the language is excessive, but where it is even, simple, elegant, and poignant (I think that may be why Japanese fiction does it so well - the natural stillness in the style). The two most effective passages I know are the ending of Norwegian Wood, when the narrator is left speaking into a telephone connected to a world that no longer exists - the utter emptiness is just devastating; and the ending of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, when two characters we know will be dead within a few hours dance contentedly to violin music

The most intense thing I've ever tried to show - like Murakami, the utter empty nothingness when a teenage girl realises, a month after her father's death, her whole life and all its certainties has unraveled and she has nothing but herself. I resorted to magic realism, having her scrolling through the address book in her mobile phone, only to find that it, and her entire call history, had disappeared. That's the ending of Songs from the other Side of the Wall (free at ).

I really think nothing/emptiness is a much stronger emotion than anger/jealousy/fear - I guess that's from reading so much Japanese literature - the Kyoto School of philosophy held, I believe, that only in absolute nothingness were we connecetd to everything.

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

I am a terrible reality show junky. It's like allowed people watching. One thing I learned there is that people don't react to things as we would expect, as they show us on the soapies and in movies. Real people are slow to take in things they are slow to react, they rarely understand their reactions nor their actions, until like you've rightly said, a long time afterwards. Also, many people jump to anger when that is not exactly what they're feeling. I sometimes wonder if maybe anger is the easiest emotion for our species. Scared-get angry. Vulnerable- get angry. Sad- get angry.

It's tough to get emotions right in your writing. I usually try to use actions and changes in ways of talking.

Glynis said...

It is hard to write emotions. I tend to try and find out how I or others would react.
Good post and I am so glad baby was smiling again.

staceyjwarner said...

my most extreme motion is RAGE! I feel it often towards my baby's daddy...working on it.

as for writing, not sure.

much love

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

I've sat here remembering those intense moments, the loss of my mother being at the top; loss of a friendship; fear of a drug addict; just to name a few.

This was a wonderful post. Thank you.

Tom Bailey said...

Pain of death and joy of love... have been the most extreme... but those are so common....

Interesting thing to think about to see if I have been more extreme but I do not think I have.

Thanks for sharing.

The Victorian Parlor said...


I really like this post. I must say that I am a very emotional person so I have shown extreme everything emotionally from rage to joy. I too am a writer and struggle at times to portray emotions in words-'showing instead of telling'. Your examples in this post have actually given me some insight with some of the writing I am working on now-thank you-I needed this post!



GutsyWriter said...

Extreme anger at my loved one for rejecting me for several days. I cannot handle rejection from a person I love. That makes me want to leave for good.
Obviously your grandaughter doesn't like anger either.

Reeta Luthra said...

Translating an emotion into words can be like translating a book into a different language. It's never the same. Perhaps this is why people find it difficult to talk *completely* about their own grief and other extreme emotions.

My last piece of writing was about a diligent old master craftsman, struggling to maintain his identity as he battled a realisation that the modern world had no use for his craft.

Thanks for this post - very thought provoking.

Woman in a Window said...

Emotion all over me tonight. First, my daughter overwhelmed and me trying to help her sort through it. And the same thing took me. Emotion is no easy thing. Not cordial. Doesn't lay down. Doesn't do tricks when asked. It's defiant. I suppose, the characters need to be at its mercy, don't they? Aren't we all?

I've not written nearly enough.

Fireblossom said...

May i tell you that this thought-provoking post of your delights me, or must I show it instead? ;-)

The strongest emotion I have ever felt was sheer terror. I was a tiny child, standing in my crib--it was painted a pastel yellow, i remember--just happy and calm, when something with a terrible face leapt up right beside me and shouted, reaching for me. Somehow I managed to get over the rail and down under the adult bed, back to the furthest corner amid the dust bunnies, screaming my head off for my mother. It took her quite some time to convince me that the "devil" who had tried to kill me was in fact just my (much) older brother wearing a cloth skeleton mask from Halloween. Although i couldn't have been more than three, and probably younger, I never forgot it, nor have i ever been that afraid again.

The strongest emotion i try to write about is love, the kind of love that can't be denied.