Thursday, April 11, 2013

Creating Authentic Emotional Moments in Fiction


by Laura Kurk


Laura Anderson Kurk is one of those lucky souls who gets to live in a college town. In fact, it’s her college town—College Station, Texas, where she drove in under cover of darkness when she was way too young and proceeded to set the place on fire. (Actually, she stayed in the library stacks for the majority of her tenure as a student at Texas A&M University, but in her imagination, she was stirring things up.)

She majored in English for the love of stories, and due to a massive crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. She continued on to receive an advanced degree in literature. She writes contemporary books for young adults, a genre that gives her the freedom to be honest. Her debut novel Glass Girl is an unconventional and bittersweet love story, and its sequel Perfect Glass makes long-distance love look possible.

She’s crazy about her husband and her two ginger-headed kids. Laura blogs at Writing for Young Adults (laurakurk.com). On twitter, she’s @laurakurk.


I’ll bet you were all pretty young when you started being annoyed by overacting on television and in movies. Most of us who write share sensitivity for the arts, for language and its subtleties. We’re put off by characters who try too hard for sympathy. This is most evident in film and television and on stage where screenwriters and actors have less time and diminished tools to work with, but it also wreaks havoc in our fiction.




The Problem:

Sometimes when we write, we have trouble turning off the camera in our minds and we think in images instead of with language.

When we write scenes by visualizing our characters on screen during a heated moment, we miss things. This process is sometimes effective at unlocking plot, but it limits us because we rely too heavily on visual clues to reveal emotion—a glare, a frown, tears, clenched jaw or fists. We miss out on the way narrative allows us to telegraph tiny emotional nuances that speak to readers in unfathomably powerful ways.

The Psychology:

I want to zoom in on one important feature of authentic emotion—the way our most intense emotions make us inarticulate. Think about it. When you’re blindsided by something awful you simply cannot speak.

Even intense anger turns us into incommunicative fools. Our words dissolve and our primal natures take over. Or, try overwhelming pride—your heart swells in your chest and you may feel like singing, but long speechmaking is impossible for a time.

This is Emotion 101—we are not overly verbal (for a period of time that varies by individual) when we’re overly emotional. Our minds can’t fully and quickly grasp all that happens and there is no mechanism for speeding that process along. We have to “ride it out.” How do we replicate the “riding it out” in our fiction?

The Examples:

The best way I know to show emotional authenticity in fiction is to give you examples from someone who does it well. You’ll recognize a master’s work immediately.




Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.
Notice how Harper Lee, in Scout’s childlike voice, catalogs a few ways Scout feels indebted to Boo Radley—simple items, neighborly attention, their VERY LIVES. And she ends the passage with one of the most important statements of the novel because it connects the reader to Scout. It reminds us that we’re all guilty of living selfishly, mostly unaware of the realities in the lives around us. “We had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

These ten little words accomplish more than whole pages of explanation could have accomplished because Lee allows us to finish it ourselves. We get to make it meaningful based on our own pasts, mistakes, regrets, and childlike misunderstandings. Scout doesn’t talk it to death. If she had, we would have skimmed it and moved on. Instead, we stop on “sad” and reread the passage. It’s too powerful. It’s too personal. And it’s too much of what we feel ourselves.

Or, this one that slays me every time—

When I pointed to him his palms slipped slightly, leaving greasy sweat streaks on the wall, and he hooked his thumbs in his belt.  A strange small spasm shook him, as if he heard fingernails scrape slate, but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face.  His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.
“Hey, Boo,” I said.

This is the moment we’ve dreaded and anticipated throughout the entire novel—this face-to-face meeting between Scout and Boo Radley. Lee could have pulled out the big guns and the fireworks, but she didn’t and it’s incredibly beautiful because of her elegant restraint.

Some Guidelines:

I put together a short list of suggestions for creating authentic emotion. Call these to mind when you’re writing those scenes that need subtlety to be effective.

1. Go easy on the adjectives.

Strip the scene down to its sparest form and you will find that the message (the gem, the emotion) stands out more clearly.

2. Avoid sentimentality whenever possible. 

Remember that sentimentality really means emotions that are unearned. Sure, in reality we all feel emotions that come out of nowhere and have no basis. But in our fiction, we want to keep that to a minimum because readers need to trust that our characters have cause to be emotional.

3. Use poetic understatement.

Yes, most of you are writing prose, but we can borrow from our good friends. Poets are masters at using understatement for effect. Frost’s “Fire and Ice” would be a place to look for examples.

4. Never let your characters act overwrought.

This one sounds much like #2 and #3, but it’s different enough to mention here. Sometimes you put your characters into situations where real people might become overwrought. But in fiction, a little of that goes a long way, and loss of control is hard to relate to in a main character.

5. Let your characters be heroic with their reticence.

We talked about how we become inarticulate when we’re overly emotional. That can be shown through reticence and some of the best moments of reticence are those when readers know the character could have said something and didn’t because of a noble purpose or wisdom or maturity.

What books have you read (or what movies have you seen) that you you think are good examples of strong, authentic emotions?

50 comments:

  1. I really like Titanic. I think that part where Rose is on the other ship, just sitting there, was a really good example of the shock. I was sobbing at this point, and you'd think she'd want to slap Hockley, but she just sits there staring into space. I thought that was pretty authentic.

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    1. Hannah! I'd forgotten all about that scene. You're right. Her reaction, because it was so unemotional, spoke volumes. Very authentic.

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    2. I love that scene. And Titanic. Sometimes the videographer can nail the emotions, despite modern media's instinct for a frenetic pace. Oh, and I love Scout, too.

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    3. Wow, two Lauras! Haha. But yeah, the only scenes anyone remembers are the sunset where jack and rose have their arms spread out, and "I'll never let go." I think that's a shame. Titanic is a great movie. People make fun of it too much, in my opinion.

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    4. Yeah, once something is that popular, we tend to overlook all the beauty that made it popular in the first place. We go for the jugular and tear it down. It's popular for a reason. There are scenes of exquisite beauty and great writing in that movie. Thanks for reminding me. I'll have to watch it again!

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  2. Such a great post! I love your points that you give and these examples from To Kill a Mockingbird are so moving. Capturing so much beauty in subtle ways.

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    1. Hey, Joanne! Thanks for this. To Kill a Mockingbird is such a masterpiece in so many ways, but Lee's use of understatement really gets to me. Love it. I have so much to learn about it. That's what's fun about being a writer. We get to keep learning at the feet of the masters.

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  3. Wonderful post, Laura. Glass Girl is one of the books on the top of my to-buy list!

    I think you're right. Understatement and subtlety are key components of creating those moments so they don't feel contrived or over dramatic.

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    1. Hey, Gillian. I enjoyed meeting you at ACFW in Dallas! Good to see you here. I hope you enjoy Glass Girl. It's a delicate balance to strike--this emotional narrative. But I really think writers are so fortunate that we have so many tools to use. Understatement is a powerful tool. It's weird how it speaks more powerfully to readers than overly dramatic prose. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Thanks for this, it really helped. One thing I can think of right now is a scene from Rilla of Ingleside in which the main characters brother dies. Heartwrenching!

    Layla.

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    1. That part left me balling on the floor

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    2. Well, now I HAVE to go read it tonight...

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    3. I also think Dickens does a great job with emotions, especially in Oliver Twist and Bleak House.Dickens really was the master of literature.

      Layla.

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    4. Oh wow, yes. That part in Rilla of Ingleside was just awful.

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  5. Not sure why I can't reply directly to "Layla and Josiah" up there. Had to start a new comment. So, thanks for reading! I'm not familiar with that scene but I wrote it down so I can look it up. Can't wait to see it. Glass Girl deals with the death of a brother so those scenes sit nearest my heart. Thanks so much for the tip!

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  6. This post is just wonderful - thanks so much for sharing! I'll definitely be keeping this in mind when thinking about my next WIP.

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    1. Hope it's helpful, Olivia! There's so much talent in this group. I'm always amazed when I hang around GTW!

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  7. Laura, I was so excited when you suggested talking about this topic because I thought you did such an amazing job of this in Glass Girl. Thanks for sharing your techniques!

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie! And thanks for inviting me to talk about something that's usually on my mind and heart. You and GTW are amazing!

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  8. Thanks for this post! I loved the examples from To Kill a Mockingbird.

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    1. Thanks, Kate! It's a natural place to start talking about emotional writing! Best wishes on your writing!

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  9. This was so helpful. I had to write an emotional scene yesterday. I think I did a good enough job, comparing it to this. I am definitely saving this, because this won't be the last scene like that I'll have to write.

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    1. That's so great to hear! I love when I'm writing something and a post floats across my screen that gives me the exact advice I needed to hear! Serendipity! All my best to you!

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  10. Great post! thanks! I totally agree that less is often more when it comes to showing (and making the reader feel) heavy emotions.

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    1. Thanks, Jessica. I agree. As with everything in life, less is usually more, isn't it? Readers begin to skim when the emotions become unrealistic. Best wishes on your writing!

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  11. Love this post! I think the thing I have the hardest time with is that my characters may experience an emotion for no seen reason. Yes, it happens in real life, but as posted it doesn't work in books. I've seen it in some novels and its just odd.

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    1. Yeah, Mandi (or is it Mandi Lynn), you're right. When I see an emotion pop up in a character that doesn't fit, I usually go back and try to find the origin. Often it's just inexplicable or a reaction that's out of proportion to the conflict. Bugs me, too. But in real life our emotions are fickle and changeable and inexplicable. We forgive each other that in real life because we know things will change quickly. But in a book, when action and plot are so condensed, there's no time for emotions that have no basis. Writers have a huge responsibility with conveying emotions correctly. We never want to manipulate readers. Blessings on your writing!!

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  12. Haha, I'm thinking of writing a couple of stories where I'll have to break many of these!! But it's all for the right purpose, of course. I don't want my readers to trust that my character has cause to be emotional, and she certainly doesn't have much noble purpose or maturity! :P

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    1. First, wicked cool name. I'm sure you get that a lot. But it's just cool. Hyacinth. Ah!!!

      Second, really today we just discussed ONE tool for conveying emotions--the understated subtlety. But there are SO many other tools at your disposal. That's the beauty of fiction. As long as your emotions fit the backstory and the psychology of your characters, you can do what works best. Have you seen the book The Emotional Thesaurus - A Writer's Guide to Character Expression? It's by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It's really good. Might be helpful if you're writing very emotional stories. By the way - short stories are my favorite literary form. If you're able to knock those out effectively, you can do ANYTHING. Best wishes!

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  13. This post was absolutely perfect. I often struggle with writing emotional scenes that are truly authentic, and I wasn't quite sure what to do about it. Thank you so much!

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    1. Well, thank you, Andrea. Don't know I've ever been told something I did was "absolutely perfect." Nice way to start the evening. haha. We all struggle with emotional scenes. It's what fiction writing is all about--connecting emotionally with readers. If we fail at that, we fail. Period. The book I just recommended above (to Hyacinth) might come in handy for you, too. It gives definitions of all the emotions experienced by humans with lists of literary ways to express those emotions (mostly in gestures and body language). My favorite way to express emotion, though, is through clues in the narrative itself and that's truly hard to do. Read some contemporary masters of that. Do you like John Green? He does it as well as anyone today in The Fault in Our Stars. Note how we know exactly what Hazel is feeling, even though she doesn't sit around and say it repeatedly. Kate DiCamillo is also one of the best at emotional writing. I wanted to use examples from her work today but didn't have room. She's unbelievable and doesn't get the honor due her. Blessings on your writing!

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  14. I learn so much from you all the time. Emotions are so vulnerable and personal, but you've done an excellent job here explaining how to articulate them. A book I've recently read that nailed emotions is Glass Girl by, well, you.

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    1. Haha! I have so much to learn. That's what's so cool about what we do. We get to study always, always. We're allowed to grow and learn constantly. Thank you, love!

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  15. Sooo helpful!! I just broke the restraint I have on not editing before I'm done with my rough draft. But one scene popped into my head from my story where I just HAD to rewrite it because my MC was so emotional. Locking yourself in your room is SO much more realistic than thinking about getting revenge (at least for teenagers in her situation). I think that extra metaphors go great in scenes like that to get people to feel a little bit of what the MC feels. If she's angry and everything's quiet, you can use that to craft how deep her emotions are without overwhelming readers. Like "the silence was like an upset hive of bees." Or if she's depressed "the quiet of the room made me feel like a little abandoned girl on the side of the road.
    Just a thought :) Thanks for the post!

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    1. EXACTLY!!! That's a perfect example, Alyson! I love the upset hive of bees. And how when you're in your room alone, you feel abandoned. It's self-imposed isolation, sure, but it still feels like the world turned their back on you, not the other way around. Like the world forced you to lock yourself in your room. You had no other choice. Love this! Thanks for responding.

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  16. Thanks so much for this post and the tips!! I'm definitely going to take notes and try to remember EVERYTHING. I've been really wanting to make my characters real and convey emotion the right way and in a realistic way. I haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird yet...soon though. Although I'm not sure if it is a good reference or not, I really admire how Jane Austen gave her characters wonderful and complete personas. Who, although not complex, came to life and were just perfect. The classic were much more deep and well written than books now. It's kinda sad :/ Thank you for stopping by Ms.Laura, I'm really looking forward to reading your book whenever I get the chance!!

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    1. Thanks, Sierra! I appreciate you! I think Austen was an absolute master at conveying emotions with subtlety. In fact, it's probably what she did best, right? We all know how much Mr. Darcy loved Elizabeth even though he hardly says more than a handful of words at a time to her. The longing is conveyed in word choice and body language. Yeah, you're right to look to Austen as a great example of authentic emotion.

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    2. Austen, I totally agree.

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    3. Ooh agree, I hadn't thought of that. *smacks head* How could I have forgotten Darcy? I need to get my head checked... She came to mind because me and my mom always talk about how well she wrote books about very daily things. And yet tons of people love them! :) Thanks for stopping by!

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  17. This is an absolutely wonderful post and I'm going to print it out and sit it next to me when I write. Which should be about now.

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    1. Thanks, Emii! I hope it's helpful! Did you get some work done???

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  18. This is a great post! I love writing the dramatic and emotional scenes (description is my forte I think); however I often wonder if I don't tend to fall into the melodramatic side... this post reminded me of the importance of understated emotion, and working on the emotional reactions of characters carefully (that's a lot to do with characterization too, right?). I've not read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' but what beautiful example of well-written emotion and drama.

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Joy! I hope you'll read To Kill a Mockingbird. Such a lovely book and has a lot to teach us as writers. Especially in the way that Scout observes the world with such clear eyes. Blessings on your writing!

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  19. This is a great post, and definitely something I'll have to remember. I've actually thought of this sort of thing recently, because my WIP's plot requires some emotional scenes, and I realized I tend to try and describe them too much instead of going for a subtler approach. I especially tend to do this with my romance scenes, I think; but I noticed that when I'm reading about a romance, then the simpler the descriptions, the more touching it is. So, I'm trying to apply that to my own work, as well. :)

    These are good tips--thanks so much for the advice! I'm sure I'll be referring back to this post as I work on my WIP. :)

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  20. Thanks for reading, Taylor! Glad it fit in with where you are in your WIP. You're right, the subtler emotional scenes are sometimes the ones we remember most. I think it might be because, as readers, we don't like when the author tells us how to feel. We get to make it our own. Blessings on your writing!

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    1. No problem! And yeah, that might be so. Plus, sometimes the simplest descriptions and images can be the most powerful--just a few choice words can really stand out when they're written just right, and I've been trying to use that to my advantage when I'm writing. :)

      Thanks, and I wish you all the best with your own work as well! :D

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  21. Oh, yes. Thank you for this, Laura!

    Interestingly, another Laura I know is swell at this, too. I'm reading The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Frantz. Her books are as gorgeous as yours.

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  22. Thank you for this brilliant post, Laura! It was very helpful. I have discovered through my own writing that "overwrought" scenes are often the worst. They just come off as. . .blech. Thanks for your tips :)

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