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.
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.
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 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.
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.
2. Avoid sentimentality whenever possible.
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?