Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Emotion on the page--when it's cheesy and when it works. And OS teaser #50

I've been writing. That project I told you about in May that was writing itself is a complete first draft. I love it. It's very unconventional, and I'm not altogether sure that the structure works, but it's totally unique and I love the story and the characters.

This novel has had me in tears several times in the writing. That's only happened to me with one other book, a contemporary I wrote before Personal Demons. And it got me thinking.

I read a lot. A LOT. I've read some truly amazing books. Some of them stick with me for a very long time after I've finished. But almost never does a book make me cry. Same with movies. I'm just not an emotional person. But, I know a reader's emotional connection to the characters in a book is what makes those characters real for them, so I get how important it is to convey emotion on the page.

The most frequent revision comment I get from my agent is something along the lines of: "What is she feeling here?" I have to be honest and say that I really hate having to write what a character is feeling. I understand that sometimes it's necessary, but I really want my readers to get it from the situation, the dialogue. I want it to come through without me having to spell it out. I feel like, if I've done my job and gotten a reader into my characters' heads, then I shouldn't need to tell them that "cold dread snakes through her gut." The reader should know that. It goes to the whole principle of "showing, not telling." And, honestly, sometimes telling just comes off as cheesy and melodramatic.

As an experiment, I went back to the only book that's made me cry in the last few years, Where She Went by Gayle Foreman. I read the chapter that caused the leak in my plumbing. In that chapter, on average, once a page she say something like "...and I feel my stomach bottom out." That's once a page. Once in every 250 words, on average. On each of those pages, there's dialogue and exposition, but rarely any "telling" of what Adam is feeling. But believe me when I say we feel it--me to the point of tears. She's done her job.

I'd love to know what, if any, book has brought you to tears recently. And, if you have the chance, as an experiment, go back and do what I did. See how often that author "tells" you what the character is feeling, either by naming the emotion (confused, afraid) or by giving you a visceral description.

And, now for today's Original Sin Teaser. More from Matt:

#OriginalSin p152 Matt: She looks at me and, just for a second, it feels like she’s seeing the real me. Her eyes lock on mine and her mouth tilts up with the hint of a smile. She reaches for my hand and laces her fingers in mine, and my insides explode in a burst of ecstasy.

See! I did it. His insides are exploding in ecstasy! *headdesk*

If you're a Melissa Marr fan, don't forget to enter for a signed copy of Graveminder and swag, and a signed Original Sin galley here!


  1. Great post!! I've had that same note before. I'm more careful about it now, but it sure is a fine line between telling just enough and telling too much. I cry at almost everything though, so it would be easier to say what DIDN'T make me cry. :D

  2. I think a lot of what makes a reader feel something has to do more with the individual person than anything else. You can't predict what will be significant or trigger an emotional response. You just have to write as honestly as you can. You can certainly make a good guess that the most intense situation will get a response, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes it is the quiet moments that will get to a reader.

  3. I get really attached to the characters in the books I read and I sometimes find it irritating when authors 'spell it out' for me; when I'm reading I want to be so lost in the story and the characters that I just know how they feel without being explicitly told, otherwise it becomes nothing more than A book to me. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins is the most recent book to make me really cry and before that If I Stay had me bawling.

  4. I've thought a lot about this issue. I tend to agree with you, that the dialogue and actions should speak for themselves, but sometimes I get the "what's he/she feeling here?" comment from my critique group. My solution is to try to convey the emotion in a more non-telling way, like using one of the 5 senses, telling about a wish or dream the character has that relates to the current situation, or even having them think about a related story or song that the reader would know too.

  5. Lisa, I can seriously understand the difficulty in writing emotion. It's really hard stuff.

    But I'm just going to be frank here. Your teaser made it sound like Matt jizzed in his pants.

    That is all. Just saying.