What does Emotion Look Like on the Page
Let's take a look at emotion. What does emotion actually look like on the page? And this is great because we get to bust one of the most damaging writing myths out there because it stops writers from being writers. And that is that myth of beautiful writing. That myth that what defines you as writer, what makes you a writer, isn't your ability to tell a story, but that what makes you a writer is your ability to write beautifully right out of the starting gate no matter what you're writing. You're a wordsmith. You are a really good writer. And the tragedy of that is that it keeps, it not only keeps writers from getting out of the starting gate, it keeps writers from getting into the starting gate because if you can't write a really beautiful first sentence, why would you bother writing the second sentence? And the real killer thing is, guess what? Beautiful writing is not what makes you a writer. What makes you a writer is digging deep and creating this third rail and creating a story. ...
That's what makes you a writer. It is creating the story that makes you a writer, not the words you use to put it onto the page or the technique you use. In fact, the deeper you dig, the more beautiful the writing becomes. My firm belief is that the story polishes the prose. You dig deep enough into the story and it will polish the prose and you'll never have to do that polished draft at the end. The story polishes the prose. The problem is, though, is because so many writers, and writing can be taught as if it is about writing beautifully and that's how you get everything on the page. Writing emotion and getting emotion on the page is often taught in the same way. I came across this recently. I'm working with a writer. He's immensely talented. He's created an amazing world that his story's gonna take place in. He's got amazing characters. He's writing a young adult novel. His protagonist is really, really deep, so are the other characters. He's putting it all into motion. It's just really, really good, except the one thing he struggles with is getting emotion onto the page. Now, sometimes he can do it, but sometimes what happens is, and it really stands out 'cause it's so different from everything else he writes, is that he'll write something, he's trying to emotion on the page and he'll write a really good description of a physical sensation. Or a really good description of a facial expression. Or a really good description of some sort of external action. And he does it thinking that that is going to hook the reader and pull them in and make them wanna know what happens next, and instead what he's done is he's locked the reader out. Because all it really is is a very good surface description of a feeling or an expression or an action. And I asked him about it. I said, you know, why? Everything else is so great. What's this struggle about? And he said, well, you know, I've always had trouble with this. He said, and I've thought about nine months ago that I found a way to solve it. He said, I took a writing workshop with a writer, successful writer, who'd written several novels. And he said, in fact, it was called How to Get Emotion On the Page. He said, what she taught us was, never use the same physical description twice. Everything in the workshop was about writing technique and writing methodology and how to use expressive language as if if you wrote a unique, fresh description of a facial expression, that would give us any insight whatsoever into the character, what they were actually feeling, why they were feeling, or what they might do as a result. The irony is is the only emotion that you evoke when you write those really lovely, beautiful, luscious metaphors as a way to get emotion onto the page is this emotion, wow, that writer's really good. That's a wordsmith. She's got a way with words. Of course, I have no idea what the character's actually feeling or why or what they're gonna do next and I'm kinda bored but, wow, that writer sure can write. In other words, it is the last emotion you want to evoke. What you want to evoke in that moment is you want to evoke what the protagonist feels. And most importantly, why so that we can anticipate what they might do next. So we can anticipate the meaning of what they're doing. That is what you're looking for. So to be very clear, when I say, you've gotta let us know what the protagonist is feelin', I do not mean that you wanna just step in front of the story and tell us what the protagonist is feeling. For instance, you would not want to write this. Marilyn's mother died. She's very, very sad. You don't want to write that because listen, the thing is, we hear that, absolutely. I hear that. But I don't feel it, I can't feel anything. We want to feel it as deeply as Marilyn does. The way to fix that is not to pretty it up. It's not to write in lovely, luscious language. For instance, you would not want to write, upon learning of her mother's death, Marilyn felt as if an arrow had pierced her heart, and as it shattered she sank to her knees, threw her head back, and keened beneath the sickle moon. I mean, all that is is a very fancy way of saying, Marilyn's mother died, and she's very, very sad. In other words, you don't want to tell us whether in beautiful, lovely prose or simply by telling us point blank how someone feels so that we understand it intellectually. We're not looking for an intellectual understanding. What you want to do, and this is so key, what you wanna do is put us in the protagonist's skin as she struggles with what it means to her, and that struggle is what evokes the emotion in your protagonist and in your reader. This is something I am saying to writers, any writer I've ever worked with who might be watching now will be going, oh yeah, she says that all the time. Which is, I'm always saying, do you want to explain to me how your character feels, or do you want to put me in her skin as she's experiencing it so I can struggle along with her and feel it as she feels it? You want to be there in the moment in your protagonist's skin. Now let me give you an example. Now this example I'm gonna give you comes from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wanna tell you a little bit about this novel and you'll see why in a few minutes. Everything I Never Told You is a literary novel. It was written, I think, in 2014. The year that it came out it won a bunch of writing awards. It was on a bunch of those best 10 of the year lists. National Public Radio had it as the best book of the year. I think San Francisco Chronicle had it best book of the year. It was a New York Times notable book of the year. It was a New York Times bestseller. Critically acclaimed novel, and it sold very well. Let me set up this paragraph I'm gonna read you. It is, this takes place in and it's about a woman, her name is Marilyn. And Marilyn's mother has in fact just died, but Marilyn will be doing no keening. Marilyn is not sad at all. So to set it up, 1966, she is estranged from her mother, and they've been estranged since 1958 when she married her Asian college professor James Lee, which did not go over well with her mother. They have not spoken since. And in that time, in the eight years between '58 and '66, Marilyn and James have had two children, Lydia and Nath. And I just mention that because they are mentioned here. So here is this paragraph. She's just learned that her mother died. By then she had not spoken to her mother in almost eight years, since her wedding day. In all that time her mother had not written once. When Nath had been born and then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day. It's not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night she said simply, my mother died. Then she turned back to the stove and added, and the lawn needs mowing. And he understood. They would not talk about it. At dinner when she told the children their grandmother had died, Lydia cocked her head and asked, are you sad? Marilyn glanced at her husband. Yes, she said, yes, I am. Now, notice in that passage, there was no mention of how Marilyn felt. Never told us how Marilyn felt, and yet you can feel the layers and the nuance of that emotion cascading through. In fact, the only time she uses a word, a big box emotion word, is the word sad, which, of course, is a send up because it's a dictionary definition of how you're supposed to feel when your mother died and is the one thing Marilyn doesn't feel. She uses that word to shield Lydia, 'cause she sure doesn't want to tell Lydia how she's feeling or why. And she uses it a bit to shield herself. Notice, again, literary novel. Did you notice there were no $25 words in that note. Not even $5 words (laughs). It was like $1 words. They were simple, humble words and yet, they were rife with meaning. It's funny, I once did work with a lawyer's manuscript, and he said he learned a long time ago in court, the bigger the word the less emotion it conveys (laughs). That's really true. But anyway, so very little literary writing. It's very plain, it's a very powerful literary novel. So let me tell you a little story. A couple of years ago I was guesting in a class in a university in Pennsylvania speaking to a class. I'd been there three times already. The professor would bring me to like talk to the school and then to come in and talk to her class, and this was the third time that we'd done it over, I think, about four or five years. And so, we were friends kind of by this time. Her name was Jane. And so, I went into the class and I read them that exact paragraph making this exact point. Afterwards Jane and I had lunch, you know, before I went back up to New York. At lunch said, you know, I got a mea culpa, I gotta tell you somethin'. She said, if I'd had a student who gave me that paragraph I'd have told him to pretty it up. It wasn't literary enough. Didn't have enough beautiful language. This is the problem and it's the problem with the way writing is taught. It's taught as if you're looking at a scene and it's a one off. As if okay, here, let's amp it up as much as possible in a visual way as if that is all it is. Emotion and this emotion comes all the way through that third rail. It wasn't just what we were feeling in this scene. What we were feeling before led to this, then it went forward to this, and then it went onward. That is the point. The point is, had she read, not to throw Jane under the bus, I don't want to throw Jane under the bus, 'cause she's a great teacher and I don't mean that. But here's the thing. Had you read that passage where it is in the book, it's on page, I think it's page 80 in the book, so if you had read it in the book and you'd read all 79 pages and you turned to that, it would have hit you even harder because it's not a one off. It's not a just, this just happens in this moment and amp it up as far as you can because it's just that. It was part of this continuous third rail going forward. We already knew a lot of stuff about Marilyn and her mom and the effect that it had on her and her kids. And this is gonna play through going all the way through. So this is that continuation of that third rail. Literally, it helps to really think of it, 'cause when we say if we're not feeling, we're not reading, it helps to think of it as like an electric line. 'Cause you know what happens with an electric line. If you make a snip in it this big, all the electricity's gone (laughs). You can't do that. You gotta trust it to carry it through because it's all about this third rail and how it plays forward, what led to it and where it goes after that. And notice, also, that the primary source of this struggle, of the internal struggle you're gonna get, is inside the head of your protagonist. That's where this lives and breathes is inside the head of your protagonist. Internal struggle doesn't, it's not physical. It's not something that they're doing outside, like they're wrestling with somebody literally. Internal struggle is thought-based. It's what your protagonist is thinking and how they are making sense of what's going on based on the situation that they are being forced to deal with in that moment. That is where emotion lives and breathes.