Emotion is difficult.
It’s tangled mess in real life, and pretty much the same in a story.
As I’ve revealed in previous posts (here, here, and here), emotion is something I tend to overwrite at first, and then pare back and pare back until a telling gesture, expression, or oblique bit of dialogue is all that’s required to convey what’s going on in a character’s head.
I hate passages where two or more characters have “as you know” types of conversations (in which they discuss things they already know but the reader doesn’t), or when they rehash story events for no other reason than to remind readers of what they’ve just read.
But I also hate maudlin, melodramatic, or propagandistic dialogue. No “whoa is me” stuff for this writer, no “you’re the only one who can save the world” gimmicks, or “if you don’t agree with me, you’re a bigot and a narrow-minded idiot” talk.
That reflects the author, not the characters.
Now, that doesn’t mean a character can’t be a bigot. He just ought not be the author’s political, religious, or philosophical mouthpiece. As a reader, I’m disinclined toward sermons of any kind disguised as novels. (That’s main reason I’ve never watched Avatar.)
But I digress.
Sometimes, I think, we writers drum up conflict between our characters because we don’t know what else to do. We need to include emotion or tension or action, and stirring up a fight is easy. But there’d better be a darn good reason for it, though. Fights that come outta nowhere and with no real motivation aren’t interesting. And if someone acts out of character, there’d better be a plausible explanation for it later. (Keep it real.)
Anger is, perhaps, one of the easiest emotions to write:
Again, the narrow look. “Is it that laundress-witch? I saw you with her by the river. Are you waiting for her to dance? You will be cooling your heels ’til dawn. She hates men.”
“I wait for no one.”
Kathleen softened, and her lips curved into a smile once more. “Come with me.”
He shook his head.
“Have you led us all in a dance?” Her fingers dug into his arm. “Jenny said I should be patient. Give you room to breathe and think. You have taken all that room and turned around.”
He chose his words as if they were glowing embers. “We spoke no promises between us, you and I. Our hearts are free. John Oakley—”
Her eyes blazed like those of a cat caught in torchlight. “John Oakley was a diversion until you came to your senses. Jenny is wed, so who is left? I! The pretty one!” Loud with outrage, her voice caromed off the buildings around them. “Why do you not want me?”
“I will take you!” cried one of the tipsy lads at the inn. “Pretty or no!”
Onlookers to the dance turned in the direction of the smithy. Kathleen continued her tirade, arms stiff at her sides. “You were nothing when Father took you in. He raised you as a son! You did not even have a name!”
She was right. In this one thing, he had failed the man whom he lived to honor. Yet some part of him resented the obligation. He did not love Kathleen in the proper way. He could not dance with her, an act of promise, then stand before Father Donovan and utter vows he did not cherish. They would be lies.
She waited for his reply. He said nothing.
Tears streamed down her face and glittered in the torchlight. Her palm stung the side of his face. Then, wiping the back of her hand across her cheeks, she stalked to the square, her back rigid.
“Wait, fair lady! We will dance with thee!” Laughing, the wine-emboldened youths linked arms and wound their serpentine way to the dance. (from Dragon’s Rook)
Love, contained disdain, haughtiness, humility, contentment, fear, deep grief — those are tougher. They take a light touch.
They require me to be uncomfortable and honest.
Whence had she come on that frigid day, blown into the village on a January wind? What secrets did she keep?
“I know the gossip about me, but what of you, Master Smith? You fix kettles, shoe horses, sit alone in a corner of the inn to take your supper. Everyone speaks well of you and nods when you pass, yet you have few friends. An orphan boy chops wood for you, sits in your smithy window, and would likely believe anything you said, even if you claimed to own the moon.”
“I enjoy his company.” Kieran threw a rock across the water; it careened off a tree with a resounding crack.
“You are a good man, despite your ill humor, and it is useless to hide it from me.”
“What of you?” He drew up his knees and rested his arms on them. “You present a stern face to the village, but now you laugh with me. Or”—he shrugged—”at me. Why do you hide?”
Sadness mingled with something else deep in Maggie’s eyes. “If you befriend me, you may regret it.”
He wanted to ask why—why the regret, and why this particular village—but blurted out, “What happened to your hand?”
Pressing her lips together, she bent to her work again.
Ashamed, he stood to leave.
She wrung water from yet another length of linen then let it pile in her lap, her face turned from him. Water seeped from the sheet and darkened the front of her kirtle. Reaching down, he picked up the wet cloth, grasped her maimed hand in a gentle grip, and raised her to her feet, running his thumb over her crooked fingers. They were red and rough from much work.
His curiosity was as vulgar as the village gossips. The guilt of it pushed against him. He could think of no words to set things right again, to restore the feeling of accord that had bound them only moments ago.
She kept her gaze fixed on the leather ties of his shirt. Stepping back, she pulled her hand free and took the sheet from him. “Good day, Master Smith.” (from Dragon’s Rook)
Even after several revisions, I’m still working on scenes such as the two above, looking for ways to condense the emotion until it’s powerful and perfect.
Yeah, I know, that’s not gonna happen. Perfection isn’t out there. I just want to avoid cheesiness, and don’t want an overabundance of verbiage to weaken the scenes.
And there are bald statements that must be eradicated: “The lack of emotion in her voice revealed more than tears.” Ugh, what a clunker!
Got any favorite emotion-infused scenes from your work or someone else’s? Or scenes that just make you cringe, they’re so over the top or off the mark?
quoted material copyrighted, Keanan Brand