Emotion without Sentiment
c. 2017 by Alicia Rasley
The scene is where the emotion is. That's where all the work you've done
setting up the emotional situation comes to fruition. But you can still
blow it. :) Your scene might miss the emotion, use the wrong sequence,
or get too maudlin. So I'm going to try to give you some techniques to
discover the emotion in the scene and organize scene events to lead to it
and then present it in restrained yet effective ways.
First thing to remember is this: The WHOLE SCENE creates the emotion,
not just (or even primarily) the character's point of view. The character doesn't
have to fully experience or acknowledge or recognize the emotion-- this
is the READER'S experience.
So when my heroine goes back to her childhood home and finds it abandoned
and derelict, remember the POV paradox-- the emotion might be a lot more
accessible to the reader if I don't have the heroine experience it all
right then. If I pull back-- show what she's doing, what window she
peers into, what she finds in the yard-- and let the reader figure out
what that means, then I'm increasing the reader investment in the scene.
Don't forget he first rule: When the character cries, the reader doesn't
That is, if all the emotion is spelled out in the scene, then there's
nothing for the reader to DO, no interaction, no addition. The reader
becomes a spectator, not a participant.
He sank into despair, knowing that he would never find her now. Grief
overwhelmed him. He was helpless against its brutal onslaught, against
the agonizing pain of her loss.
That is going to distance the reader for 2 reasons.
1) When it's all spelled out, the reader doesn't have anything to contribute, anything to do. The emotion is already all there, all spelled out, and the reader in
an essential sense isn't needed to interpret, understand, experience.
2) There's an instinctive rejection of "purple prose," of excessive
emotion. It feels claustrophobic, kinda like being trapped in an elevator
with someone who wants to tell you all about her terrible break-up.
But if you leave a bit of room, if you sketch rather than broad-brush,
the reader is drawn in rather than being pushed away. And the reader gets
to participate in the experience by imagining-- interpolating-- the
emotion rather than being told it. For example:
She was gone.
Tom pressed his back hard against the rock and stared out at the moonlit
sea. Maybe she was out there -- no. It was time to give up. The tide was
ebbing, leaving behind arcs of foam in the sand. Glistening
there, just at the water edge, was a single shell perfect, unbroken,
pristine. Tom walked over, bent down to pick it up. Then he straightened,
leaving it there in the sand. Slowly he brought his boot down on the
shell and crushed it.
The reader is trained to interpret action. So Tom's destruction of the
shell what's that mean? Well, the reader can interpret it different
ways that is, she can think that Tom's destruction of the shell shows
his anger at fate. Or she can see the shell as a symbol of his hopes and
dreams, now crushed. At any rate, she'll have to work a bit to experience
the emotional context of that action, and that's good. When a reader
interacts with the scene, fills in the gaps, figures it out, she has a
greater investment in the experience. And she will identify more with the
character, as she has literally "felt" with him. She hasn't been told how
he feels rather she's felt his feelings.
JD Salinger defined sentimentality as loving something more tenderly than
God loved it. If you set the scene up, let the reader know why the
character should feel, and then let the reader feel it, you'll be
avoiding that sentimentality. It'll be real emotion because it won't be
Just like a joke, an emotional moment needs a buildup and then a
punchline. It's the sequencing of the buildup that sets up the
punchline-- but then you need to find a way to let the reader experience
First there has to be a setup. What that is, how extensive that
is, I think would depend somewhat on whether you want a surprise in the
punchline. After all, sometimes we want the reader to go, "Oh! I wasn't expecting that!" But we also want them to go back and maybe see clues to it that they
For example, let's say we're in Billy's POV, and he's out with Annie at
the state fair, his girlfriend, and they're having a good time, he thinks, and then suddenly she takes his hand and says earnestly, "Billy, I really like you, but I
think we ought to break up."
Well, you know, if it's a surprise to Billy, it's got to have some feel
of a surprise or the reader isn't going to get that pleasant jolt. At the
same time, the reader is more savvy than Billy (Billy, for instance,
doesn't realize he's the star of a romance novel :), so if the reader is
COMPLETELY surprised, then it's possible you didn't set up for it
The point is not letting the reader know ahead of time, but rather making
it so when it happens, the reader slaps her head and said, "Oh, so
-that's- why she wouldn't go on the roller coaster with him!"
That is, think about the surprise as the punchline of a joke, only of
course it's not comedic. But you set it up as you set up a joke's
punchline. The big emotion moment (although it's not written
emotion-wordy) is at the end of the set up, as a punchline is at the end
of the joke. To what is it the culmination? What expectation or surprise
does it fulfill?
Like we've established that poor Billy thinks they had a good time. So go
back into the scene and look for places that you can show to the reader
(though poor Billy remains clueless) that things aren't so rosy. Maybe
girlfriend is a mite preoccupied– he has to say her name three times
before she notices him. Maybe he comes back from getting the cotton candy
and she's putting away her cellphone. Maybe he notices that the
engagement ring he gave her is no longer on her finger and is about to
ask about it when he figures she's having it cleaned. I wouldn't put more
than 3 such hints in the scene.
Three is always the magic number. The trick is making sure that the three
instances of setting up events/hints/whatever are all different, and then
try and assemble them in order of intensity (lowest to highest).
For example, with Billy, we have:
1. Girlfriend preoccupied... stay concrete– how is this manifested? By
her not responding to him calling her name.
2. Girlfriend hanging up phone when he comes back– he doesn't quite get
what's going on, but reader will wonder who she was talking to.
3. Notices she doesn't have the engagement ring on her finger– very
big/intense, even if he immediately comes up with an explanation for it.
This is one example of where the character viewpoint diverges from the
reader's viewpoint, to great effect. The reader is in Billy's viewpoint,
but is not -confined- to it. The reader still has her own sense of what's
going on, and while Billy might not suspect his girlfriend, she's ready
to. Just give her the clues (the three above) and let her interpret them. BUT ... they
should be things Billy can notice (and narrate) but not understand the
That way you've set up for the "punchline."
Now think about what effect you want the punchline to achieve– what the
emotion is. You might want it to be a comic moment.... you're going to
set that up differently than you would for a poignant tearjerky moment.
That is, how you handle those three "set up moments" will be different.
For example, let's say you want it to be a comic "reveal". A true
punchline. How would you do the hints differently?
Okay, to make it more poignant, you have Billy going off to get her some
cotton candy– that is, do something nice and boyfriendly– before he
catches her on the cellphone. After all, you want us to think that it's
not fair that she dumped him when he is so nice to her, right?
But let's say you want the emotion of the reader to end up in a laugh.
Just change that set up a bit. He's not off getting cotton candy. He's
off at the porta-potty, and that cotton candy (gotten earlier in the
evening) has come back to haunt him, and he spends a bit longer in the
potty than he thought he might (okay, low... but potty humor always
works). And he finished and hurries back to her, worried that she'll be
annoyed because he was gone so long, worried that she'll ask what took so
long and he'll have to explain. And in fact, she's just putting away the
cellphone and doesn't ask anything, and Billy's relieved. That's a set up
for a comic emotional punchline.
See the difference? It's actually the set up, the events before the
emotional moment, that create the emotion. So you want to make sure that
the way you do the events, the set up, sets up for the RIGHT emotion.
Just remember, every single moment you're writing, you are making
choices. You make a choice that a character orders a milkshake instead of
an ice cream cone. You make a choice that the heroine's plane stops in
Chicago and not St. Louis. You are completely in control of these
seemingly irrelevant choices... and some of them don't really need to be
irrelevant. They can be meaningful if they set up an emotional punchline.
So think about the choices you're making as you write a scene, and what
experience you want the reader to have reading that scene, and the
emotion you want them to experience when they get there. Set up that
emotion by making the right choices earlier in the scene. Or go back and
revise it in. These are usually not all that important, except in
building the scene emotion, so it usually doesn't disrupt much to revise
them. And often it's easier to see how the scene should be set up when
you've already written it.
Once choice is what you do with the punchline. It's more than the
girlfriend just saying, "Billy, I think we should see other people."
That's actually still buildup. That's sad. But it's what happens NEXT
(not just what Billy feels!) that will punch home that emotional power.
So what's that? What would make the reader really feel the loss?
The girlfriend's phone ringing then?
Or her walking away and leaving him there with the ferris wheel's upbeat
music in his ear? Or what?
For example, one of my fave shows is Veronica Mars. Veronica is a
detective, but more than that, she's kind of a righteous "good girl". So
of course her boyfriend is a bad boy (Logan), and she's spent two seasons
trying (with some success-- he'll do anything for her) to reform him.
But it's sort of exhausting for both of them, her always having to play
the judge, and him always having to try to be something he's not. So one
day it's coming to a head, and she's just too preoccupied with her
current case and too weary of the drama (he thrives on crisis, but it
kind of distracts her) to deal with him. So he's called her cell phone
and left messages, and she hasn't answered. So then we see Veronica at
the food court of the college, and we hear her phone ring, and see her
out her phone, see his name on the display, and puts the phone back
But then we see that he's standing in the shadows, and that he too has
watched her, and knows that she has chosen not to talk to him. And that
he has seen what he feared most-- that she doesn't care as much as he
does. That she doesn't need him. That he needs her way too much.
So it's not just the moment that causes the emotional event that's
important. The punchline is very likely the next moment-- what happens
That is, in a big turning point moment-- when the plot changes-- you
might end right there on that event--- on the building blowing up, on the
heroine opening the safe and finding out all the money is gone, on the
hero being shot at. Cliffhangers work with plot turning points.
But on the emotional points-- take it a step further. The NEXT thing that
happens is very likely what will cause the greatest
pain/pleasure/emotional release in the reader.
Your choice. What would you do?
Another set up example– imagine that two sisters are arriving at the
funeral of their brother, who was murdered. Very emotional, huh? Well,
think about how they exhibit their own feelings by their actions and
reactions, how that sets up the final moment of under-written emotion.
Let's say one sister (Sue) is heartbroken and determined to find the
murderer. The other sister (Joan) was sick of Ben's troubles and figured
he'd end up dying young and probably murdered too– she is exhibiting
bitterness and boredom, really. Just going through the motions. Ben's
funeral. The sisters are the only mourners there. Now what choices can
show in that existing scene how these two women are dealing differently
with grief? Like do they arrive together or separately? Does either bring
flowers? Do they argue? Does one cry? Which one? When they walk together
away from the grave, what do they say to each other? Example: They arrive
separately. Sue is on time and stands over the coffin staring down at the
inadequately concealed gunshot wound to Ben's temple.
Joan arrives later and says she couldn't get off work again, not after
the last two times when she had to take time off work to bail Billy out
of jail and to go with Sue to sign him into the substance abuse hospital.
Sue is holding a wreath of flowers (what kind of flowers? what would show
her feelings? Scarlet and gold-- vivid angry colors?), but Joan is
empty-handed. She mutters something about Ben not being able to
appreciate flowers now, and besides, they're too expensive for her, since
she's just a secretary, and anyway, she's spent enough money on Ben since
she let him live with her rent-free for several months. Sue is dressed in
black with a red scarf (anger, vengeance), but Joan's come from work in
her usual light-colored summer work clothes. Neither cries. Sue is grim
and tight with anger, and Joan seems subdued but nonchalant. As they walk
away from the grave, Sue says she's going to need Joan's help, and Joan
doesn't understand, and Sue explains she needs a record of all the calls
Ben made when he was staying with her. Joan protests that she doesn't
have time, and besides, that was a year ago, and anyway, they know what
happened-- Ben was a junkie and got killed probably in some drug deal
gone bad, and they should steer clear to stay safe. Sue insists that Joan
help her find the killer, and Joan refuses.
So you have the huge emotion there of Sue demanding her sister join her
in revenge, and then Joan refusing-- with all that this implies. Now
Maybe the final moment is silence– they sit in hostile silence as the
hearse returns them to their cars. Maybe something else-- maybe Sue
drives off angrily, and Joan sits in her car, motionless, until something
happens-- like the grave diggers arrive to lower the coffin into the
grave-- and she leaves?
All those choices– the flowers, the dresses, the things they say– set up
for that final moment where they are, in the moment of grief, isolated
from each other- and what you choose to happen next will wring that last
bit of emotion out of the scene. They all contribute to the emotion and
let the reader experience it.
So how do you make the right choices? I think the most important
component is recognizing that you do in fact HAVE that choice. And then
don't go with the generic. You have the choice. You're not every writer
out there. And this is not every character. So while I wouldn't look for
the quirky, I'd look for the real. Yes, Sue would bring flowers. But she
doesn't have to bring the conventional white lilies you usually bring to
funerals. She can bring flowers that express her emotion.
Notice when you have a choice to make, and then think about the character
and the situation. What choice would she make, given her emotional state
and the way she expresses her emotion? For example, Joan comes from work
dressed in her workclothes, but as Sue would no doubt point out, she
could have packed a black dress and changed at work. Her decision to stay
in the un-mourning says something about how she feels, about how she is
denying that this death affects her emotionally.
Every object, prop, description, action, thought, etc, in the scene is
your choice. Where you start and where you end is your choice. You have
the power! Use it.
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