In drafting your novel, would you leave out dialogue? Would you fail to include action or events? Would you ensure that nothing is described? Would you forego theme, forget mood, ignore time, eschew era, not bother with relationships, or erase any traces of voice?
Of course not.
Why then do so many novelists fail to write about the most fundamental, forward and obvious element of our human experience, emotions?
Now hold on, you may be thinking. My manuscript is chock full of feelings. It’s a tsunami of sensitivity, an earthquake of empathy, doused with desire, replete with responses. In fact, my manuscript causes my heart to ache so acutely that sometimes I must set it down and weep.
Uh-huh. That’s you. As for me, manuscripts too often stir in me little feeling. That’s not because I’m jaded. You aren’t either but when was the last time a novel truly took you for a ride on an emotional roller coaster? And how often do novels genuinely have that effect on you? I’m betting not often. There’s a big difference between what an author feels while writing and what readers feel while reading.
Why is that? Do we change when we become readers? It wouldn’t seem so. After all we are empathetic creatures. We mirror others stances and facial expressions. We can pick up others’ moods even from texts on a phone. We are full of sympathy. We may even collectively be swept up in what psychologists call emotional contagion, which is the mood of a crowd. We even feel our era’s zeitgeist.
Reading fiction is not like living life, though. When we talk with friends in person, for instance, we pick up their cues. Our postures mimic theirs. Our facial expressions reflect theirs. We begin to feel what they feel. In fiction we don’t get those cues, not in the same way, not even if they’re written in.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus is not only a comprehensive survey to character emotions but suggests physical signals to convey each feeling. Adoration, for example, can be shown by releasing an appreciative sigh or laying a hand over the heart. Great. That looks like adoration, sure enough, but if reading such signals do we readers actually feel adoration? Not really. Because we recognize a feeling doesn’t mean that we’re feeling it.
The failure of fiction to excite much feeling in readers happens because of several misconceptions. They are: 1) that what characters feel is what readers will feel, 2) that incidental action is charged with symbolism and major plot changes have earthquake emotional force, 3) that writing about emotions will rob the reader of those feelings (better is evoking reader emotions through showing), and 4) that dwelling on emotions slows narrative pace.
Here’s a truth: We do not feel what characters feel. We feel what we feel. That’s so in life and it’s so in reading fiction. Hearing or reading about an experience can stir us, certainly, but when it does it mostly stirs comparison to our own experience. When a friend relates something that happened and how it felt to them we respond, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean. That’s just like the time when I…” [Read more…]