Sunday, 24 October 2010

I can’t Describe Emotions in my Novels

The developing writer may struggle to find the right words to describe feelings within narrative, resorting to “Her heart stopped in terror,” to describe fear, or “He felt a bolt through the heart,” to describe love. Such clichés are likely to leave the reader unmoved. How can the novelist describe feelings in novels?

Example of Active Writing

Have a listen to a short excerpt taken from one of my audio books, Nora. The main character, Nancy has broken into the home of playboy millionaire, Vince after suffering a horrific car crash. Here, she suffers a flashback which is conveyed through physical sensations: her breaths, her vision, her hearing and a panicking inner voice. Generalizations and cliches are avoided, but specific words that propels the reader into Nora's world. Now to break things down.

Writing Emotions for Novels

Before making changes to prose that fails to incite emotions, the following culprit practices need to be identified.
  • Using abstract words and phraseology to describe sensations, such as guilt, nostalgia, envy or yearning. Such words leave no picture in the mind and are difficult to pin down.
  • In similar fashion, using the emotion label to tell the reader how to feel instead of showing. Furthermore, the emotion label means different things to different people. Guilt, for example, could describe the feelings a child has when caught stealing sweets or how the same child might feel when a neglected parent dies. The two are very different emotions, and yet are given the same label.
  • Overuse of adjectives and adverbs to modify emotion words such as coldly, lovingly, warmly and kindly. Other words to avoid are terrible, lovely, fabulous, heartfelt, and adoration. Such words merely pad out the narrative and dilute the sensation the writer is trying to describe, resulting in weak prose that leaves little impression on the reader’s mind.
Words to Describe Emotions

Describing Emotions
A great exercise for writers is to describe an emotion without actually saying what the emotion is. Think about the five senses. Pin down how the emotion affects the senses accurately, so that it cannot be subjective. Words or phrases to describe fear might be:
  • An iron taste in the mouth.
  • Pins and needles in the hands.
  • Feeling as though walking on stilts.
How to Describe Sensations

Avoid clichés and abstract concepts. Rather than say, “She felt as sick as a dog,” try expressing nausea in a unique way. Juxtaposing contrasting words or using a unique slant will make the sentence stand out or create vivid imagery. A better alternative might be “Her gut lurched like an old steam train.”

Emotion Words for Novels

Effective descriptions of feelings in novels can be achieved by
  • Cutting. Rid of clichés, emotion labels, abstract nouns and concepts and profuse adjectives and adverbs.
  • Describe the emotions without using the emotion label.
  • Use the five senses to describe how the emotion impacts upon the body to prevent subjectivity and to pin the emotion down.
  • Be different. Use words seldom used or add unusual comparisons to create vivid imagery.
External Links on Improving Writing Style

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