Monday, December 1, 2014


You’ve bled on the page, but where does handwringing end and deep emotion begin?

Emotions flow from author to reader through shared experience. As writers, it’s our job to get emotions expressed vividly so the reader will immediately feel what the character felt during the plot action.

Anger, outrage, frustration and impatience are not the only emotions, but they are the easiest to express in writing. Tight fists, gnarled faces, pacing, drumming fingers, sighing, watching one’s watch, and slamming around will convey anger, and impatience.

But what about softer more subtle emotions such as warmth, empathy, caring, love, shared truth, loyalty and respect? The emotions we find hardest to express on the page are those we find troublesome in our own lives. Writing about them can be therapeutic, but should not be foisted on the public in their raw forms. Couch the emotions in clear word choices and body language.

Gentle more quiet emotions can be shown with a touch on the arm or a warm smile. Pace with selective punctuation and paragraphing, dashes and “occasional” ellipses are the writer’s friend. Emotion is folded into the reader’s subconscious by hooking their life experiences with descriptions and examples. Not everyone cries reading a Nora Robert’s book, just almost everybone.

Years ago, a made-for-TV-movie, Duel, evoked all the emotion an audience could ask for. The plot was taken from a short story by Richard Matheson, adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg, and starred Dennis Weaver. This was suspenseful emotion at its best. Weaver’s character, a salesman in his new red 1971 Plymouth Valiant is stalked and threatened by an unseen driver in a 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. For an hour and a half, the audience went through hell imagining itself in Weaver’s position.

What to do next? Will he run out of gas? Can he outmaneuver the truck? Get behind it? Get away from it? Lead it to its demise? Breathless watchers panted, prayed and hurt for this guy. The stalking truck and the innocent man were the entire plot; yet we sat on the edges of our sofas, praying and trying to outwit the truck driver right along with our hero.

Weaver’s body language is easy to exploit in the telling of this emotional story: the driver hunched over, grasping the wheel, the car overheats, and he turns on the heater to save what water is left in the radiator. He turns off the radio to save battery life; all the while the sound of the truck intensifies. Thus proving the emotion we must provide is engaging readers in the plight of our at-risk character.

Fewer words and stark image projections take skill. Once you’ve written she cried or he hated or he/she was disappointed, you can return to the page to edit and show the action that arouses these feelings. A blunt stop might work better than a long denouement. Never forget less is more.

Julie can be reached at: Mondays, Dec 1 and 29
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Twitter: @JulieEPainter


Liz Fountain said...

Duel is one of my favorite films of all time, and I just rewatched it recently, along with an interview with Spielberg. He worked very meticulously to get the "less is more" emotional power of that film, in a very short time (6 days, I think).

Great example!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Thanks, Liz. Duel just sprung to mind when I started writing this blog.