Monday, June 29, 2009

Emotional Punch in Your Writing--Why Setting and Show-Don't-Tell Deliver Emotion

A memoirist in my writing workshop was refining a passage in her story about the effect of her father's early death on the family. She wanted this passage to be especially impactful for the reader--convey the emotion of this difficult day.
After her father dies, she is in the kitchen with her aunt, watching breakfast cleanup and trying to absorb the grief that's descended on everything. "It's a really important moment in my story," the writer pointed out to us, "so why do I feel like I'm writing it from another room?"

Since the passage wasn't delivering the emotional punch she wanted, we started analyzing her description of her aunt that morning. "Well, her hair was messy, her clothes didn't match, and she picked at her fingernails while we ate breakfast," the writer said.

Our class agreed these were good details to describe the upsetting moment, and they were specific. But we were still not getting the impact of grief. It wasn't a "felt" emotion, only a thought. The writer wasn't yet putting us in the container of the story.

"Is it because you're telling us about her," one student asked, "and you need to show us?"

For a Reader, Emotion Comes from Demonstration, Not Description
Showing and telling are familiar terms to many writers. But what do they exactly mean? The writer in my class selected a key emotional moment to demonstrate the family falling apart. She felt the bewildered grief because she had been there, watching. But we didn't, as readers.
That meant that she hadn't yet succeeded in demonstrating the emotion. She'd only described it.

I asked this memoirist to close her eyes and put herself back into that scene, if she could. What did she notice, what small details came forward now? "Watch your aunt move around the room," I suggested. "Is she cleaning up from breakfast? What do you notice--smells? sounds? anything odd that stands out?"

Setting Details--Small but Essential Transmitters of Emotion
The writer jotted down four things:

A rotten smell came from the garbage can.
Her aunt's lilac sweater is buttoned funny, and she was usually the fashion example in the family.
Her aunt's hands shook--they were so unsteady she dropped a glass in the sink.
She didn't clean up the broken pieces.

The writer looked up from her page. There were tears in her eyes from that final image of the broken pieces of glass in the sink.
I asked her why.
She said the glass pieces remained in the sink all morning--and sun from the window made them sparkle enough to catch the attention of anyone coming into the room. But nobody did anything. It was a touchstone for her from the emotion of the day, one she'd forgotten until now. It demonstrated the disorientation the family felt.

Bingo. She got it. She rewrote the scene and it sang.
We all felt the emotion now.

This bit of "shown" story--via a setting detail--transmitted (demonstrated) the emotion of grief and loss directly into the hearts and minds of her readers. She'd been unsuccessful with description, but demonstration succeeded.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Read a passage of your writing where you want to convey emotion, where you want a punch. Now close your eyes and put yourself in the scene (if writing fiction, imagine your character in the scene). What setting details, tiny ones especially, do you notice? What smells or sounds?

Make a list, as the writer above did. Add one to your passage. See if it helps! Let me know.