Friday, July 24, 2020

Emotions: Bringing Them to the Page through Gestures, Movement, Facial Expressions, and More

A client in California emailed me a few weeks ago about film she watched that helped her write emotions more vividly into her memoir.

"As you know all too well," she said, "I don't write emotion--I just can't get the hang of it. Yesterday I had the best lesson I could imagine when I watched the 2008 animated movie Wall-E. In the first half of the movie only two words are spoken--the names of the two little robots who fall in love and have adventures. Yet the story is highly emotional.

"Eve, the girl robot expresses delight with squinted eyes and giggles, suspicion with staring eyes and whipping rapidly this way and that, love with downcast eyes and a little moan. Wall-E, the boy robot, cocks his head and raises one eye (raised eyebrow-like), touches his hands together over his heart to show love, when he is afraid, he digs a whole, then peeks over the edge with terrified eyes and whole body trembling. And so much more.

"The story is a good hyperbolic statement on what we have become in this time. The movie is brilliant and a terrific lesson on writing!"

I appreciated this tip (and it'll go on my Netflix watchlist), because it is hard to write emotions. It's not that we don't feel them. We just have trouble getting them onto the page in a way that translates for a reader.

Another student referred me many years ago to The Emotion Thesaurus, now a series of books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Between these two authors there are now at least fifteen volumes, ranging from writing rural or urban emotions to emotional wound. I only own the original and I love it--like any thesaurus, it gives you options when you're stuck for a word or a way to describe feelings.

I especially refer to it when I begin to repeat myself! Anyone experience that?

Back to Wall-E and my client's experience: the words to describe feelings are just a small part of transmitting them on the page. We humans communicate a tremendous amount without words--via facial expressions, gestures, movement, body language. If we were watching a movie or stage play, we'd see these. On the written page, we need to consider them and add them in.

A tip: When writers begin to access these non-word ways to communicate a character's emotions, it's such fun and freeing that they can go overboard. Readers can absorb one or maybe two in a sentence or paragraph.

You can say "Elise shrugged, gave a half smile, and rubbed her nose, then looked down at her feet" once in a while. But if you use multiple shown emotions too many times, the writing becomes a three-ring circus that's hard to follow. Restraint is also fun.

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