For Crying Out Loud: More on Writing Emotion by Lizzie Hermanson

So you’re curled up with a box of chocolates, enjoying your latest romance novel. You’re right there with the character, immersed in the action. Then a lone tear rolls down her cheek, and suddenly, you’re not feeling it anymore; for a micro second, you’re taken out of the story and something jars.

Sound familiar?

I always assumed this reaction had more to do with a lack of sentimentality on my part. But as I struggle to portray emotion in my own romance novel, I came across two articles written by author and writing teacher, Alicia Rasley: Emotion Without Sentiment, and Emotion is Physical.

Alicia explains that “when the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to.” Because “if all the emotion is spelled out in the scene, there is nothing left for the reader to do.”

Humans have an inbuilt defense mechanism to distance themselves from high emotion.To this end, actors are taught that fighting tears will pull an audience in more than letting them fall. Jami Gold in her article Tips for Writing Heavy Emotional Scenes tells us  ”a cornered reader will purposely try not to feel what we are sharing with them.”

One option to solve this problem, is to pull back and use a less deep point of view. Jami uses the example of Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows). When Harry enters the forest with his ghostly parents and friends to turn himself over to Voldemort…

“She (J K Rowling) kept this chapter very distant, almost numb, with lines like, “Harry understood without having to think.” That is, she didn’t state what Harry’s thoughts about this journey were. This restraint in stating the obvious gives us, as readers, the “privacy” to experience our emotions our own way.”

Another option is the use of emotional imagery, or props such as a childhood toy, or wedding ring. Alicia Rasley provides this example:

“The hero’s house burned down, taking with all the mementos he has of his beloved and recently departed dad. Use the setting– the rubble, the smoke, the ashes– describing it through his viewpoint… but a bit dispassionately.  Let him be in a bit of shock, emotions under tight control because he’s afraid of how he might fall apart if he doesn’t hang on.”

Then, buried in the ashes, the hero finds his father’s pipe.

“Brad brought the pipe to his nose and inhaled.  Even within the overpowering stench of the dying fire, he could sense Dad with him, in the sweet rich smell of ancient tobacco.  He closed his eyes and waited for the memory to pass.  Then he jammed the pipe into his pocket and went back to searching through the ashes of his life.”

In this way, Alicia concludes,  the emotion is conveyed by action, rather than describing the actual emotion.

But the problem is, I’m writing romance. When a girl has her heart broken, there is only so much holding back the tears she can do. At some point there are going to be waterworks.

So what to do? For inspiration, I turned to the book I’m currently reading, In Your Dreams, by one of my favourite authors, Kristan Higgins. Below, the heroine believes her relationship with the hero has failed. She is being comforted by her sister, who offers her a box of tissues…

” ‘…in case you feel like crying.’

‘Oh, I’m not the type,’ Emmaline said, then promptly burst into tears. Yuck. She hated crying. It was so hot, and embarrassing and uncontrollable…”

Alicia Rasley maintains that the reader will not always experience the same emotion as the character. Here, we do not necessary feel Emmaline’s anguish, because this is contemporary romance, and we know there will be a happy ending. But neither is there too much melodrama, forcing the reader want to shy away from the emotion.

But, in Kristan Higgin’s novel, it’s Emmaline’s love interest who has the greater inner turmoil. Ex marine, Jack Holland, saves four teenagers from a car after it plunges into a frozen lake. One of the boys, Josh, doesn’t regains consciousness and slips into a coma. In this extract, Josh’s mother invites Jack to say goodbye, before they switch off the life support machine.

“And then Jack bent his head and covered his mouth with one hand so Josh’s mother wouldn’t hear him crying. But hot tears spilled out of his eyes, and even though it had been twenty years since Jack had cried, he couldn’t now seem to stop. The best he could do was try to keep quiet, even as his shoulders shook.  This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.”

I confess, this brought a lump to my throat, which got me wondering what it was about this scene that tapped into my emotions? The answer, I believe, lies in the set up. Alicia Rasley points out that emotion needs to be set up in the same way as a joke, but unlike a joke, the writer should take their time in getting to the punchline.

Jack’s emotional conflict has been setup from the very first page where we see him risking his life to save the teenagers. Then there is his backstory. Jack’s mother died in a car accident, and his much younger sister was left alone in the car for several hours before she was rescued. Although he knows it’s irrational, he’s always felt guilty for not being there. He has a white knight complex, the need to save people. When his chance to help someone arrives, Josh ends up in a coma and Jack feels like he has failed again.

The reader has also witnessed Jack praying for Josh to survive. His guilt is further compounded by Josh’s parents who, in their grief, initially blame Jack for not pulling their son out of the water first. Throughout the novel, the reader, along with the character, has hoped for the boy’s recovery. And hope, Alicia reminds us, is one of the most powerful of all emotions, and is guaranteed to raise the stakes. So at the moment of Jack’s emotional release, we experience the loss with him.

In writing the Black Moment in my current WIP, these are my attempts at incorporating some of the above.

1-props – or in this case, the lack of one. The heroine has taken off her wedding ring after her husband leaves: “Blood roared in her ears and everything faded from view until all she could see was the ring finger of her left hand, empty and naked.”

2- Show the heroine fighting the tears: ”Her eyes stung with unshed tears and it was getting harder to hold them back.”

3 – Pulling back. When the tears finally fall, I went for a tell. “Amelia dropped back down into the chair, buried her head on the table and cried.”

In the first example, I like the placement of the word ‘naked’. It’s a power word, which means the sentence is backloaded and carries an emotional hit. These writing techniques are advocated by Margie Lawson in Empowering Character Emotions (as discussed in my previous post).

However, in hindsight, I wonder if the sentence as a whole is too melodramatic, and might be stronger if stripped back to just show the heroine staring at her empty finger? But such is the life of the aspiring author; if at first you don’t succeed, try, not cry, and try again.

How do you make your characters cry?

12 thoughts on “For Crying Out Loud: More on Writing Emotion by Lizzie Hermanson

  1. Great post! My characters rarely cry outright, they are more likely to have a constricted throat, or need to swallow before they can speak, blink away unwanted tears, etc. When they do cry, like Abigail in Lord Fenton’s Revenge, I don’t dwell on the actual crying jag but on the embarrassing redness of the eyes once they pull themselves together, the hiding in the room, circular and despairing thoughts, dryness of the mouth, and if appropriate a headache for good measure.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Really nice blog, Lizzie. It’s thought provoking–excellent.

    To answer your question, I get my characters to cry in a variety of ways, BUT I whole-heartedly agree that the effectiveness of the emotion on the reader is directly related to the set-up. Yes, just like telling a joke.

    And perhaps I’ll use my next blog to piggy-back on the subject.

    Really nice topic.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! We always say more! more! I want to know the character’s emotions. But sometimes there’s too much detail…or it’s written ineffectively. I like this idea better of orchestrating the experience for readers rather than telling them what to feel. And I LOVE Kristan Higgins. Thanks for writing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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