It was a dark and stormy night…
So let’s get down to the brass tacks, the things that make a good writer a great writer—invoking emotion using the printed word, for example. Using images, it is so much easier since your brain can take visual information and then fill a story in for it, creating an emotional connection without a word being said. Look at those Humane Society commercials; they have become so heartrending in my mind that just hearing Sarah McLaughlin makes me feel both sad and guilty.
So what the people who made the commercials are doing with images of poor animals and a song is what we are trying to do with our words. If you’ve tried this before, you know how hard it is. If you haven’t, well, this should show you how hard it can be.
The first thing we need to understand is that the reader is actually doing the heavy lifting in emotional scenes. Our written words are static, already printed and on their way, so there is no way to read the audience and change the tone or verbiage to have more impact; therefore, we need to try to invoke primal emotions that connect to what we are trying to show in the story. So let’s try just that, invoking emotion.
Let’s pick an almost iconic sad scene from a movie and see if we can replicate it with words.
Since I am a big ol’ gay man, I am going to use James Cameron’s version of Titanic, specifically the scene where the elderly couple is embracing on the bed as the ship goes down. I picked this for two reasons: one, because it is freaking heartbreaking, but more importantly because the characters are unknown to us. They have no dialogue or backstory that we need to know. All we have is an image in a brief moment, and the image is devastating.
Which is, of course, why James Cameron was used it in the movie. In those maybe five seconds our minds write the story of the couple and the situation they are in, almost before we can acknowledge what we are seeing. Our brains are that fast in creating. However, that processing speed is usually limited to visual cues; usually, but not always. Here is an image of the scene just in case you’ve lived under a rock or something and don’t know what I am talking about.
Okay, got it? Horrible moment. And so I don’t have to explain this later, yes, these people are unidentified in the movie. Honestly, their story is basically untold. If you just sat down and watched the movie, you wouldn’t know who they were. To be frank, you don’t need to. They are a couple in love who are about to die. So please, don’t fact check me in the comments because it isn’t important to our discussion.
As Joe Friday would have said, just the facts.
As the ship sank, the couple embraced on the bed.
Wow, leaves a lot to the imagination right? I mean that is what’s happening but as described by a court reporter, well, not that bad because the reporter would have said the couple held each other instead of embraced. Which is our first lesson.
This sounds silly but it needs to be said out loud at least once. As writers we need to be aware of what words we are using. Yeah I know, “duh”, but honestly some of us space out paying attention to vocabulary.
Did you see what I just did? I used a word choice to make using the wrong word sound like a silly memory slip. I used “space out”. If I had said, “Yeah, I know, but seriously, it is an asinine mistake to make and it happens a lot,” all of a sudden my little hint has become a full on attack. With emotion it is vital that the correct words are used to maximize your effect on the reader.
What does that mean? Thanks for asking.
The human brain has an average read and comprehension speed of 250 to 300 words per minute. Now, I know some readers that blow that number out of the water something fierce, but at the end of the day we all have a buffer we use to read, and there are only so many words we will absorb for any particular point before giving up. It’s why run on sentences bug the hell out of us—because it’s a lot like listening to someone just go on and on about something and not be able to nod and go. “Yeah, I got it, move on.”
My earlier stories got this complaint a lot from readers, and they were right; I was writing to write and it ended up bugging some people. When readers are bugged, they skim and when they skim, my friend, you have lost. It is the equivalent of picking a needle up off a record and putting it down farther in: the song lost you and you’re just waiting for it to be over. Do this a couple of times, a lenient reader will try to stick with you; do it enough, and they will DNF you so fast you’ll wonder why your book has no feedback.
Now I am not saying that fewer words are better; I am saying use the words you have to their maximum advantage instead. Do this and you’ll find out that you don’t need so many words, because you are going to hit the important parts and the reader is going to help us out. Let me try this.
We walked out of the mansion proper and into a makeshift lab he had set up in one of the upper rooms. There were a variety of machines lined against the walls; their dials glowed softly in the darkness, making them look eager to be used. Too eager, if I am being honest. The platform in the middle of the room was beneath the gaping skylight built into the ceiling. Four chains connected to the corners made it obvious it was meant to be elevated. Arcs of manufactured lightening danced from pole to pole as the storm outside grew in tempo, but I have to admit I was oblivious to most of this because my eyes hadn’t moved from the first thing I saw when I walked in.
The dead body on the platform.
Okay, we have a pretty standard mad scientist lab here. You saw the Jacob’s Ladders, which are the devices in Frankenstein that had electricity move up and down them. Did you see a sheet over the body? How about the platform; was it wood or metal? Did it have a post in the center of it, or was it being held aloft by the chains? How about the machines? Was there a computer, or did you see the old gray monsters that made up every monster movie in the late 30’s? Better question, was the skylight open? Was rain falling inside yet?
See I could go into greater detail about the lab, but after a couple of paragraphs you know what I am describing. A lab is a lab is a lab. If I’m not writing anything new, why subject you to my rambling?
If I wanted to make an updated version of Frankenstein, I would need to add something like…
In the corner lurked a bank of ancient computers whose guts had been revealed and jury rigged to the larger machines nearer the center of the room. The green LCD screens showed a series of numbers that scrolled endlessly, no doubt vitally important but unreadable by anyone but the doctor.
Past that, we don’t want to dwell here, no matter how clever you think your descriptions are. Unless you have something completely new to say, then remember, the reader has only so many words a minute. Use them carefully.
Words are important. Are we on the same page? Good. Let’s go back to our couple. We need to do a few things quickly and, if we are very, skillful, cleanly. We need to establish where we are with a minimum amount of fuss, and we want to give the reader enough information to care about our characters. Now, I like to use what in film would be called a smash cut, which is just coming into a scene with no prelude, no fade in, no camera crane down, just black to scene. It works for me, but you will have your own desire when it comes to framing a scene, so I am going to show you how I would do this, but in no way is this the best or only way. It’s just the way I know best.
She tried to stifle her cry as the water began to rush into the room.
The sound grew louder and louder as gallons of seawater came rushing into their cabin. She had thought herself ready when they laid down to die but as small droplets of water fell on her face, she felt her heart began to pound in terror.
Which was when he pulled her closer and slowly kissed her cheek.
He didn’t say a word. What was there to say at a time like this? Nothing readies a person for death, nothing save prayer. The water inched higher and she began to sob. “I-I’m so sorry…” She started to bawl as her fear crashed through her resolve.
He whispered in her ear, his voice louder than the water’s din for a second. “Don’t be.”
Don’t be? How could she not? It had been her idea to come on this ridiculous cruise to nowhere. She had been the one to insist on traveling by the very best the world had to offer, and now her pride and arrogance had killed them both. She’d never see her granddaughter play in the garden again, never see her son grow to look even more like his father, too many never agains, and she began to cry. “I killed you,” she choked. The sheets began to soak up water.
His grip was firm as he turned her head back to look at him.
“Do not be sorry,” he said, his voice sounding as strong and as forceful at it had the day they had met. Even now, with seconds left of his life, not an ounce of fear showed on his face as he struggled to bring peace to her one last time. “This is not your fault. You have killed no one and if you are going to insist that you have, then it is your life to take.”
Through the rising terror, she paused, confused.
“Lucy, I was lost before we met. Adrift in the world, with no idea what I wanted or who I was supposed to be. I was a waste of flesh before I met you. Though I may have been seventeen years old when I first laid eyes on you, I didn’t take my first breath until my lips met yours.”
Her eyes began to water, no longer from fear.
“So if you gave me life then it is you who can take it away. Because if you were to die here and leave me behind, I would be dead in every way that counts.”
And she had thought she could love this man as much as she possibly could.
“You didn’t kill me. You saved me.” He leaned in close as the water began to lap at their sides. “And there is nowhere else I’d rather be.”
She closed her eyes and kissed him and felt the world grow dim for a moment.
“Well I’d of course rather us both be somewhere dry.” he said once they had caught their breath.
She barked a short laugh despite herself.
“I love you so much, my dear boy,” she said, putting a hand to his face, seeing the boy she had fallen in love with looking back from his eyes.
The sound of wood breaking around them brought the fear back.
“Close your eyes,” he said hurriedly. The world went black as she complied. She felt him draw her close. “I will see you on the other side,” he promised her.
And she believed him.
Something exploded behind them at the same instant she felt herself overwhelmed by freezing water. There was a brief wave of pain and then nothing as the water engulfed them both.
Okay, so there is one way to do describe the image.
So what exactly about these words invokes an emotion? What makes them more than just a random collection of words? Well one, we are using the woman as our vehicle into the story and since she is filled with honest regret and sadness, reader empathy will help them feel sad as well. We see the man through her eyes. Since we know we are walking into a scene where these people are going to die, his trying to comfort her is him comforting us. The best way to get an emotion across is finding just the right words that will convey the bare bones of it to the reader and then getting out of the way to let them experience it.
When you try to describe an emotional experience and you use too specific a view, you run the risk of losing the reader because they have never actually experienced what you are trying to explain. So you are best to hit on the important points and then let the reader help you along so that they end up making themselves feel something. Like the lab, the reader will color in what you don’t go into detail about, their perceptions are guided by their own experiences. The author treads a fine line between underselling the moment and running the risk of leaving the reader with just the outline of an emotion, and overselling and swamping the reader with too much detail.
Finding scenes like the one we just did from popular movies and novelizing them is a great exercise in trying to convey an emotion in words. Look at the moment on screen and ask yourself, what specifically in the scene is making you sad or happy or smug, and then take that point as one of the ones you need to illuminate in your writing. Peel apart the scene for the emotional undertones you think are causing you to identify with the characters, and then translate them to the page and see if you can keep the emotional impact intact.
It isn’t easy and I am in no way saying I am an expert at it. However, this method is the easiest and fastest tool you can use to pinpoint hard emotion in short stories, because you are using a minimum number of words to cover the maximum amount of story. Of course, your style may vary, but I hope this can help you train yourself to build sentences and paragraphs that help the story draw people in.
Post Scriptum: The elderly couple are Levi and Ida Strauss. He was one of the partners who opened Macy’s.