Monday Motivation: Putting your finger on the very precise emotion
I’ve sometimes stressed how important it is, in creating the world of story, to use accurate details. Accuracy is really important because it lends credibility even to situations that are, on the face of things, unbelievable.
At one end of the spectrum, writers, both of fiction and non-fiction, face the challenge of recreating in their reader’s mind’s eye, a complex physical action or interaction.
It’s worth spending time on scenes in which the particularities of a physical act are important. A physical fight… making love… climbing the side of a building… assembling an Improvised Explosive Device or a treehouse – all demand careful attention to getting the details accurate.
But there’s another area of human endeavor that is even trickier…
What I’ve been thinking about these last few days is the accurate depiction and analysis of emotional and, more generally, mental states.
You could call a character “happy” or “sad” – but even the least perceptive of us would recognize that as an inadequate, one-dimensional description of what, from the inside, feels like a cauldron of roiling emotion.
A writer might try to dig a little deeper. Here’s a example of a writer striving to pinpoint the feelings of a character caught in the coils of betrayal:
“She was rendered mute by her sense of disappointment that the man who’d professed his love for her had so easily allowed himself to accept the embraces of another…”
We might write that and congratulate ourselves on having accurately identified the nature of the character’s feelings.
But then the writer – let’s be frank and honest here: me – reads in Javier Marias’s Berta Isla, this analysis of the feelings inspired in his protagonist by her husband’s confession that he harbours a deep and damaging secret:
“He swore in vain in order to save the situation (so he must have felt cornered) and I believed him equally in vain so that my fear remained just that, diffuse, transitory and latent, rather than piercing and overwhelming.”
Think about the extraordinary specificity of that contrast: her fear remained “diffuse, transitory and latent” rather than “piercing and overwhelming”.
Sensing the contrast is, in itself, an act of the most amazing insight. Finding the words to put to it is even more remarkable.
The world of human emotions is, need I say, infinitely complex. You can’t get away with “sad” or “happy”. You owe your characters more than that.
Here’s another passage from Marias, in which he puts his finger on what seems to me to be a previously unremarked feature of human behavior:
“Contrary to all predictions and to your own initial feelings, you can find yourself being captivated by a person who didn’t attract you at all to begin with. Just as when we dream of having sex with someone unimaginable, the next time we meet, we can’t help looking at them with a vague, reticent, even guilty lasciviousness, as if we’d been infected with a virus while we were innocently sleeping; however much we might reject that person when awake, in our consciousness they have taken on a dimension they previously lacked and which, with out waking senses, they were doomed never to have.”
My challenge (as much me myself as to you) is to write something in which we identify an impulse even half as specific, and accurate, as that “vague, reticent, even guilty lasciviousness” that Marias talks of.
Happy (and accurate) writing,
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: The pleasure of taking things more slowly‘