Saturday, September 16, 2006

Emotional Flat-lines


Rather than the action scenes that some claim, I am beginning to think that emotional effects are actually the hardest for writers to do well.
My eyes used to glaze over lines like "his heart pounded in his ears, her breath caught in her throat..." to get to the next part.
You know the list - the conventional lines enunciating a character's response to feelings of horror, terror, grief, surprise, panic, etc.
Lately, these standard and tired recitals make my back molars meet like a mill and cause a twitch in my throwing arm.
Because what I'm reading are double cliches.
One of the most memorable descriptions I have read of a character reacting to emotional shock was delivered in a thriller: The secret agent hero had just been told his brother was dead. As he leaves the room, another character says to the news-giver, "Everything all right , sir? I thought for a minute there he was going to hit you."
For me, at least, that sotto voce dialogue was enough to sketch both the hero's face and the strength of his inner feelings.
Too many writers, when it comes to emotions, fall back on the same-old, same-old Pavlovian utilities.
Individuals do not always react to devastating emotions by following a standard formula. And you want your characters - and your writing - to be individual, unique, do you not?
Use your eyes. Use your memory. Get out of St-Tropez.

24 comments:

Kirsten said...

Now there's a challenge!

We're all trapped in a well-known & even narrow range of biological reactions to events. We're walking cliches. :-) In the real world, it hardly matters. If my cheeks flush at the attentions of a certain someone, what do I care that billions of other individuals react in exactly the same way? But in a novel's world the writer has to lead the reader into a subjective experience, and cliche just won't do the trick . . .

Marie said...

Good point, Bernita.

Bernita said...

That's true, Kirsten, we have been conditioned to a degree to emote in certain, expected ways and fiction tends to reinforce those responses.
I think the writer's challenge is to go beyond the broad stereotypes, find and describe the individual differences.

Thank you, Marie. Something to think about.
~hot-footing all over her own WIP to rend any paragraphs that follow these tired patterns~
.

Ric said...

"Moi?", he said, blushing. "I would never do such a thing", covering his posterior to prevent snarky bites.

Bernita said...

Sometimes a voice can lift the descriptions out of platitude land, Ric dear.
I'm not after your wee behind - too busy covering my own.

MissWrite said...

Tami's reaction to the news of writer's overusing cliche's might have, at other times invoke horror. Now, though, she narrowed her tired, blue eyes and shot lazers at Bernita for such a suggestion.

MissWrite said...

oops, they really are tired (up til 3, no excuses, lol) LASERS...not LAZERS. Not exactly sure what 'lazers' are, but hey, that might be something uncomfortable too.

Bernita said...

"Bernita tossed her head. Sweeping a vibrant lock of rich red-gold hair out of her puzzled blue eyes with one pale hand, she tilted her head sideways like an inquisitive bird, placed the other hand delicately at her slender throat and asked questioningly,"What have I done?"

Oh crap, wrong set of cliches. Um...
"She swallowed.Her throat constricted at the thought"?

Bernita said...

And Tami, you are working too hard, dear one.

Savannah Jordan said...

Never been to St. Tropez, but I have been to France :P

Your post this morning gives me pause. I thought, "Dammit! I've done that..."

Now, I'm going to have to review my writings. I hate to be normal! I'm tempted to drive my claws into the keyboard and drag it back into my cave...

Bernita said...

From what I've seen, Savannah, you usually manage to avoide those tropes. One of the reasons I like your stuff.

kmfrontain said...

I like to try and find a new way to say things like "He blushed", and I do combine conversation, usually, to show the reaction.

A rosy colour began to cloud the paleness of Shinju’s cheeks. His sour expression grew a border of mirth, a bit of curl at the corners of the lips, a crinkling near the eyes.

Something like that. No conversation there, but that's how I like to do it when it's not in the way of something more important to say. But really, if I need to focus on something else, I'll just say he blushed.

December Quinn said...

The emotional stuff is definitely the hardest. Action is easy--for me, anyway--but emotion isn't.

And it is really hard to come up with new ways to say things. One reason, I think, why there are so many books filled with the most insane similes you'd ever want to see.

Bernita said...

Aye, Karen, that's different. Sometimes the simple statement, without amendment, is enough.

I wonder, December, if some writers do it by rote, like a bridge passage, and never really see what they are writing.

cyn said...

*shakes fist at bernita*

haha! you are so right.
we are being lazy as writers
when we fall into the cliche
trap. it's so easy at times,
tho. ack! thank you for
reminding me.

MissWrite said...

Cyn, that's a PERFECT example of how to do it! Simple, concise, and packed full of expression. Love it.

EA Monroe said...

Hi Bernita. I crawled out from under the "rubble" long enough to say, I guess it always comes back to "show." I'm still foraging through the brush weedwhacking he/she felt!
*smacks forehead*

Gabriele C. said...

I think the bathetic ones are worst, like Bernita's example of blood pounding in ears. Blushing is not such a theatralic act, in comparison. But those emotional thingies are tricky.

Veranius dropped his dagger and held his hands palms up. "I killed that man in self defense." He assumed his command voice, every syllable clear as polished steel, "I will surrender but I demand that it is taken notice of the man's metal gloves, and the sling he must carry somewhere on his body."

The lictor nodded stiffly. "Everything will be taken care of as customary in such cases."

A
vaporeda came to a banging halt behind Veranius. Two lictors jumped out with axes in their hands and stood on his sides.

"This man is arrested for murder," the third lictor said.

"Killing in self defense," Veranius replied, the steel in his voice a blade. A lictor wasn't supposed to judge.


Can you tell Veranius is pissed, lol?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

You mean that I'm supposed to WORK at this writing thing...that I'm supposed to use brainpower to think up lines...ugh! Another job...LOL!

Good post girlfriend!

Bernita said...

"Bernita examined her fingernails, first one hand and then the other. She looked up with a smile.'Want to make something of it, young lady?'"

Partly, EA, problem is some have the habit of turning the "show into a cliche.

I like it, Gabriele. No waste. Good simile/metaphor. Of course I'm fond of sharp pointy things...

Bonnie love, I know you work as hard as anyone out there to polish your stuff.

IM Cupnjava said...

You make an interesting point. If we get too avant-garde do we run the risk of the reader not being able to relate? I suppose this is like another clich̩: all things in moderation. Perhaps, it's a matter of balance Рfinding the line between too alien and too tried.

Bernita said...

Don't think the language has been all used up, IM, so that we need to insert remarkable, disassociative similes, if that's what you mean by avante guard.

anna said...

"his heart pounded in his ears, her breath caught in her throat..."

I must remember these:
excellent! says she biting her lip

IM Cupnjava said...

You have a point, Bernita. As long as the reader can still relate, it's all good.