Writing about emotion, or rather, communicating the emotion that characters feel, is one of the most important and difficult things a writer has to do. Emotions are central to good stories, yet nothing puts off readers more quickly than badly described emotions. To help focus the mind when writing about emotion, I think a good rule to bear in mind is that at its heart all writing starts with drama; the essence of any piece of creative writing is communicating by describing the actions that someone does and the words they speak.* Unlike playwrights, writers of prose and poetry have an additional tool, which is being able to describe the inner world of a character. But with great power, comes great responsibility, as the saying goes.
JK Rowling does many things brilliantly (particular things like world-building), but there are some good examples of writing emotion badly in her Harry Potter novels. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Dumbledore. Just after Hogwart’s headmaster dies, the narrator explains that ‘terror tore at Harry’s heart…’, then after the death eaters escape and Harry finds out Hagrid isn’t dead, we’re told that ‘with a cry of thankfulness, Harry sank to his knees; he was shaking in every limb, his body ached all over and his breath came in painful stabs.’ Then when Dumbledore is mentioned,‘Harry felt a searing pain in his stomach at the sound of the name. In the silence and the stillness, horror rose inside him.’
This is ineffective writing because of three things. Firstly, the emotions themselves are one-dimensional; bad things have happened, Harry not happy. In reality, emotional reactions are more complicated than that. Secondly, the way the emotions are described is cliched, both in the metaphors that are used and in the attempt to turn emotion into physical sensation. Phrases like ‘shaking in every limb’, ‘breath came in painful stabs’, ‘searing pain in his stomach’, ‘horror rose inside him’ are the kind of thing the education system is misguidedly teaching junior school children when they tell them to ‘uplevel’ their writing.
Finally, the writing is ineffective because of the intention behind it. The idea, I think, is that this is a dramatic part of the story that affects Harry deeply (losing his father-figure), and the author wants to tell us that (ie signpost it), and also wants us to feel it (ie feel sympathy with Harry so we are more invested in the story). While understandable, both those intentions are the death knell of writing about emotion effectively.
Instead of trying to signpost emotion or make us feel sympathy, the writer should aim to communicate the special quality of what the character is feeling at that particular moment. This starts by allowing the complexity of emotions space within the narrative. In John Flanagan’s fantasy novel The Siege of Macindaw (part of his Ranger’s Apprentice series) the character Horace, a knight, saves his friend Will, a ranger, from being killed. Thinking Will is bleeding, Horace then checks Will for wounds.
[Will] tried to slap Horace’s searching hands away but didn’t succeed.
‘Where did he get you?’ Horace asked frantically. He knew he had to find the source of that blood and staunch the flow. Wounds to the stomach and torso were all too often fatal, he knew, and he felt panic rising in him as he continued to search.
‘Leave it!’ Will shouted angrily, stepping back from him. ‘It’s MacHaddish’s blood, not mine!’
Horace looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment.
‘Not yours?’ he said.
‘No. Look at his hand where the arrow hit him! He was pouring blood all over me as we fought. I’m fine.’
And illogically, right on the heels of a sudden rush of relief, Horace felt his anger welling up.
‘His blood? Why didn’t you say so? I was frantic here, thinking you were bleeding like a stuck pig!’
As the narrator tells us a little later, the anger is a reaction to the fear and shock of the near fatal encounter (as a novel for early teenagers some subtle telling feels appropriate), and in this way the reader gets a much better sense of what it would be like to have gone through that experience than if the characters had just felt relief. The general principle is that the more intense the emotion, the more dispassionate the writer needs to be in describing it. C.S. Lewis was a master of communicating emotion. One example is the passage of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Susan and Lucy have seen Aslan killed by the witch.
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again. At any rate that was how it felt to these two. Hours and hours seemed to go by in this dead calm, and they hardly noticed that they were getting colder and colder.
This is a description of despair, but there is no ‘breath coming in painful stabs’ or ‘searing pain in the stomach’, neither of which actually happens when people despair. There are factual statements (the girls have been up all night crying) an indication of the impact of what such a momentous event had on them psychologically (that they felt that it had stopped time) and of the genuine sensation or lack of sensation they felt (that they were getting cold but didn’t notice).
What Lewis is doing is bringing out the meaning of what is happening, which is communicating the emotion much more effectively than trying to make the reader feel it. Antonia Barber uses a similar technique in The Mousehole Cat. Tom, the fisherman, is explaining to his cat Mowzer his decision to go fishing despite the terrible storm that is still raging.
‘Mowzer, my handsome,’ he said, for he was a courteous and well-spoken man, ‘Mowzer, my handsome, it will soon be Christmas, and no man can stand by at Christmas and see the children starve.
‘Someone must go fishing come what may, and I think it must be me. It cannot be the young men, for they have wives and children and mothers to weep for them if they do not return. But my wife and parents are dead long since and my children are grown and gone.’
Mowzer purred to tell him that she understood, for it was the same with her.
‘I shall go out tomorrow, Mowzer, my handsome,’ said the old man, ‘and I shall not come back without a catch.’
Embarrassingly, I have to admit that I was never able to read this passage to my kids without welling up. Tom is not just informing Mowzer what he is going to do, he is persuading himself that he needs to do it and committing himself to actually doing it. Barbar communicates the bravery (and the fear underlying the bravery) by setting out Tom’s thought process, which in measured, rational terms is that he judges himself to be less valuable because he is less needed emotionally and practically. He also indicates what the stakes are, that children will starve if they go on without having enough to eat. Tom is not asking for sympathy and Barber is not telling the reader they should have it. But you can’t help feeling deeply and profoundly the fear, uncertainty, regret and determination that Tom is feeling as he prepares to go out to sea.
*In fact, the phrase ‘and the words they speak’ is probably redundant, because in drama all dialogue should be ‘speech acts’. The term speech act is used to differentiate an abstract string of words from the words as used in real life with the intention of achieving something, ie giving an order, apologising, accusing. In creative writing characters should always be trying to achieve something with what they are saying, so every bit of speech should be an action as well as some words.