I’m editing a manuscript right now where an interesting issue has come up: rendering emotion in writing that’s realistic, yet doesn’t alienate the reader. Without giving too much of this particular manuscript’s plot away, I’ll tell you that it includes a character going into shock after a traumatic event (an understatement).
The Reality Of An Experience
Now, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone into serious shock (this is not an invitation to the Universe to provide me with such an experience, by the way), but I’m familiar with the biological process of it. One loses the ability to think rationally. There’s anxiety, a lot of adrenaline, screaming, paleness, chills, etc. The things one says make no sense. (To those wise-crackers out there who are planning to imply that the last criteria means that I have been in shock, and quite often, while blogging, I’m one step ahead of you!)
All of this is valid and, from a fact standpoint, true. When I turn on the TV and watch Law and Order (fact vs. fiction time: I don’t have a TV and, even if I did, I wouldn’t watch Law and Order, but bear with me here), a show where lots of people go through a rough time, I expect to see actors and actresses portraying shock realistically. So one would imagine that a character going through shock on the page would exhibit these symptoms when describing emotion in writing, right?
Emotion in Writing: Does Reality Translate?
Not so much. Why? Fiction is very logical. Even in moments of madness, there has to be “method in’t” (Hamlet, FTW). If you transcribe the exact experience of shock, it will be very realistic, but it would read strangely on the page. Just like when we read ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, a novel about crazy people (or is it?!), you don’t just have a transcription of the nonsense that goes on in a mental ward the way you’d have it in a stereotypical movie. You know, people burbling their lips with their fingers and sprouting random nonsense. That’s fine for the screen, but it doesn’t translate as well when you’re rendering emotion in writing. Even if something “crazy” happens, it has to make fictional, motivational, character, and plot sense.
In other words, fiction is the art of taking something realistic to the next level. Even if you’re being true to life, you have to think of the craft and the character and story logic. This means that sometimes it’s better to go for evocative description rather than description that’s true to life.
Dialogue: Reality Versus Fiction
Another easy example to emphasize this point about emotion in writing is dialogue (check out How to Write Dialogue in a Story). Dialogue is for sure “the art of taking something realistic to the next level,” because when we write dialogue, we interpret and elevate instead of transcribing. If we “wrote” dialogue to exactly mimic real speech, our pages would be pitted with “uh”s and “um”s and other useless stuff that infests our conversations. Great dialogue writers keep the cadence and voice of real people but they distill the words and how they’re spoken to be like life, but better. (This is, of course, just one component of truly great realistic dialogue.)
Certain Realistic Experiences Alienate Your Reader
So in the case of a scene of trauma or madness when the character experiences it too realistically, I’m challenged as a reader by that and feel really removed from the character. Why? Because, again, shock is all about floating in and out of awareness, random screaming, etc. A character, who I’ve gotten to know over the course of a book, is no longer making sense to me if their shock experience is described completely true-to-life. I feel outside of their experience (whereas elsewhere, especially in first person, I feel very close to them, as the connection is excellent).
This is especially true if the moment of hyper-reality happens at the climax of the story, and that’s actually when I need to feel closest to the protagonist and as clued in to their interiority (what’s going on in their head/heart) as possible. To yank the reader away from the character at such a critical point in time with how you’re describing emotion in writing does the reader a disservice. Reach for that evocative description that’ll loop your reader in rather than alienate them.
Always Include Your Reader
Where’s the lesson for you? When you’re describing emotions realistically, especially when a little madness starts to creep into the character and/or plot, take great pains to make story and character sense so that you include your reader. And speaking of Hamlet, it couldn’t hurt to study your Shakespeare. He does “logical madness” very well, with characters from Ophelia to Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare did, also, invent teenagers, by the way, so he’s worth a reread for today’s YA writers.