Emotion in Writing: Fact and Fiction

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).

emotion in writing, evocative description
When a little madness starts to creep into the character and/or plot, take great pains to craft evocative description that makes story and character sense.

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.

Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist together.

18 Replies to “Emotion in Writing: Fact and Fiction”

  1. I’d have to agree. It’s funny how just yesterday when I was getting a piece workshopped, my professor said the exact same thing. He said the usual details about the skin quivering, mouth turning dry, etc. was not what he was interested in: he wanted to know what was going in inside the MC’s head.

    It doesn’t even have to be pure internal narrative. It could just as easily be a description of the surroundings colored/twisted by the perception of her shock.

    I remember in a previous post, you differentiated the use of 3rd POV and 1st POV (very helpful, btw!). I think this is a similar case of that, except nowadays the contemporary audience is much more about the 1st POV–whether in 3rd or 1st. Even though I’m writing in the 3rd POV, I have to slip into free indirect style often for the readers to feel close enough to the MC.

  2. Adele Richards says:

    Too shocked by your brilliance to comment other than with random mental hospital dribbles.



  3. Amy Christine Parker says:

    Likin’ the caffiene fueled vibe of this post–great thoughts by the way! Wit’ ya on the no sleep thang-road tripped it to hear Billy Collins read from his new book of poetry last night-it’s very awesome by the way and forfeited a few hours snooze time. Good advice today-think I’ll spend a few minutes with the bard now with your thoughts in mind!

  4. WOW! I’m really glad I’m not the writer that had to find out about her manuscript this way.

  5. Great insight Mary, as usual. I now need to go through my MS and take out all of the ums in my dialogue, thanks. Also, I really hate when a book is in 1st person and the MC describes the motivations and interprets every bodily movement of other characters. It doesn’t ring true to me. If the MC can guess at these things, we should be able to also, right?
    Great post, thanks for giving me some things to be aware of.

  6. Bryan — The writer is a client of mine and it basically says this in the editorial letter. I would NEVER violate the trust of a writer by posting anything derogatory or super specific to their manuscript. Here, the (excellent) manuscript in question brought up an (excellent) teaching point.

  7. I was shocked at this. I usually take your advice as the gospel. This time I am questioning your overall judgment. Please tell me it is fiction that you used a current client’s manuscript!

  8. That’s definitely a balancing act, because sometimes a character’s craziness or shock doesn’t seem crazy or shocked enough. I always roll my eyes a little when a character who’s supposed to be mentally unhinged starts making these sweeping similes to describe their emotional state. When I’m mentally unhinged, my brain does not operate in sweeping-simile-mode; it operates in caveman-speak.

  9. Eric Steinberg says:

    I think it’s about getting the reader to feel the emotion the writer wants them to feel, which is hopefully close to what the character is feeling.

    Real crazy/shock can be done so it feels authentic for for the character and the reader, but I think it is very difficult. A good example is Faulkner in the Benjy section of the Sound and the Fury.

    And I think that Shakespeare example is closer to a TV script than novel, since both are designed to be performed.

  10. self-coin, verb
    To coin an already existing word that you didn’t know about.
    —self-coinage n.

    From the wonderful, http://www.wordspy.com/diversions/neologisms.asp

    Mary, I like you best when you’re a ‘crazy mad genius’ type of agent blogger. Or crazy mad creative hippy writer blogger. Here, have another cup of coffee and let’s see what you give us tomorrow!

  11. Siski — I love self-coinage! Awesome! I do that all the time. But please don’t encourage me to have more coffee. My heart might explode like a water balloon.

  12. I’ve wondered about this more than once. Thanks for an insider’s view and expertise. I’m off to pull out my Shakespeare. 🙂

  13. Shakespeare is the king of angst. I think he’s proof that writers can get away with just about anything if the writing is good enough. Also, that in the hands of a master iambic pentameter is super compelling! 🙂

  14. Having just had my first actual first-hand experience with real shock complete with said ranting and chills, I can certainly attest that a too-realistic approach would be unreadable! Along with your Shakespeare and Ken Kesey props, I’d say Toni Morrison (Shadrack in SULA) and Virginia Woolf (Septimus in MRS. DALLOWAY) are great examples to look to, I think. They show “crazy” from the inside.

    Great post. And I’m glad your heart did not explode from caffeine overload:-)

  15. Had one YA with an unreliable narrator (not crazy, but a little traumatized borderline), and discovered that a lot of the secret to Crazy was blaming everyone else for why they’re acting so unreasonable lately and don’t understand.
    You can’t really write Crazy unless you’ve been there yourself. 😉

    (And always thought Shakespeare’s mad heroines were a bit too calculatedly “poetic”, until Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia in the 1990 Mel Gibson movie did a good mix of text and real.
    And while Shakespeare perfected teenagers, btw, he technically didn’t “invent” them–Romeo & Juliet was trying to make Pyramus & Thisbe “contemporary” for 16th-cty. audiences. He just did a better job of contemporizing them than the myth did.)

  16. rosalind oliver says:

    What a great post! I’ve heard this explained in several different ways, but yours was super lucid. I love the line “because when we write dialogue we are interpreting and elevating, not transcribing.” I think I will brew up 5 shots of espresso tonight! Thank you!

  17. You’ve made a great point Mary, and definitely one to keep in mind. My MC in my current manuscript also has to struggle through a traumatic event – it’s an interesting balancing act to keep it realistic (enough) yet still ensure the reader feels empathy for her and what she’s going through.


  18. Thank you for this post. I actually have planned a scene in which one of my characters goes into shock. I have not written it yet, but I have gone over it in my mind so much because I want to write it realistically. Most of it will be seen through the reaction of the MC, with a third-person pov, though, so hopefully it will be believable and help the story, not be a turn-off.
    Admittedly, I may be hesitating to write it because of my own experiences. When you know how serious something is, you want to portray it as well as possible. Yet the story has to be interesting, not a mechanical description.
    As always, your blog is so helpful. I think most writers would understand using their writing as example when giving positive critical advice.

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