A few musings on writing emotion


I went to my hometown’s Memorial Day parade on Monday, the first time I’ve been to a parade in a few years. I somehow managed to fill my overburdened phone with photos instantly, but I did get a few good shots before it gave up, like the above picture. The parade wasn’t so much a visual spectacle as an auditory one, with musketmen stopping every once in a while to let off shots, and rows of police cars and fire engines all sounding their sirens at once. There’s something a lot more emotional about hearing a parade than seeing it.

The last time I met up with my writing group for one of our Sunday writing sessions, we discussed how to get emotion across in a scene without actually telling the reader what someone is feeling. How can you show that, say, Mary and Yvonne are in love without just saying “Mary was in love with Yvonne”? A lot of stories use sexual attraction as shorthand for love, especially movies where there isn’t much time to explore the intricacies of actual emotions. Mary sees Yvonne in that hot dress, they get it on, and later when Yvonne is murdered by the villain, Mary goes on a mission of revenge. But there’s something inherently unsatisfying about that setup. Sex isn’t love, and it’s unlikely that Mary would clamp a knife between her teeth and belly-crawl into the villain’s lair for just anyone she’s slept with. So what was special about Yvonne?

I could say “the loud noise of the police sirens at the parade made me emotional”, but it’s better if I say “the sirens were so loud that they felt like a physical presence around me, cutting me off from the crowd and forcing my heart to beat faster.” Ok, that’s a little purple. Let’s try again. I could say “Mary loved Yvonne”, but it’s better if I say “When Mary saw a funny news article, her first thought was to text Yvonne the link and imagine Yvonne’s smile when she read it.”

I know that this is just a restating of “show, don’t tell”, but my point is not to say that it should be done, but rather try to figure out how. I don’t have an answer for this. The answer is probably different for each reader.

To a certain extent, I think the emotion needs to be exaggerated a little. When I was young, I was a dancer, and whenever we had to go on stage, we had to pile on lots of makeup so that the people thirty or forty feet away in the audience would be able to see it. In writing, the reader is far outside the writer’s head and might need a little extra makeup slathered on to get to picture. That analogy is clumsy, because too much exaggeration makes the story look like a pantomime, but too little can lead to dry, emotionless characters. If it hasn’t been established that Mary really loved Yvonne, then when Mary straps on her thigh holster and grimly chambers a round, the audience will have no idea why.

While I’m querying for novel #1, I’ve started editing novel #2, and these thoughts have been foremost in my mind. It’s a fascinating thing to think about, because figuring out how your character defines love (or hate or fear or joy) tells you so much more about the character than any other part of their personal history.

In other news:

If you’re into parenting blogs and geek stuff, or even if you’re not, I’d recommend checking out my pal Aimee’s blog, Fake Geek Mom. She’s a lovely person and brilliant writer, and some of her recent posts have really hit it out of the park. Her most recent post, A letter to my son, is a beautifully written article about misogyny. I wish everyone would read it.

(Above picture from my instagram account)


Book rec: Gulp by Mary Roach


Mary Roach is the kind of nonfiction writer who can make any topic fascinating. No, really, anything. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a book about the digestive system, covering topics from the nutritional value of dog food to the optimal decibel level of crunchy snack foods to the stain-fighting properties of saliva. At one point she puts her hand inside of a cow’s stomach. There’s an entire chapter about smuggling drugs inside your rectum.

Roach has a history of finding the absurdity in science. Her other books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void are all playful but by no means disrespectful looks at serious topics. She gets very in depth with her research and isn’t afraid to ask occasionally embarrassing questions of the experts.


This suggests that saliva—or better yet, infant drool—could be used to pretreat food stains. Laundry detergents boast about the enzymes they contain. Are these literally digestive enzymes? I sent an e-mail to the American Cleaning Institute, which sounds like a cutting edge research facility but is really just a trade group formerly and less spiffily known as the Soap and Detergent Association.


With no detectable appreciation for the irony of what he had written, press person Brian Sansoni referred me to a chemist named Luis Spitz. And when Dr. Spitz replied, “Sorry, I only know soap-related subjects,” Sansoni—still without a trace of glee—gave me the phone number of a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.

Gulp is a book that’ll give you a new understanding of your own internal workings, and if you haven’t read anything by Roach before, it’ll probably act as a gateway drug into everything else she’s ever done. I highly recommend it.