Here’s an irony. Many of us can’t resist decorating our emails, texts, perhaps even blogs with silly little faces that presumably capture emotion. For casual communication? No problem. But just as emoticons never summon the dynamic complexity of human response, characters aching with the agony of anguish never summon much except irritation.
Some things about story remain the same forever. It will always be true, as painter Paul Cezanne put it, that “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.”
Yet if emotions don’t change over time, art does. Like emotions, it’s always on the move. Novel readers no longer respond favorably to blatant, oversimplified description. Charles Dickens, born about two centuries back, is still—and will always be—a great writer. But today’s novelists don’t get to remind us that “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” (Great Expectations)
That’s because, as writer and writing coach Jessica Morrell explains, “Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader.” For better or worse, certain plots and word choices no longer elicit the same “responsive chords.”
Our world has changed, and our novels along with it. In White Oleander (1999) Janet Fitch says
That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific--chair, eye, stone--but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this and not that, they couldn't include all the meanings. In defining, they always left something out.
Labeling emotions cages them, diminishes them, makes them less than they are. That causes readers to feel less than they might. What’s a writer to do?
~ Use dialogue. Confrontations between characters—including the subtext of what they never say—both mimic some of the most intense moments in real life and reveal the motivation for character choices.
~ Capture the reactions of other characters. Response to the behavior of the protagonist or antagonist is a shrewd away to advance the plot, so long as you avoid all those abstract, oversimplified words like “sad,” “happy,” “perplexed,” and the even more painful ones like “yearning” and “ecstasy.” They have the same impact as a heaving bosom.
~ “Show” emotion through action—and not just tears, shrugging, or exiting.
~ Try symbolism. Might your character realistically compare inertia to a stone wall, with only one way through? Might your character overeat or starve? Learn boxing or sink into a stupor?
Tip: Give emotions the complexity they deserve so your readers can experience the emotions they deserve.