Strong emotions

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 12 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

Yesterday, after a difficult couple of days, I sat down and banged out a 650-word story.  The premise:  An alcoholic misses the end of the world and just keeps going after everyone else has disappeared.  She won’t notice everyone living is gone until the liquor runs out.  Perhaps you get my drift.

When things are tough, we often tell stories.  Sometimes they are stories about real life, and sometimes they are fiction, which is also about real life.

People tell stories.  The stories we tell can be fictional or real; we can write memoir, report news, or craft fiction; but every story frames reality in a specific way.  The risk we run when we tell a story is falling into the easy traps of sentimentality, mawkishness, bathos, or melodrama.  Avoid the traps.  Powerful emotions are best expressed by helping your reader experience the events in your narrative, rather than telling them how to feel.

Let your reader do the feeling.

Here are two short first paragraphs:

  1.  When she woke up, she couldn’t find the cat.  He was nowhere to be found.  She hoped Pookie was okay.  He hadn’t eaten his food from the night before, either.  She decided not to worry, because she had herself to worry about.  She was barely functioning as it was and she had to get to work.
  2. The cat hadn’t been in bed with her when she woke up, but if the night before had been bad, sometimes the cat was prudent and slept in the basement.  It didn’t come out when she threw some kibble in the dish, either, and there was some left over from the night before.

In the first paragraph, the protagonist is feeling all the emotions.  In the second one, the reader is doing the worrying.  The protagonist isn’t.  Or if she is, she’s denying it.  And her inability to function is implied, not stated.

If you have been writing your memoir with tears streaming down your cheeks or with a huge grin on your face about a fateful event in your life, that’s good.  But take the tears, the smiles, and the overly dramatic adjectives and adverbs out of the memoir.

If someone is cruel in your story, don’t use the word “cruel” to stand in for actions.  Show the cruelty.  If, in your memoir, someone inspired you to take action, tell how it happened and let the reader be inspired as well.

Tell stories that matter, while you’re at it.  I know you will.

Tomorrow:  Words to avoid:  Intensifiers and qualifiers

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