Writing Emotionally Charged Pieces

Readers don’t care about your feelings.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. What I really mean is that they don’t want to read pages and pages of you pouring out your hurt and pain and love and desire.

That’s as unappealing as melodramatic movies.

In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, Robert Blake described acting out a famous scene from the movie In Cold Blood. The director essentially told Blake to tone down his acting, not to cry because the rain was crying for him. He told Blake just to say the lines, not to try and express any emotion. This became one of the most famous scenes from Hollywood.

A lot of emotionally charged writing is overdone and cheesy.

Writers try too hard to make you cry or gasp or whatever.

Consider this:

The poor, abandoned orphan stood alone in the pouring rain, crying and yelling for the only parents she’d ever known. Her heart wrenched, and her pain was so unbearable that she fell to her tiny, innocent knees, splashing into the muddy gutter . . . etc. etc.

That’s an example of trying too hard.

The remedy I’m presenting to you:

Distance.

In Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio actually calls it coldness.

Don’t think cold as in cruel, think cold as in distant like an outside observer or reporter or doctor or scientist or comedian.

Here’s a better way to think about it:

“As satisfying as it was to write in my journal, I could see that something besides deep feeling was required. I needed craft.” -Addonizio

That lame example about the orphan is overly concerned about emotion with no regard for craft.

But isn’t writing about emotion?

Of course. Readers want emotion.

But without craft, you can’t effectively deliver emotion.

Here are four ways Addonizio suggests we maintain focus on craft when writing emotionally charged pieces. The explanations are my own.

Imagery

Show, don’t tell. Focus on the tangible details of the moment instead of explaining emotions. Write the entire piece without naming the emotion.

Restraint

Don’t give too many details. Avoid adverbs and adjectives with strong emotional connotations, like desolate or grudgingly.

Hyperbole, Humor, Irony

This is the reason I like the term distance rather than coldness. Because humor and hyperbole can seem quite warm, but they require distance.

If done well, you can ignore the first two suggestions when using hyperbole, humor, or irony. But make sure you exaggerate enough that the exaggeration is obvious. If it’s not blatant to the reader that the speaker is being facetious, the writing will be just another bad piece of writing.

Form

Focusing on form helps you not focus on the emotion. It also requires that you be concise and focus on language. Form is like a leash that keeps you from trampling all over your readers’ emotional flowerbed.

I encourage you to go ahead and write about cancer, war, death, divorce, and abuse. But gain some distance. Focus on the imagery, practice restraint, infuse some humor, or stick to a form.

What do you think? What are the most effective ways to get strong emotion on paper without making your readers roll their eyes?

2 thoughts on “Writing Emotionally Charged Pieces

  1. Hi Sarah. Great article. As a new writer, this is good to know. I always thought you should really describe a character’s feelings in your writing, but that example with the orphan was just too cheesy. Thanks for pointing that out. However, I have read good books that use emotional words similar to desolate. I guess the secret is how you use it. I would have liked to see that orphan example rewritten using your distance remedy.
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    • I agree, Jevon. There’s no “rule” that a skilled writer can’t break and end up with great results. In terms of rewriting the orphan example, I’ll consider adding that if I ever have time to rewrite the post.

      Thanks for the feedback!

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