Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How to Convey and Evoke Emotion (or: Stargazing 101)

Full disclosure:  I don't know yet all the ways to convey emotion in my writing.  If I'm managing to evoke emotion in my readers, it's a happy accident.  That's why I'm off in January to coastal Maine to start an MFA program.

Yup, I'm committing two years and a lot of money to get a degree I don't need and won't likely use just so that I can write a scene that plays that most beguiling trick: it makes the reader feel.

Try this:  take a book that really provokes strong emotion every time you read it.  Maybe it's the sadness of saying goodbye to a lover, or the suppressed longing of admitting you can never have this person, or anger that your spouse has failed you, or just love -- a sweet pang at the thought that this special person is really in your life.  Go find that book, flip to a scene that always does it for you: makes you cry, rage, sigh, whatever.  Re-read that scene.

Go ahead.  I'll wait.

While I'm waiting, let me tell you about a trip I made with Henry (Brit Hub 1.0) to Tucson, Arizona.  This was early on in our 50-States-by-Age-50 tour (or, as it got to be know, the "50-by-50") and it was the next to last stop on our "Four Corners" trip.  We'd done Sedona, the Grand Canyon (which was solid white with snow and cloud so we saw nothing), the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods (Utah), clipped the corner of Colorado, stood on the Four Corners, visited Route 66 in Gallup, NM, seen more snow in the White Mountains (Arizona), and were now in Egypt.

No, there's no Egypt, Arizona.  We were at a B&B that featured an astronomical observatory so that guests could stargaze in the evening.  (It's now just an observatory.)  We'd booked the services of an astronomy student from UofA for the evening and booked some time on one of the large (but not the largest) telescopes.  And our room was decorated in early Nile: a replica of Tutankhamen in the corner, lots of gold leaf everywhere, and as much early Egyptian-style furniture as you could manage in a conventional bedroom.

Messier Object #8 or "M8" (courtesy of NASA)
The star-gazing was fun.  First, all the guests gathered on a roof terrace to look at stars and planets in the twilight-to-early-evening.  Then, when it was dark, we met our student in the observatory.  Henry is an amateur astronomer, so he knew all about Messier objects, but it was an education for me.  Charles Messier cataloged over 100 blurry things in the sky -- too large to be stars but not distinct enough to be planets.  We now have gorgeous photos from the Hubble telescope of these Messier objects, photos that show just how huge and complex they must be -- entire galaxies in some cases.

M64 "The Evil Eye Galaxy" (courtesy of NASA)
Messier himself was using a telescope not a lot bigger than the one you'd pay a couple hundred dollars for and give to your daughter or nephew as a birthday present.  And here's the thing I learned in that amateur observatory outside Tucson: the way our eyes work, we see Messier objects better when we're not looking right at them.  If you focus on a spot just a bit off, the Messier object shows up quite clearly in your peripheral vision.  You can even study it, as long as you don't look right at it.

Okay, enough with the pretty star pictures.  Everybody done rereading their favorite emotionally provoking scenes?  Now if you didn't well up with emotion, I'm predicting you noticed something interesting.  The emotion is not discussed as directly as you remembered.  Instead, it something inchoate and irreducible that gets you every time.

That's because the author isn't having you look right at the gaping wound of loss or the moral minefield of a forbidden love or raging inferno of anger.  Any of those things would probably leave you with a contrary reaction -- annoyance at the lovers, impatience with the grieving, etc.

I'm guessing the author got you to focus on something else while the emotion, like a Messier Object, is off to the side.  You can see it and marvel at it, even study it, and it moves you.  You're just not staring at it.

I don't know how writers do that.  But I hope to find out.


  1. That's right, rub it in, oh Great Published Author. I will find out your secret! I will learn how the magic is done! And I'll undoubtedly be forced to sign in red ink some oath of writership that requires me to never tell another soul how the magic works.

    (Which is going to make this blog damned boring, but that's two years down the line...)

  2. Hi Magdalen--

    WooHoo, way to go! Good luck and all that. What college? (or do you choose not to say).

  3. Stonecoast MFA -- part of the University of Southern Maine. It's a "low residency" MFA, so I'm on campus for ten days in January and ten days in July and I write write write for the rest of the year!

    Here's the website. It's in the top ten low residency MFA programs, so I feel really fortunate to have gotten in!

  4. So "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" doesn't cover that? :( Dang it.


Hi. This is a moribund blog, so it gets spammed from time to time. Please feel free to comment, but know that your comment may take a few hours to appear simply as a result of the spam blocking in place.