Since the beginning of my obsession with writing, I have sought the secrets of the great writers, those rare people who managed to give me real nightmares, who haunted me so effectively. I never cease to be awed when I find myself genuinely disturbed by a book. (This is unfortunately a rarer experience as I get older. Horror is like drugs, or hot chillies: the more you consume, the more you’ll ultimately need to get you to the same place.) How was it, I always asked myself, scrutinizing paragraph after paragraph, that this person could evoke such a primal reaction in me, an emotion so powerful it can save your life or kill you – with nothing more than words on paper?
The most recent idea I’ve come across, and one I’ve used time and again to my delight, like a child with a new toy, I learned from one of my favourite books on the subject: Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. Among countless useful lessons in the book is this gem (not a quote): Your goal is not to describe emotions, it is to evoke them in the reader.
Duh, right? It’s a deceptively simple thought, and it seems completely self-evident – and it should be, too, since every aspiring writer has heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than they can count.
And yet it is so easy to make the mistake. I made it, many times, and though I try hard to catch myself before my work gets out, I still make it now and then. You can find examples of this error in just about any amateur work. The tell tale signs are descriptions of madly beating hearts, characters turning pale and getting dry mouths, cold sweats and the all time favourite goose bumps.
Of course, your character may well experience all of these things, and maybe for the benefit of sympathy or characterization it could be worth detailing whichever symptoms may be present… But the writer would do well to remember that describing fear does not create fear. Telling you that the main character is terrified does not, by extension, make you terrified – and that goes for all the emotions, by the way. I can’t make you feel happiness by describing the main character grinning and dancing in the sun, either. If emotions were that easy to manipulate there’d be no need for psychiatrists.
So what is a struggling author to do?
The simple answer is: whatever works. Think about the books that terrified you when you read them. Find the specific scenes. I think you’ll find that in almost every case the thing you found so scary had nothing to do with the emotions that the characters involved felt, but a number of other things.
Here’s a fun game: next time you write a scene or a short story you wish to terrify someone with, forbid yourself to describe the symptoms of fear in your characters. No screaming, no clammy hands, no shaking knees. Go one further – make it so your main character doesn’t even have a reason (from his/her point of view, at least) to be afraid at all.
The reason this works so well is that now as a writer you can’t cheat emotions by describing them – by telling. Now you have to try to create the emotions in the reader, and in doing so you will realise that all those other things are not only not necessary, they can even get in the way of the desired effect.
Recall one of my most beloved scenes in horror: The final showdown in Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster is in Buffalo Bill’s pitch black basement, her gun out and ready, searching for him. We see most of it through Bill’s night vision goggles as he darts in and out, a pale hand occasionally reaching out and stopping just short of touching her.
She is surely terrified, but she isn’t cowering in the corner, shaking, and that isn’t the point of the scene anyway – it isn’t what makes us cringe on the edge of our seats. What gets to us is what she can’t see – that he’s right there with her, close and dangerous.
Another example can be found in Coraline, a famously creepy story and one of my favourites. Coraline herself is rarely scared and in fact is quite brave, yet we as the readers have spiders running up and down our necks throughout. Coraline doesn’t bat an eye at half of the insanely creepy shit in the beginning that raises warning flags in the reader, and because she is so sympathetic we fear for her and put ourselves in her shoes. Coraline is brave; we are not.
The beauty of this idea is that it applies to every emotion, not just fear. If you describe character A in love with character B, you are not making the reader feel love for character B, you are making them sympathise with character A. If it was love you wanted to inspire, you should have made B a lovable character. If you want to make the reader laugh, describe a funny situation, and remember that the characters involved do not have to be rolling around in fits for the scene to work, and in fact some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read were not funny at all to the people involved.
So, next time you sit down to write, ask not how to describe emotions in the characters, but how to create them in the readers.