First off, new chapter of Warbreaker: Chapter Fifty Three
Find an explanation of Warbreaker, along with previous chapters, on my forums.
Now, for our feature:
Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)
#9: Overuse of Emotion
Melodrama. We hate it, and we love it. One of the most difficult lines to walk in writing books is this one: The line between having the characters react with appropriate emotion to important events, and having them go overboard and annoy the reader.
Now, this line is in different places depending on your genre. From what I’ve read of romance (which isn’t much, admittedly) they seem to get away with a lot more emotion as a part of the genre. However, for purposes of these essays, I’m looking at the genres I know: Science fiction, fantasy, children’s, and to a lesser extent mystery.
We like to write character-driven stories, though we define it differently in genre fiction than they do in literary. (My experience has been that literary defines ‘character driven’ as having unique, interesting, and often unpredictable characters that the text investigates. In genre fiction, character driven means sympathetic characters the reader cares about.)
Yet, how do you write sympathetic characters without overloading the reader on emotion? It’s appropriate sometimes, of course, but the adage ‘less is more’ tends to hold pretty well in most situations. A friend of mine gave the rule ‘never let your characters cry’ because emotion that was hinted at and held inside tended to have a more powerful effect on the reader than explosions of effusiveness.
And yet, as writers, it’s sometimes hard for us not to overdo it on the emotion. We get so involved with our characters that we want to show everyone just how powerful their feelings are. Yet, a lot of the time when we do this, we shoot ourselves in the feet by not saving the emotion for the right place.
A good rule of thumb I’ve heard is this one: the line between drama and melodrama can be looked at situational. If the readers are invested in the characters, feeling as they do, and engaged by the narrative, the emotion will feel real. If they’re NOT invested enough, then emotion will come across as melodrama. This is particularly a problem at the beginnings of books. I’ve found that if you show too much emotion right off, before the reader cares about the characters, it will fall flat.
Of course, different writers have different skill levels in this area. And, being able to use emotion often ties into your ability as a writer to tell vs show (which we’ll talk about later.) Still, one of the tricks of the trade is to know when to show a lot of emotion and when to hold it back. I think we all go overboard some times–but we make sure to do it when the reader is so invested that they don’t notice.
Tomorrow, #8! Also known as “Brandon, you can’t be Gene Wolf for just one sentence!”
(Once again, sorry for the typos and errors. This is a rough draft of the essay!)