Archive for the ‘Emotion’ Category

Emotion: How Much is Too Much?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

When describing a scene of extreme anguish or emotion, many writers want to convey every nuance of feeling directly to the reader. This attempt at literal emotional transcription can sometimes result in an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives—wordiness, in general. Often, the best way to convey extreme emotion is to under-describe it, taking the old “less-is-more” adage to heart.

The following is an unedited piece of text that tends to shroud the emotion in unnecessary wording. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life.

“What?” I said quietly, not really sure how to react. This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob.

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus.

“So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

After editing, the passage reads as follows:

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast.

“What?” I was not really sure how to react. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air.

“You heard me,” he said. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin and put it by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said. “I have to go to work,” he added, as though it were any other day.

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life. [The word “blandly” and Maurice’s act of buttering his toast sufficiently indicate that he is acting as though nothing has happened. The reader will understand that his comment is earth-shattering without the narrator having to mention this fact.]

“What?” I said quietly, was not really sure how to react. [Could the narrator say something other than “What”? If she made a slightly more irrelevant comment, you could show the reader her uncertainty. I eliminated “said” to avoid repeating it.] This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob. [Your descriptions of this moment are very vivid, but using fewer of them gives the moment more impact. The sentence about the room getting smaller seems to encompass the ideas of the others and very graphically demonstrates the narrator’s emotion.]

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. [The adverb is unnecessary. Maurice’s spare language sufficiently indicates his arrogance and emotional distance. In addition, the narrator seems too upset to be able to assess Maurice’s true emotions.] “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well. [The adverbs are colorful, but your pared-down words convey Maurice’s cold emotion very well.]

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus. [Would the narrator really look for a calendar at this moment? Saying “I thought he must be joking” in the next sentence is sufficient, I think, to convey her sense of unreality.]

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say. [“Foolishly” is sufficient to show that the narrator wishes she could think of something better to say.]

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy. [“He really was vain” is not particularly necessary. The reader will see Maurice’s vanity when he stands smoothing his hair at this moment of great crisis.]

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. [“Chillingly” feels unnecessary. Maurice’s unfeeling sentence is enough to convey this idea.] “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]