Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

But How Do You Feel About That?

There's more to character emotion than showing what happens on the outside.

The quiet moments may be the most important.
The word people use most often to describe my fiction writing is “cinematic.” The first few times I heard it, I asked for clarification; I mean, wouldn’t you? It’s not the kind of thing people say to everyone.

People told me my stuff was big, as in big-screen HD with a surround sound system. It was passionate and colorful and exciting.

“I feel like I’m watching a movie,” one of my crit-mates said a few months ago, and I nodded and smiled. I’d heard it before. But then she added something that no one else had been able to convey concisely: Books and movies are not the same things. What makes one work isn’t necessarily what works for the other.

In a book, “we’re in [the heroine’s] head,” she told me. So “let us know what concerns her. That’s what makes books different than movies. [The] depth.” Seeing inside the character’s head, experiencing her emotions with her.

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I quickly identified why I wasn’t emphasizing or sometimes even acknowledging my heroine’s enormous inner struggle over falling in love with a man who was also a sworn enemy. Somewhere along the way I’d taken to heart that classic writer’s advice: show, don’t tell. Problem was, sometimes telling is important, too.  In my fear that I’d end up with a manuscript full of melodramatic telling, I’d excised the soul of the novel, the thing that made it a novel rather than a screenplay or something else: my characters' inner conflicts and emotions.

We can spend some time in another post talking about why telling too much about characters’ emotions can create the dreaded purple prose. For right now, though, I want you to ask yourself something you’ve probably never thought to worry about – are you putting enough emotion into your stories? Are you sharing your characters’ internal turmoil? You know they’re experiencing it – but do your readers?

Don’t get me wrong. I still hope people call my writing cinematic. But now they can say that because it’s passionate and colorful and exciting and, most importantly, because it has the special emotional insights that only a novel can offer.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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