Emotion in Fiction

Letting your reader know what your viewpoint character is feeling is usually considered a good idea. On the other hand, there are schools of storytelling in which it isn’t done. If you’re going for an external, camera’s-eye view of the story, you’ll want to let the reader infer characters’ emotions based strictly on visual cues.

Today I’m wondering whether it might be worthwhile to do some fresh editing to my ultra-wonderful fantasy epic (see the book covers above). One of my goals would be to bring the characters’ emotions more to the front. I don’t write strictly from an external point of view; each scene is usually shown from the POV of some specific person. The question, then, is this: When should the emotion be stated openly, and when should it be implied or left ambiguous? How much emotion is too much?

Here’s an example from the middle of Book 2, The Rainbow Tree. My young heroine, Kyura, has been wearing the Leafstone Shield on a slim chain around her neck. It’s tucked into her blouse, out of sight. It’s the most important thing in her life. Some bad guys, one of whom is a demon, have just noticed that she has something under her blouse, and have demanded that she give it to them. She has just seen someone else try to fight them and die horribly, so she knows it’s no use to fight. She unbuttons her blouse and gives it to them. The demon strides away, carrying the Leafstone Shield with him. And then follows this brief paragraph:

Kyura buttoned her blouse again. Her fingers had trouble finding the buttonholes.

This is an example of implicit emotion. The implication is that she’s trembling badly, and she’s trembling because she’s deeply upset. Close to tears, I would guess. But the author (namely, me) never says that. The question I’m asking myself is, would this paragraph be stronger if I wrote something like this:

As Kyura buttoned her blouse, her fingers shook so badly with rage and despair that she nearly couldn’t find the buttonholes.

Or is that too heavy-handed? It seems to me the first version, the one that’s in print, is — well, if you’ll forgive a bit of self-praise, it’s closer to the way Hemingway might have done it. But I wonder whether the modern reader of pop fiction will be able to read the powerful emotion that’s tucked away between the lines.

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3 Responses to Emotion in Fiction

  1. Moreover, it’s not acceptable to keep revising text and publishing new editions like they do in non-fiction. In non-fiction, you can publish as many new editions as you want. However, with fiction, they expect it to be unchanging.

    • midiguru says:

      There are alternate editions of a few novels. I happen to own a new edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that includes a couple of chapters that were omitted from the original edition — material restored from the manuscript. But in most cases you’re right. On the other hand, who is this “they” of whom you speak, and in what sense do I owe “them” allegiance?

      Right now I’m thinking about possibly expanding the mythos of my fictional world. There’s a lot of back-story that the Leafstone epic only hints at, and some of the hints might turn out to be incompatible with the larger myth. I have the luxury of developing it further.

      • I agree with you on the count you are not beholden to readers’ fancies. After all, it’s your novel. It’s just a service on your part to cater to their sensibilities. No law requires you to do so. However, if it’s that lacking in your opinion, why not a sequel? Can’t you maneuver around plot holes and inadequacies and seal them cleverly so that issues in the novels are not a putoff?

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