Emotion Is Not Always What, But Where

A writer’s ability to evoke emotion is the one skill that separates the greats from the mediocres. I’ve been compiling advice, articles, chapters, blogs posts and more that explain how a write can evoke emotion.  So far, all of the examples, tips, and devices and I’ve read explain what to do, and I wrote about this yesterday in my post “Fiction Should Evoke Emotion.” But I think where might be equally important.

Where is slightly different than when. When has to do with the moment(s) in a story that the writer decides to reveal information that will tug at the heart. It has to do with pacing, building tension and releasing it. But where is a slightly different idea, in my opinion. Where has to do with structure. So far as I can tell (and frankly I’m still exploring this idea), where has to with the places the write decides to put words and sentences. Let me give you an example. This is the first paragraph from Lorrie Moore’s short story, “What is Seized.”

My mother married a cold man. Not that he couldn’t make her laugh, because he could do that: he’d pull some antic in the living room—sing nursery rhymes in an Italian accent, safety-pin an olive to his lapel, tell jokes about chickens, elephants, or morons. And because he performed with the local musical theater group every spring and fall, and usual got the funny parts, he sometimes practiced in the kitchen while she was doing stuff, making her grin in spite of herself, making her giggle into the batter bowl. My father taught clarinet and math at the high school in town. He seemed to know how to get people to like him, to do crazy stunts with furniture or time-rate problems . I would usually hear about these secondhand. People in Crasden seemed to think he was amazing somehow. Special, they said. Talented. But when he made love to my mother, he kept his eyes closed the whole time, turned his head away from her, and afterward would give her a hard, angry gaze, roll stiffly over to his side of the bed, face the wall, shake her off of him with a shudder or a flinch if she kissed his shoulder, rubbed his arm, lay a palm against his bare back. She told me this before she died. She just started off to one side at the drapes and told me.

This is what I want to point out: The narrator’s opening sentence says her father was a cold man. Then she goes on for quite a few sentences providing details about how warm and funny he was. Everyone in the town thought he was special. Talented. The reader starts to believe it. They like this man, the narrator’s father. He’s funny. But then the paragraph ends with the cold hard facts. The juxtaposition of information, the details of warmth followed by the specific detail of his coldness create a visceral reaction in the reader. It’s like jumping into a freezing pond on a hot day. This is what I mean about where. Moore does it again throughout this piece and I’ve come across this kind of juxtaposition of ideas and words in other stories by other writers.

The takeaway for me is that when thinking about ways to convey information, what the writer gives the reader is important, but where she tells it can really drive the emotion home.

Photo: Anonymous Account / Flickr Creative Commons

Related Post: An Emotion ‘Tasting’ Chart

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3 Comments on “Emotion Is Not Always What, But Where

  1. Excellent post! My fellow writers and I talked about this a lot while at Squaw. This is one of the most complicated and masterful aspects of good fiction writing. As you say, it’s what separates the greats from the mediocres.

  2. The delivery of info is crucial!
    I have so many comments in own wip about the order of delivery–small shift can change everything.
    Nice paragraph you put here.

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