With the solstice just past, most of us are either in the depths of winter or the height of summer. So it’s natural to be thinking about extremes. For this month’s Nonfiction Know-How, I’ll be discussing emotional extremes and giving you a few tips on when to use and when to avoid them. Like so many techniques in writing, emotion is a useful tool in your toolkit as long as you don’t over- or under-utilize it.

That paragraph was really boring, amirite? THE WORST. Basically, you might as well cut your head off instead of reading it. I’m so sorry. It was epically bad and I’m a terrible person for doing that to you.

Go back and reread those two paragraphs, ok?

That’s an example of how careful over-editing can suck all the interest and emotion out of your writing, but also how putting in emotional extremes that are out of proportion to the events described can make your writing (and you) sound like a teen with their first blog.* Both of these accidents make a reader more likely to roll their eyes than keep reading your story, so let’s spend some time talking about how to avoid them, and when it’s appropriate to use emotional cues in your writing.

A Balancing Act

I know it sounds like a cop-out, but nobody can tell you the right amount of emotion to put in your writing. This is one area where fiction writers have it much easier than essay or memoir writers: in fiction, we have some distance from the character experiencing the emotions, and we’re better able to gauge the objective severity of the stimulus. It’s hard to do that when you’re the one having – or even remembering – the experience.

How a character reacts to an incident tells the reader a lot about the character. When that character is you, what you’re “telling” the reader may or may not be flattering. Let’s walk through three ways a character can react to an incident, and talk a little bit about reader response. I’m going to pick an innocuous sort of incident: forgetting where you left your shopping cart (trolley, for our editor Asha and her crew).

  1. Today I was shopping. I needed eggs. I left my shopping cart at the end of the bread aisle. I forgot where I left it. I walked up and down the aisles looking for it. I was on the wrong end of the aisles so I didn’t see it. Eventually I found it.
  2. I eat probably two dozen eggs in a given week, so it was no surprise to anyone but me that I had run out by Wednesday morning. And it’s probably no surprise to you, dear Reader, that (having forgotten the eggs twice already) I forgot that I left my cart at the endcap of the bread aisle, between the rye and the hot dog buns. Eggs finally in hand, I wandered up and down the store in search of my lost cart, wondering why I hadn’t memorized its location. Wondering why there wasn’t “an app for that.” Wondering if it was possible to die of a panic attack in the middle of Kroger, eggs still clutched to my chest to prevent them breaking when I collapsed. I can see the look on your face, you know. It’s the same look that was on the clerk’s face as she pushed my abandoned cart out from behind the endcap that had blocked my view for twenty minutes and I shrieked with joy. Never let anyone tell you New Yorkers don’t care about people screaming: the entire store stopped and stared at me as I, red-faced, added my eggs to the cart and proceeded to the checkout line.
  3. Tuesdays are always the worst days in the world, I thought to myself. Not only had I forgotten the eggs, but I had probably forgotten the milk. Tears welled up in my eyes as I wandered the grocery store clutching my eggs. I felt terrible. The eggs were the only proof I had that I was an adult; and I could not add them to my cart because I’d forgotten where the damn thing was. I couldn’t breathe. Faces swam before my eyes. Had I left the cart on Aisle 4 or 5? I remembered my mother telling me before she died of lung cancer that I should always remember where my cart was. “Remember where your cart is,” she wheezed through her oxygen mask. I had let my mother down, and my heart was sore and aching. More tears started to spill over. Then I saw a clerk pushing a cart. My mother’s voice rang in my ears. “Remember where your cart is.” Her cart was always full of cigarettes, even at the end. My chest was tight with pain.

Okay. Let’s review what these writers did right, and what they did wrong.

  1. This is really a just-the-facts-ma’am entry, isn’t it? It’s a list of things that happened. The sentences make sense, they’re in order, there’s nominally a plot, and you don’t care about any of it.
  2. The constant breaking the fourth wall here is pretty annoying, but the piece varies between fact (I go through two dozen eggs) and emotion (Wondering if it was possible to die of a panic attack in the middle of Kroger). The reader isn’t exhausted by either one by the end of the paragraph, which is a pretty ok way to feel.
  3. Forget about the emotions for a second and re-read this paragraph: does the narrator ever find their cart or not? You don’t know, do you? Maybe you made some assumptions because the constant onslaught of emotion forced you to skim or to engage with the piece on some other level, but there’s no plot here. Just noise. And Tears, Idle Tears.

Too much and not enough

It’s a balancing act, sure, but how can you tell when you’ve got too much emotion, or not enough?

Too much

Read back through your essay and pretend there’s no emotion. Pretend you’re the writer of the essay up there, which I’ve tentatively titled Eggs Over Too Hard. What actually happens in your essay? If you’re writer #3, the entire thing can be summed up as “I walked around crying.”

If you’ve got 1,000 words of “I walked around crying” as the only thing that happened, you’ve almost definitely got too much emotion. You’re depending on that appeal to make the reader ignore the fact that nothing happened to you. And you’re talking about yourself and your inner monologue more than writing an essay that connects to the reader’s own feelings and experiences, which is boring for everyone but you.

Another question to ask yourself is, “is the level of emotion proportional to the incident?” In this case, a complete sobbing breakdown  is not proportional to the severity of a lost shopping cart that the narrator finds. Now, that’s not an immediate dealbreaker. Example #2 recognizes that the in-the-moment emotional response was disproportionate and acknowledges that to make a specific point; Example #3 just gives the drama without the sense of proportion.

While it would be great if we lived in a society where nobody ever judged us, y’all know that’s not the real world. Your readers do look through your essay like “that seems like a lot of drama over a lost shopping cart.” If you want to use that drama to make a point about how panic attacks aren’t reasonable? Great. But if you’re just having a lot of emotions at your reader for no particular reason, think about maybe making those emotions happen over something that a reader can be genuinely concerned about, rather than whether you had to go get a second loaf of bread.

Another instance of “too much” happens when the emotion the writer wants the reader to feel is inappropriate to the events related. Are you trying to get a reader scared about your account of a young black man with his hands in his pockets walking along the street? Are you trying to make the reader laugh about one child tormenting another? Putting in a lot of emotion that is dissonant with the facts you relate can alienate your reader – and can say some unfortunate things about you as a person and what you find frightening or amusing.

Not enough

Ironically, the essays I usually see that don’t contain enough emotion are the ones the writer is closest to. In an effort to protect their own feelings, the writer edits and processes all the emotion out of the work until it reads like a police report. Suspect A entered Shop B and lost Cart C as indicated in Fig. D.

Remember that people read personal essays to understand the writer and themselves a little better. This means that you do need to include something of yourself in the essay, whether that’s wry humor or pathos.

Read back through your essay. Now that you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the facts in order and your commas in the right place, ask yourself “how do I want the reader to feel in this moment?” Not “how did I feel” but “how should the reader feel” – that’s an important distinction. Then ask yourself if the facts you’ve related add up to enough evidence to make a reader feel that way. OK, you lost your shopping cart. So what? Why would the reader care? Let’s add some facts to that Example #1. Note that I’m not going to play with the voice at all. Just the facts.

  1. Today I was shopping. I needed eggs. I left my shopping cart at the end of the bread aisle. I forgot where I left it. I walked up and down the aisles looking for it. I was on the wrong end of the aisles so I didn’t see it. Eventually I found it.
  2. Today I went to my local grocery, even though it was Saturday and I usually shop on weekdays to avoid the press of people. Still, I needed eggs. I was hosting brunch in an hour. I went through my shopping list: Bread, jalapenos, shredded cheese (orange, not white), and eggs. I was halfway to the register when I realized I had not crossed off eggs. I looked in the cart: no eggs. I left the cart at the end of the bread aisle and went for the last item on my list. I had not put “remember where your cart is” on my list. I’m helpless without a list. As I walked up and down each aisle I listed the things in the aisle: milk, butter, soft drinks, wine, but no cart. It takes fifteen minutes to get home. It takes five minutes to check out. It takes forty minutes to cook my grandmother’s strata. Diya is always ten minutes early. It takes twenty minutes to set the table. Thirty minutes later I remembered to turn the corner: there was my cart, on the other end of the bread aisle.

Although the second paragraph is also largely a listing of facts, can you feel the narrator’s growing panic, as opposed to the first version? That’s because this narrator asked “What more would the reader need to know about what was going on to feel the emotions I felt?” In this case, it was the tight deadline. You don’t have to list your emotions in a piece if that’s not your style, but if you don’t list any, you need to give the reader enough information for them to supply their own emotions, bringing the piece back into balance. Just about everyone gets stressed out by deadlines, so even though the reader wasn’t experiencing this particular deadline, they could bring some of their own experiences into the piece and empathize.



Give me a break

The final way to balance emotion in an essay can be giving your reader a break. Rather than writing an essay that is either devoid of or packed with emotion, consider moving between the two extremes. An essay that all takes place at the same emotional pitch will read as flat no matter what that pitch is.

Ironically, the answer for “how to add drama to an essay” is often “remove it from most of the essay.” Think of your essay as a line of children standing in a schoolyard. You’re the instructor. When you call for a volunteer to step forward to show emotion, one of four things could happen (I know, this post has more three item lists than a David Foster Wallace essay, I’m so sorry, at least there’s four in this one?).

  1. All the children could step forward at once. This creates a bewildering cacophony of emotion and you don’t know which child to pay attention to.
  2. None of the children might move. Now you don’t have confusion, but you also don’t have anyone showing emotion so you still don’t have anyone to focus on.
  3. One child might step forward and act out an emotion. This is great, because it’s exactly what you asked for. On the other hand, it only works as long as the rest of the children remain relatively still. If you’ve let them all step forward first, they make a lot of background noise, don’t they?
  4. One child might remain in place while the others step back. This has the same effect as #3, doesn’t it? If your “other children” are making too much noise in your essay, this might be the solution you turn to. Dialing back the emotion in places you don’t need it lets it stand out in places you want it to.

Ok, I’m out of metaphors, so I’ll wrap this up as best I can:

Having too much emotion in your work can make it as difficult to keep a reader interested as having none. Balance the quantity and placement of emotional passages to make your work stand out and stay with the reader long after they put down the book or close the browser window.

* My apologies to the bazillion teens who do not sound like that, who have experienced real problems, and who are changing the world. You’re not snowflakes, you’re our best hope for the future. But you also know that one kid who’s never experienced anything worse than McDonald’s screwing up their order once, who constantly catastrophizes shoe choice, and who should consider keeping their journaling on paper so that they can burn it later when they grow up enough to be embarrassed by it instead of inflicting it on everyone.

About the author:

Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.

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