The space that allows us to feel and connect to our fellow humans. The painful, chaotic emotion that links our internal life with our external one.
It is sacred, a deep need to be one of the many in our world. This is why we watch shaky phone videos of people comforting strangers in public, and why we pay companies thousands of dollars to lead employees through trust falls and blindfolded mazes.
It’s why 90% of people love Colin Firth.
It’s not easy in real life, and it’s often harder in media. In real life, we choose our moments. We have organic instances of opening up one of the pockets in our beings and sharing the contents with whomever we deem safe. Not so in media. Actors have to summon that up about a person they are not, in front of people all just working for the weekend, and then editors have to connect and draw out that thread of empathy. But at least in visual media, we get expressions and micro-expressions. We are built to mimic the mood of our social group, and often those context clues can lead an audience to a state of mind close enough for Hollywood.
In writing, we don’t have that. It’s all painted with words. The only context comes from whatever the audience has seen before in the story, and whatever life they pump into the words through their own experiences.
There seem to be three large camps for how authors tend to do this.
Show And Tell
In this, the author knows exactly how whatever is going down goes down, and wants you to see it in HD. You get something that tends to read like a (hopefully) well done Live Journal (or MySpace, or Tumblr poetry post) entry. This picture is at least 10,000 words and quite fussy. This is often employed in YA books and romances–particularly period pieces. It can be very well done (think: Holden in The Catcher in the Rye and even in more mature classics such as Anna Karenina) but it can also be overwrought. Striking a balance is very delicate work. If it has expressions like “I knew in my heart of hearts” in it, it likely has gone too far. This seems to work better for pieces that are more character studies than plot-driven works, and should be used cautiously elsewhere.
In acting, we say always show the audience, never tell. It’s largely the same with books. Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice don’t try to describe exactly how they fall in love in every single page. We are shown, with the care they take around each other, and the new meanings given to past conversations through new revelations.
Mutually Assured Destruction
Humans as a group tend to have certain hurts in common. For example, there are websites dedicated to warning people about movies and shows that have animals dying. Loss of a child or sibling or active guardian. Prolonged sicknesses that change the person we knew. These things are like the Staples Easy Button™. You hit them, and miraculously, people go “aww!” or maybe even start crying!
There are times this is really critical to stories. The Notebook is a sappy romcom if it’s not actually a tragedy about Alzheimer’s. There are a lot of memoirs about learning to live with a new disability that are being honest with us. Where the Red Fern Grows is just about coping with a pet dying as a metaphor for growing up, and the story is emotionally honest with us the entire time. It’s not doing this to hurt us, it’s doing this to communicate one vulnerable thread of someone’s life. The pain goes both ways so we can share it.
And then the rest make me think of radio shock jocks. You’re just bullying readers. This is called “exploitative” writing because it knows our cheat codes and is keying them in relentlessly. “Game of Thrones” the TV show does this a lot. The Sansa rape plot added nothing to the story. Actually, most of what they did with Ramsey added nothing to the story. You beat women and and flay a dude until you break his mind. We get it. You’re a bad guy. Adding the bit with rape was just an easy way to connect the audience with Sansa’s horror, and it makes it less poignant. We feel betrayal, that we had extended our vulnerability and got kicked for it. We see how clumsy the attempt at drama was and are clobbered over the head with some moral. The end of Mockingjay was, for me, essentially torture porn both physical and emotional and I was angry that I had been made to feel for these characters just so the author could make me watch her eviscerate them. We need to be very careful that our “bad things happen” plots make sense and are handled with emotional honesty. Otherwise, you’re the asshole comparing millenials to cancer in front of a millenial who just lost her mom to leukemia.
It is my opinion that artists have a grave duty to their public, to use their art responsibly. We should offer mirrors and places where it’s safe to fall apart without punishing people for trusting us when we ushered them in to our exhibits. Please consider the point of pain before inflicting it on others.
Plant An Idea
This is where authors say just enough to invoke an emotion and let readers fill in the rest, like an octopus in a tube. You say enough that people understand what the character is thinking about and you let it go.
This one is my personal favorite but it can be dicey. Done right, it is both responsible and devastating. I think Margaret Atwood is reigning queen of this tactic. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we don’t wallow in what is quite honestly probably one of the saddest, worst things a human can be made to endure. We never have that pity party. There are small lines like “Better never means better for everyone” that convey a lot quickly and leave the reader to introspective thought about how much we’ve struggled for better and found only new hardships.
The struggle of this tactic can be seen in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Readers either found Harry to be suffering from a sort of mental breakdown due to PTSD and the stress of being seen as a savior at sixteen, or whiny and self important. Her clues were all wonderfully subtle and honest, and readers interpreted them as they saw fit. Which is not to say that JK Rowling isn’t a master of this strategy in her own right. Need I say it?
One word brought the weight of our collective empathy to bear and it broke us. So that’s the risk and reward. You may miss the mark and what for you reads broken others read as obnoxious. You may hit it spot on, though, and your character will ascend to a hallowed space for the martyrs of literature.
However you choose to do it, I pray that you never let your audience hit the ground in your trust fall. The vast experiences of humanity are full of sorrows noble and small, and can be woven in ways that unite us. When instead we betray the relationship between artist and audience, we may have been able to invoke a feeling, but likely we will not be given that chance a second time.