“And that’s what makes it so very sad” – Abstractions in Writing

The other day I was reading an article by David Jauss in Writer’s Chronicle about the dangers of abstractions – mainly warning writers about writing things like “John was sad” or “John’s heart was broken.” The real art is in describing the way someone moves, looks, or interacts skillfully enough to convey emotions. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, especially with the temptation to be lazy and write, “John was sad after his wife’s death.”

Ironically enough, my wife was watchingOnce Upon a Timeat the same time I was reading the article, and I saw the deadly sin in practice. Some of the actors on that show…let’s see, how to put this nicely…they suck. The chick who plays Snow White seems to be the worst of these offenders. She was having a tear-stained conversation with her former love, Prince Charming, and she ended it by saying, “And that’s what makes it so very sad,” thus indicating that she was, in fact, feeling sad. It seemed like lazy writing at first, but I realized it was probably necessary because the actress wasn’t skilled enough to convey her sadness through her acting.

It was nice to see Jauss’s point illustrated for me by crappy acting. Writing something like “He was sad” is as sloppy and lazy as having a lousy actress inform viewers which emotion she is feeling. It also illustrated why fiction writing requires more skill and technique than writing for the screen (deny it if you want, it’s true). Actors can help convey emotion through acting (body language, the way they move, their eyes, etc), but fiction writers have no such luxury. Their words are all they have.

And that’s what makes it so very sad…

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~ by themoderntranscendentalist on April 29, 2012.

2 Responses to ““And that’s what makes it so very sad” – Abstractions in Writing”

  1. I totally agree. However, if a character is saying “I am sad” that doesn’t necessarily constitute bad writing. Perhaps you create a character who tells anyone within earshot exactly what she is feeling. Lazy writing in this instance would that the character is sad for the exact reason she says she is (after she’s had a page-length monologue describing the sad situation). Good writing, however, would have a character say she is sad, but show that she is in fact not (i.e. an heiress at the funeral of her filthy rich father); or maybe she truly is sad, but for an entirely different reason than the person in the scene with her believes.

    Sometimes people give voice to their emotions which means characters might as well (in dialogue only). As far as narration goes, I totally agree with what you’re saying.

  2. Point taken. Having one’s character say she is sad because her significant other just died in a horrific hang-gliding accident but having her actually be sad because Wonder Years went off the air one season too early would actually be pretty solid writing. I know that’s a pretty specific example, but you get what I’m saying.

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