Saturday, April 28, 2012

uncovering what works in sensory language

The Writer's Chronicle for May/Summer 2012 includes an article by David Jauss with the slightly hokey title of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Abstraction?: Modes of Conveying Emotion."  Nonetheless, as with most essays and articles by Jauss on the craft of writing, it helps identify strategies for mustering life into faltering prose.

Jauss is keen to make the point that emotions reside in the senses, and "without some appeal to the senses, ... it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, for us to make our readers experience our character's emotions."  He suggests the "primary ways writers can convey emotion through the senses are body language and metaphors."  But it can be hard work to convey such emotion on the page, and often the writer will take a shortcut, i.e. just use an abstraction, a sensory bypass, and get on with the story.  For instance:

Cornell experienced an immense grief.

But when we abstract like this, Jauss cautions, "we are asking the reader to do the hard work of imagining the physical sensations of the emotion for us, and the readers aren't any less susceptible to laziness than we are ...so she just skips the trip entirely."  And maybe also closes the book.  Jauss gives his own examples where, instead of simply naming the character's emotion, as in the sensory bypass naming Cornell's grief, a writer might work a little harder at portraying the emotion in some unexpected way.  "In A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore makes Bo Keltjin's grief visible through his unusual use of a handkerchief at his son's funeral.  Instead of drying his eyes with it, as we might expect, he 'presse[s] it completely over his face, like a barber's hot towel.'  With a sentence like that, we don't need the word grief; we witness it."

And then we have the gloss.  "Whereas a sensory bypass might allude to body language but doesn't actually describe it, a gloss does describe body language--but then proceeds to interpret it for the reader.  As in:

Tears of grief wet Cornell's face.

The writer is trying to make sure the reader hasn't missed a turn somewhere and is interpreting those tears correctly.

Another interesting area of enriching sensory language to rescue it from mere gloss or abstraction as discussed by Jauss is to mix the body language with metaphor.  To illustrate, he takes another example from Lorrie Moore: "'Here Sarah looked at me mischievously, her look a complicated room one might wander through, exploring for quite some time if there were any time.'  If Moore had merely said, 'Here Sarah looked at me mischievously,' she would have been guilty of writing a gloss and the emotion labeled by the abstract evaluation mischievously would have been dead on arrival.  The metaphor brings it to life."

Jauss gives many more juxtapositions of body language, abstraction, gloss, metaphor, and action that can bring emotional life to your characters, and the complete article is worth reading.


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