Thursday, April 19, 2012

Deep Emotion vs. SENTIMENTALITY, Walking a Fine Line

Sentimentality is the only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way.-Author: W. Somerset Maugham

Have you ever read a particular scene in fiction and had the opposite reaction from what the author intended? Has a description of a “tall, dark and handsome,” hero who left “butterflies,” in the heroine’s stomach ever made you roll your eyes? Have you ever closed a book during a passage of supposed-to-be spine-chilling tension? Has a rift between characters spurred you to furrow your brow and mutter, “What’s their deal?” Did an emotionally-traumatizing experience for a main character ever leave you indifferent to their plight? Has a pun ever left you sarcastically saying, “ha ha”? This is sentimentality.
And it’s terrifying. Isn’t it? Just thinking about this makes me want to pull up my book document and revise.
Sentimentality occurs when emotions such as rage, humor, passion, terror, sadness and despair feel forced. Such emotions come off as artificial on the page. It happens when clichés reign over descriptions, when emotions are stated rather than shown. Readers read about a character’s particular emotion but they don’t feel a thing themselves. In other words, sentimentality elicits a gag reflex in readers instead of a sigh. Are you authors scared yet? I am!

Emotions are powerful in fiction, don't you think? At least they can be. “Preparing fiction…without emotion results in telling rather than showing,” says author Vivian Gilbert Zabel (Article Source).
Without emotion, literature feels stripped of the “good stuff.” In other words, sentiment is a good thing; sentimentality isn’t.

Sentimentality happens when writers present only the surface emotions attached to a given emotive scene. Many blogs and other websites offering writing tips suggest that we watch for cliches as a source of sentimentality. Characters “clench fists” in the face of confrontation, feel their “heart pounding” under the cloud of terror, and their “stomach sink” at every whisper of bad news. Should we avoid these emotions altogether? No!
Unfortunately, it seems that many writers go above and beyond trying to avoid sentimentality, neglecting sentiment altogether. This is sad. While it can be scary to put our personal emotional take on the world and its complexities in print, I think it’s best to march out onto the tight wire, walking the fine line of deep emotional resonance without falling off into
sentimentality (had to tie the picture in somehow).
So, what do we do when our novels have some weighty and emotional material? How can we make our writing resonate emotionally without crossing the line into sentimentality?
Dianna Dorisi-Winget in "Let's Get Physical! Writing Emotion in Fiction" advises, “since emotions are such an integral part of the human condition, fiction writers must employ description that accurately expresses a character's feelings. However, simplistic and overused descriptions leave the reader unmoved. Using clichés (simplistic and overused words or phrases) results in sentimentality.” (Article Source)
Authors can avoid sentimentality without losing emotion needed to reach readers. The writer simply has to deal with the emotion in an original and complex manner by trying to avoid abstract words and ideas. This is accomplished by staying with concrete descriptions…Abstract words and ideas can be interpreted by others in different ways, relying on the readers' definition. Details are required to make the emotion live. (Article Source)
What are your thoughts on sentimentality? I want to know! Does it bug you as a reader? Does it scare you as a writer? Where do you think the line between deep emotion and sentimentality should be drawn? Please share.
(Photo Source: Philippe Petit, "The Man on Wire")

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