Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Subject of Emotions, Inspired by Pinocchio

"Why engage emotions? To create a good read. So yours will be the book that readers come back to again and again. So your characters will be remembered. So your novels will be recommended among friends." --Beth Hill

The day we chose to go to the art museum dawned sunny and bright. We knew, among other things, that we would view a sculpture that had only recently been dedicated. What we didn't know was what a lift we would receive when we rounded the bend to see it for the first time.

And then...there he was. Bigger than life--all twelve feet of him--cast in bronze and catching the sun's rays on his face: Pinocchio. Wow!

"Pinocchio (Emotional)," arms outstretched and face to the sky, stands outside the entrance to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Created by sculptor and artist Jim Dine, Pinocchio, the sculpture, has become an overnight attraction. The museum itself, dating back to 1886, is world-class---built, incidentally, only 3 years after Italy's Carlo Collodi first published his original Adventures of Pinocchio in novel form.  Now visitors stop to have their pictures taken with Pinocchio, faces animated and smiling, before entering the museum. Who wouldn't smile in the presence of such an overgrown, whimsical figure exuding such, well...such emotion?

You remember the story of Pinocchio, right? How Geppetto, the wood carver, makes a wooden puppet, telling the doll he will be his little boy. But almost immediately, Pinocchio gives Geppetto grief with his naughty behavior, enough so that he gets into more and more trouble. And each time he lies, his nose grows longer. "Pinocchio," says his guardian Fairy, "Every time you tell a lie, your nose will grow. When you tell the truth, it will shrink. You can only become a real boy if you learn to be brave, honest, and generous." (See more on the story at these links: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

Emotions range from defiance, alarm, fear, shame and loneliness (after all, bad boys turn into donkeys, you know) to surprise, hope, gratitude, elation--and love. By the end of the story, Geppetto is able to say, "Pinocchio, today you were brave, honest and generous. You are my son and I love you." On that day, the wooden puppet becomes a real boy.

I think I see now why Dine titled his sculpture "Emotional," don't you?

Emotions. Feelings and responses, perceptions and sensitivities. Reactions to life, positive and negative. We don't always know why we react the way we do, but we know how we feel. And it is through the use of emotions in our writing then that we also engage our readers, trigger their emotions, help them feel what the characters are experiencing--and create a good read. Yet, how do we go about conveying emotion in our work? Three tips to consider:

1. Raise the stakes. This sure happened to Pinocchio. Orson Scott Card, in Characters and Viewpoint, says: "Reading a story is not a passive process. While a reader may seem to be sitting still, slowly turning pages, in his own mind he is going through a great number of emotions. Underlying all of them is a strong tension. The stronger it is, the more the reader concentrates on finding out what happens next...the more intensely he feels all the emotions of the tale."  There are several things a writer can tap into, according to Card, in order to help raise those stakes, including the use of such elements as suffering, sacrifice, and jeopardy.

2. Touch the reader. Beth Hill, at The Editor's Blog, says "Readers like to be touched, moved, by story." A sample from her list of 18 suggestions for helping readers feel emotion includes: don't hold back...recognize the importance of word choice...create a situation that's important, vital, or life-altering if not life-threatening (again the case for Pinocchio--and Geppetto)...put characters under time constraints...write conflict into every scene.

3. Show, don't tell. We as writers hear this over and over, but nowhere is it more important than as a way of conveying emotions. "Let your readers figure out what emotion characters are feeling by reading their actions," says Evan Marshall at Write the Novel Fast. We don't have to be told that Pinocchio is disobedient and impudent. He shows it by dancing on the table when he's told not to, when he runs away, when he lies and his nose grows. We don't have to be told he's ecstatic over becoming a real boy, he shows he is by his actions.

Need help in identifying various emotions? You might want to check out Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, Wikipedia's Contrasting and Categorization of Emotions, and Buzzle's List of Human Emotions.

All of these thoughts stemmed from a simple trip to the art museum. And that only as we stood outside! Imagine the emotion-evoking images and masterpieces that awaited us inside, including artwork by Monet, Picasso, Duvenek, Warhol, and Henri Matisse. Ah, what an inspiring day.

Emotion: how does it contribute to making a book you've read memorable? How do you stir it up in your writing?


  1. Kenda, you've outdone yourself. Wonderful post. I love Plutchik's color wheel of emotions, with the color deepening with the depth of the emotion. I would not have given some of the emotions the colors he gave them. The greens--fear being a shade of green--didn't seem apt, however most of the others did, and to make full use of the color wheel, he had to use green in some capacity.

    I have always been involved with the study of both color and emotion, or human e-motivation.

    I have read fiction that is more an intellectual experience than emotional one, and it's pretty unpalatable. We want to get our message across via emotion, as it bypasses thought processes and speaks directly to the heart, which understands life at a deeper level.

    Thank you for reading my blog posts lately and if you do by chance make a trip to the Palouse, let's be sure to get together.

    1. Interestingly enough, if you Google "Wheel of Emotions Images" you'll see fear is not always green. I guess it depends on who created that particular visual.

  2. This is an excellent post. I do connect colors with emotions, so the color wheel was an interesting visual for me.

    I've read books that didn't hook me on an emotional level. I just gave away "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" because I really wasn't interested in the characters. Yet I read Tami Hoag's Oak Knoll series multiple times, largely because of the characters. They seemed real.

    The same is true of young readers (middle grade and YA - my target audience.) Those who loved Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen didn't want those series to end - not just because they enjoyed the story line, but because they really cared about Harry or Katniss. As a writer, I can't imagine anything better than creating a character readers loved that much.

    Tapping into emotions is hard. "Show, don't tell" is easy to say, more difficult to put into practice. But that's what makes us hunch over our computer keyboards for hours, looking for that one right word that will make the reader cry or shiver or smile with delight. I don't think there are any shortcuts. We just have to work at it.

  3. Wow is right, I can only imagine seeing the statue in person! Must be something to see! Will have to take a trip up to Cincy sometime and check it out. Thanks so much for this informative post. Have been pondering some of this lately in light of a chapter in the WIP. Great stuff, so glad you shared! :)

  4. Cathy and Peggy--thanks so much for your comments. You both are so good to give ME food for thought!

    Mentioning Plutchik's green made me wonder, where does envy fit in on his wheel? The old "green with envy" idea immediately came to mind. Envy is related to jealousy, jealousy to resentment, resentment to anger, etc. But anger, understandably, is in the red zone. So now I wonder where Plutchik would place envy? Hmmmm...the things we writers think about :-)

    And Cathy, I enjoy dropping in on your blog posts. Though I don't do so often enough :-( And for sure, I'd love to meet if I ever got out your way!

  5. Karen, the sculpture is really pretty special, worth seeing, that's for sure. I bet you'd love it! Come on up, Cincinnati welcomes you!

  6. Another great resource is The Bookshelf Muse.

    Emotions are the reason for so many workshops on the topic at the RWA nationals each year. While sitting in one last year, I realized exactly what I needed to do to my wip to make it stronger. :)

    Great post, Kendra!

  7. Oh, thanks, Stina :-) I am familiar with The Bookshelf Muse and should have mentioned it. It's a fantastic resource!

  8. This is a wonderful post, Kenda. I like the sculpture a lot.

  9. Love this, Kenda! I hope I've done this with my own characters. The sculpture's body language says it all!