Writing advice

The Limits of the Language

The absolute hardest part of this writing gig we have embarked upon is working within the limitations of the language. Because, one must admit, the English language in particular is not truly up to the task we often ask of it. Philosophers are well acquainted with the problem; their existential dilemmas are often too complicated and too vague for the language to adequately do the job they need. Language was invented by our ancestors to accomplish concrete communication tasks: there’s a lion behind you! Or the figs down by the stream are ripe. Language has a difficult time with ideas that are less concrete.

For us writers of fiction, this inadequacy becomes most apparent when we try to deal with emotion.

Think about it. The English language is horrible at describing the experience of emotion. Take the word “love.” We “love” our children, but “love” doesn’t really fully express the depth and breadth one feels the first time we hold our newborn child. The emotion is too complex to be simply “love.” I “love” my dog too, but it isn’t the same, nor is the “love” we have for our favorite sports team, or musical group. Yet, in each case we “love.”

You can’t even tell your sweetheart you “love” him more than anything else in the world. It’s the same thing your five-year-old nephew says the same thing about the new toy firetruck he got for his birthday.

It’s not the same thing, but we are limited to using the same word.

The same thing can be said about pretty much all emotions, but especially the stronger ones: love, hate, rage, disgust, etc. The words simply do not bring across the depth of the emotion. Maybe much of this is due to overuse. How many pop songs have been written over the years about “love?” So many that it doesn’t mean anything anymore?

So what’s a fiction writer to do? The language is inadequate to the task we present to it, yet it is the human emotions that fuel our fiction. Without emotion, there is no point to writing. Yet folks have been writing fiction and poetry for generations using this same tool of language. How do they do it?

Over generations artists, poets and writers have devised a couple of ways to work around the shortfalls of the language. And they work.

The first tool is actually metaphor and simile. Instead of trying (ineffectively) to describe the emotion felt when holding your newborn son for the first time, you link it to something else, like: “I looked down at his tiny face, my little creation, my flesh and my blood, and knew here was the future. The future lay sleeping in my hands, but that future depended on me, on the decisions I made, on my ability to nurture it into fruition.”

It’s not wonderful, but makes my point. Nowhere in that passage does the author ever use the word “love.” Instead, she links it to something else that the reader can understand and use to experience the emotion at hand. Shakespeare’s “…Juliet is the sun…” is not to be taken literally. It is meant to express the way Romeo felt about her.

The second tool is more subtle, somewhat harder to pull off. It also has two parts. The first is the technique of using the situation and the physical symptoms to let the reader experience the emotion. Using the newborn as an example again: “She accepted the little bundle from the nurse and clutched it close to her breast. His little eyes were closed. He was sleeping peacefully. Mary gazed down at her son and thought her heart was going to burst right from her chest. Her eyes filled with tears. “Hi, Derek,” she murmured. “I’m your Mommy. I’m so pleased to finally meet you.”

Again, the word “love” was never used. Instead, the author uses the situation (a birth) and the symptoms (heart bursting, happy tears) to point the reader in the right direction. The reader is smart; they will figure out what you’re trying to say. (Unless you simply blow it. Then a re-write is in order. That can be fixed.) This is much of what the writing instructors mean when they say “show, don’t tell.”

The second tool is the gradual buildup. The newborn baby doesn’t just appear. It’s arrival is preceded by ten months of sickness, discomfort, and emotional rollercoasters for the mother. The father (if intimately involved) experiences the same things, but second hand. The process of pregnancy involves a long, gradual buildup that eventually takes up more and more of the parents’ physical and emotional life. All of which makes the arrival of the newborn even more of a cathartic event. The trick here is that if the reader can be convinced to fully experience the buildup, they will experience the catharsis with little or no help from you. They will provide the emotion; you’ll just have to point them in the right direction.

And it will work no matter how you tweak the plot. The couple who have gone through the ups and downs of a full term pregnancy—and the readers who have grown to identify with them—will experience the same emotions at the end of the pregnancy as the characters, whether the result is a healthy baby, or a stillbirth. In fact, in the case of the stillbirth, you probably wouldn’t need to do much more than mention the tragedy. The reader will feel the tragedy more than you could hope to describe.

And that’s the trick to writing about emotion. It’s all about leading the reader to the edge of the emotion you want, then letting the reader take it from there, with you providing only a few physical descriptions when necessary, or a metaphor to point them in the right direction.

Otherwise, all you can do is yell “There’s a lion behind you!”


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