1. Powers of Language
(iii) THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTION
You can’t film feelings inside a character, but you can describe feelings in words. The difficulty is to describe them in a way that draws the reader into the immediacy of the experience.
Abstract terms are only a starting-point: excitement, bitterness, shame, regret. Or, she felt bitter, he was ashamed. Fine, so far as it goes—but the reader is still on the outside.
Verbs are the best bet when you want to convey the feel of a feeling. A feeling tingles, glows, soars, swoops, sinks, lifts, shrinks, swells, twists, tightens, pulls out thin … But, grammatically, verbs can’t exist on their own. They need a noun to do the tingling, glowing, soaring, swooping, etc. But how can you say what thing moves with these movements?
The traditional language of the emotions relies on traditional internal organs.
Her heart sank, soared, swelled …
His stomach tightened, clenched, churned …
[The feeling] tingled, fluttered along her nerves…
[The feeling] thrilled, burned in his veins…
Maybe the traditional language was based on pre-scientific beliefs about particular organs as the seats of particular emotions. Nowadays, well … maybe fear is centred in the stomach, but no one would think that hearts literally sink with disappointment or swell with elation. The naming of internal organs really says nothing except that the movement of the feeling was inside.
So, yes, these phrases are clichés, many of them used a trillion times before. Does it matter? If anyone can think of something else to sink other than a heart, I’ll be forever in your debt. In the meanwhile, I’ll keep using phrases like ‘Her heart sank’ or ‘Fear twisted a knot in the pit of his stomach,’ maybe adding a simile to freshen them up a little. I don’t see any alternative.
However, I’ll never use a phrase like, ‘Desire burned in his veins’. That’s corny as well as a cliché. Although language gives us the power to describe emotions, it’s not an easy power to wield!
(More about clichés later.)