A few weeks ago, I went to see The Book Thief at the local Dollar Theater. [NOTE: vague spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, skip this introduction]. The movie was well-written, and I enjoyed it…mostly. Near the end, there’s a bomb strike and multiple characters die. Their death scenes were very powerful and poignant because the entire scene was understated. It was narrated by Death himself, and he spoke a few words about each character that reminded you just why you cared about them. I’m not ashamed to admit that this particular scene made me tear up; it was that well-written. It all fell apart in the next scene, however. A young girl holds her dying friend in her arms and he chokes out “I love…” just before he expires. At that point, the girl starts screaming and passes out. A soldier picks her up and starts slow-mo running towards the camera while dramatic, emotional music plays in the background. It was at this point that I got very angry with the directors. That entire scene was specifically designed to elicit a particular emotion from the audience. It practically begs you to cry, and it pulls out every stop to ensure that you do. I really hate it when movie directors or writers obviously try to force me to have a specific reaction…I don’t react well to manipulation, particularly when it’s so blatant. In this case, the sin was particularly egregious because the scene before it was so well done. At any rate, this entire long introduction serves to say that I want to spend today’s post talking about how to identify oversentimentality in your writing (and why it’s a bad thing) and how to avoid it.
So what exactly is oversentimentality? In this case, it’s manipulating your audience into experiencing a certain emotion, often sadness or nostalgia. Before everyone gets all up in arms here, let me say that I know we want people to feel certain things through our writings, particularly when it comes to poetry. We want people to empathize or react a certain way based on the circumstances we portray. What I’m talking about is doing so in a kitschy way that is forcibly created by you, the author, and doesn’t arise out of the text naturally. It’s easier to spot in movies because of music choice, camera angles, slow-mo movement, and so on, but it can be just as devastating in literature as it is in film. An author usually slides into oversentimentality when he or she drags out an emotional scene so that the reader is hit with every possible little detail that could cause a specific reaction. This frequently happens in death scenes when the author wants the reader to upset at the loss of a character. Often, this takes the form of an unnecessarily vivid or visceral description of the death itself (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin), or an in-depth depiction of everyone else’s response to the loss (some of Brian Jacques’ later novels have scenes that stray into this category). When an author forces a certain response from the reader, he or she divorces the emotion from the text. It detracts from the story because it’s not true to the story or the characters you’ve created. When I saw that particular scene in The Book Thief, it completely pulled me out of the story and made me angry because it was so blatantly manipulative. It was forced and not real, and it completely ruined the ending of the film for me. I’ve read books that cause me to have the same reaction – I respond to the word choice and technique, not to the actual event or because of the character(s), which is a problem. Not just that, but it often makes the reader feel talked-down to. It’s as if the author/film director believes the audience is incapable of experiencing the sadness/nostalgia/whatever of the scene without being prompted along. So if the manipulation weren’t enough, the condescension makes everything worse. It’s annoying, and few people respond well to it.
How do you identify and avoid emotional manipulation in your writing? Well, there is no clear cut “do this and you’ll avoid the problem” formula, but I can offer some tips. Whenever you write an emotional scene, put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Examine it thoroughly. Does each description need to be there? Are the characters reacting the way they really would in that situation, or are they overdramatic? Do you have too many descriptions? (Also: if it’s a death scene, is it raining? If there’s rain involved in the scene, you may have a problem). Have someone else read the passage for you. How do they respond to it? I usually have a list of questions ready for my peer editor for when he or she is done reading, so that I can judge the responses and tweak my work accordingly. Above all, don’t set out trying to make your reader experience a certain emotion. Let the text go where it will, tweaking as needed, but don’t set about trying to force it. Audiences don’t respond well to manipulation, and it won’t help you at all with your writing. Emotion is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.