Thursday, July 29, 2010

Subtlety ... or Understatement Is The Win

Maybe it's just because I'm Australian but I've always preferred well-worded understatement to emotional outbursts - in film, books, and videogames. I think my preference might also be that the big screaming, gasping, gurgling, is normally a bit out-of-proportion or they don't sit well with the character, or they're melodramatic and theatrical rather than gutteral and grotesque. After all, most people will have their characters sob and wail and pull their hair in dramatic defiance - a beautiful icon of human emotion! But in truth humans are ugly when they're highly emotional.

Gutteral grief means eyes so swollen they're almost shut, twisted grimaces that almost make a mockery of the human features, red faces, hitching breath, possibly even choking on their own sobs which might lead to dry retching, and other signs of emotional ugliness.

Rage isn't handsomely defiant - it's again twisted exaggeration of the face, jaws clamped so tight the teeth go white, unattractively red faces, and a lurch of fear or confusion in the viewer's bellies. It also tends to spill over into actions people wish they hadn't done - particularly if they feel frustrated by other people's reactions to their rage. They lash out verbally leaving behind scars they'll regret or they bite their tongue and simmer in hate-stew or they smack, shove, or hit someone nearby. They might even 'kick the dog' so to speak and take it all out on some innocent schmuck. It's completely unattractive.

The heights of joy have a word attached to them: hysteria. Hysteric fits of giggling, confusing passages of disconnected thought, lots of loudness and hype, and a lot of very confused spectators who might be able to smilingly go along with it but feel somewhat disconnected.

Of course, normally what you get are angry declarations and ruminations that inspire or intimidate; weeping maidens that wrench the heart but make them all the more beautiful like kicked puppies whimpering into the night; or shining eyes and joyous exaltations. I mean, they do all have their place. Anger isn't always rage, sorrow can be sad yet sweet, and joy can be pure and simple, but the writer isn't always clear on that point. The reactions don't even necessarily fit the character or the personality (innocent girl returns home to find everyone spread about like crumbs from a toddler's cookie). So I guess I've just grown tired of it.

Also, they keep reaching these crescendoes, particularly of grief and rage, yet never seem to feel gutted by it. Remember the last time you were caught in the throes of grief or rage and how you felt afterwards. Relief, sometimes. Other times you just felt drained and numb. If your grief or rage keeps being triggered, well, there's something off with your state of mind and you're likely to do something crazy.

Generally, you're better off with under-stated unless you're dealing with theatrical cultures in my book. A few perfectly formed words can describe things so perfectly where lines of over-emphasis would just have me shrink back away from it. I've been reading a few WWII diaries and one of the women on the Home Front plum broke my heart. Everyone thinks she's so cheerful but in truth, she smiles because she doesn't know what else to do. The lines are dynamite and they're injected into otherwise homely scenes.

I think I'll do some research into some of the big emotions later and do up a few articles on them.


  1. I hate books that are overly descriptive in the sense that the author takes a paragraph to say something that could be done in one sentence.

  2. ESPECIALLY when it's internal dialogue. I can deal with reams of physical description - if done well, I read it and enjoy it. If done poorly, I skip it and read around it (presuming the rest of it is up to scratch). But when the internal dialogue gets wordy then there's so often a problem.