A few posts back, I mentioned Chekhov's advice on description - picking a few choice details and letting them do the work, rather than a paragraph of purple prose. Another piece of advice had to do with creating emotion.
“When you describe the miserable and unfortunate," Chekhov writes, "and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another's grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold.... The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.”
When we read the phrase "miserable and unfortunate," we may think he's referring only to poor people, and maybe he was, but his advice works for any emotion.
The thing is, as writers our job is not to label an emotion, but to evoke it in the reader. Very young, and very inexperienced writers sometimes try to get an emotional response with double and triple exclamation and question marks. They figure if they shout at the reader, it'll spark at response. If that sort of thing worked, I'd do it all the time, wouldn't you??? We quickly learn to drop corny punctuation emphasis, but letting go of corny verbal emphasis comes a lot harder. And just as bad as gushing over your victim is what John Gardner calls frigidity treating the suffering of your character as if it were a joke. Maybe this comes from a conscious over-balance in the direction of Chekhov's coldness; frigidity after all is just extreme coldness.
Let's look at three examples of the same scene. The first one is not cold enough.
Dr. Gogol put the X-Ray on the screen and showed Jim the horrible black smear in his lung, the smear that was his death sentence. Jim looked at his trembling hands. "I can't believe it, I just can't believe it." It was so wrong, so unjust. How could God take away someone's life who was so young and had so much to live for? The universe was so unfair.
Now one that's too frigid.
Dr. Gogol put the X-Ray on the screen and showed Jim the place where a tumor was even then eating up his lung like a fat boy eating potato chips. Jim burst into tears, crying like a baby with a full diaper.
The full diaper line I stole directly from Gardner's example. You can't do better than Gardner. Now one where I'm going to strive for the coldness Chekhov recommends.
Dr. Gogol put the X-Ray on the screen, showing the black mark in Jim's lung. He was patient and clear explaining words like malign and metastasize, etiology and inoperable. It was important that Jim understand because sometimes these things were hard to absorb. It would have been better if Jim's wife had been there, to listen and to drive him home afterwards, but she had recently left him.
Okay, I loaded the deck a little bit, throwing in the line about the wife in the last example, but you get the idea. And frankly, the last example still needs re-writing to make it work. The reason writers fall back onto gushing or frigidity is because it's so damn hard doing it Chekhov's way. A puppy dying is sad, but the sentence "The puppy died" isn't. The writer has to build enough objective detail and narrative into the puppy's death to make us care about an animal we know full well isn't real in the first place. And that takes effort and imagination. It takes work. It would be so much easier if we could just use a few more exclamation marks.
The puppy died!!!
The puppy died!!!!!
The puppy died!!??!