Once I walked into a big box store and saw at the front of the store a little girl, barely more than a toddler, twirling and gazing at the lights overhead. She was clearly ecstatic, transported by their dazzle.
It was an enchanting sight, but even as I paused, captivated, I found myself noting, “If she weren’t so young, we would know she wasn’t quite ‘right.’ No adult—even no child who has been around long enough to have learned the mostly unspoken rules of our society—is permitted to be that happy right out in public!”
Feelings are a fascinating topic for any artist to consider. It’s what most art is about at its core, touching us, moving us, opening us. But the fact that a story makes me laugh or gasp in horror or cry doesn’t necessarily make it art. In fact, sometimes I find myself resenting the emotional response drawn from me by stories, even as I’m responding.
What makes the difference between sentiment and sentimentality? The same thing, I believe, that makes the difference between drama and melodrama. Watching a beautiful young woman tied to the train tracks in front of an approaching train might bring up strong feelings, but there is a heavy load of artifice about those feelings. If the potential victim is the beautiful maiden of traditional melodrama we’re probably experiencing our horror with an underlying amusement. That’s why the tradition exists at melodramas of calling out, booing the villain and cheering the hero and saying “AW” when the beautiful young maiden enters, all of them totally predictable cardboard cutouts and meant to be so. We make a game of it, because we already know what will happen. The handsome hero will save her. Therefore, little is at stake . . . for us or for the characters. Whatever feelings are elicited are neither genuine nor deep.
Drama, true drama, is earned. It rises out of the characters, characters who are capable of delivering surprises to author and reader alike. Melodrama is imposed from above. The author simply decides what will happen and puts the characters through their paces.
Sentiment is earned, too. It comes from the depths of our characters’ experience. And it is seldom presented like a fist to the gut. In fact, the moments in fiction that create the strongest feelings in me as a reader are the punches that are pulled, leaving me to provide the final step in my own mind, through my own emotions.
Think about the cut-away effect in films, how often a scene takes you right up to the moment when you know something powerful is inevitable, and then the camera pulls out and we are left to experience the rest of the scene in our own imaginations. I am fascinated by that technique and study it constantly in films. (Fortunately, that’s a kind of study I can do with little effort while I enjoy a relaxing evening in my living room.) Two characters meet and one has something horrific to tell the other, something that we have already known about. We don’t go through the conversation, repeating what the audience is privy to. We see the conversation begin or the speakers approach, and then the camera cuts away. We know exactly what’s going to be said, what the response will be, and we are more compelled because we fill the details in ourselves.
We, as readers, are left to do part of the work of the story. We aren’t getting everything handed to us. And leaving our readers to flesh out the emotional moments of our stories instead of hammering the feelings home, draws them in. They become co-creators with us, invested, not simply observing.
And that’s exactly what we want!