5. THE SIN OF SENTIMENTAL SCENES
What is the difference between sentiment and sentimental? I think of it as the difference between real sugar and artificial sweetener. Sentimental scenes are as artificial as Sweet’N Low. A sentimental scene tries to manipulate emotion from the reader, usually pity or nostalgia or
warm and fuzzy feelings. Of course you want your reader to be moved by the events in your story. What you don’t want to do is turn off your reader with scenes in which you attempt to squeeze out pity or nostalgia or fuzzy feelings via mushy, maudlin writing. Most modern readers don’t have the tolerance for sentimentality that readers had in the days of Charles Dickens. Even before our day, Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop inspired Oscar Wilde to say that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” It’s the perfect example of sentimentality backfiring.
Even today there are practitioners of the tearjerker scene, in which lovers must part with a lot of weeping or someone noble dies. Generally the sentimental death scene requires the dying person to be an angel of some sort—already artificially sweetened—or to have a deathbed conversion to goodness. Frequently last-minute forgiveness is featured. You can practically hear the harps playing. Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not at all against a scene showing emotion or provoking emotion in the reader. What I’m against is fake emotion—emotion that is forced in the
characters and in the reader. How can you tell the difference? When you are moved by something you read, ask yourself if the emotional intensity in the scene feels earned. Does it match the level of intensity of emotion you felt when reading? If the characters are experiencing heightened emotions but you aren’t, the writer has left you out by not making those emotions convincing. The same goes for your writing. And be very careful about using such cliché and sentimental images phrasings as “a single tear ran down her cheek.” What happens when you use sentimentality rather than sentiment is that even though you’re creating a scene, you are still telling, not showing. You are telling your reader to feel something that you have failed to show in a convincing way. And that defeats the purpose of scenes.
a.) Create a brief scene in which conflict is apparent between two characters. The conflict can be small, say, over a choice of restaurant, or large, such as a divorce.
b.) Write a scene between a cop and a driver he’s pulled over. Write it in present tense and then rewrite it in past tense. How do these tense shifts alter the tone of the scene? Which works better here? Why?
c.) Go to a public space and choose one detail (of appearance, gesture, voice, action) for each person you observe that reveals something important about that person. Write a scene in which details reveal character.
d.) Write a short scene in which a parent and young or adult child return to the parent’s childhood home. The first time you write it make the scene occur in the winter, in the early evening. Then rewrite that scene in the morning, mid-summer. Consider the way time and setting affect the mood and tone of the two versions.
e.) Go to a public place where you can overhear but not see people nearby—a café with booths or public transportation work particularly well—and eavesdrop on a conversation. Write down as much of the dialogue as you need to establish the relationship between or among the speakers. Is there a power relationship? What is the nature of the information being passed? Is it merely chat, is someone trying to persuade, is there a conflict or does one of the speakers have an agenda? Can you individualize the speakers from their words alone?
f.) Write an animal death scene that is neither sentimental nor cliché.
g.) Write a list of ten similes that are fresh and surprising.
h.) Rewrite the parent and child scene, above, from a different point of view. If you wrote in third person, rewrite it in first person. Or change the point-of-view character from child to parent or vice versa.