What if I told you that Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Outlander are not literary masterpieces? Would you agree? What if I also told you that those books sold because they were able to effectively evoke emotion in their target audiences? For the record, I didn’t like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Outlander. The love plot lines were problematic to me. I didn’t believe an old vampire would fall in love with a seventeen-year-old girl from Forks, Washington. I didn’t believe that a woman who traveled to the 1700s wouldn’t spend the entire time desperately trying to get home, and I didn’t believe, well, really anything about Fifty Shades of Grey. But somebody did. In fact, lots of people did. The earnings of those three books combined is mind boggling.
I sat next to a woman on a cross-country flight that read Fifty Shades of Grey from cover to cover with such rapt attention that she didn’t respond to the flight attendant. When we landed, the woman looked confused and not too happy to step back into real life. She collected her things with the glazed, glassy eyes of the fictive spell. I painstakingly read Fifty Shades of Grey over the course of a few weeks and argued with every scene and theme. I was never in it. It was too sentimental. But what does that mean? The literary world has argued sentimentality for ages. Oscar Wilde wrote that sentimentality is the result of unearned emotion. It’s the moment where you are pushed out of the story. You know you should be feeling the emotion, but you aren’t. The question is how to elicit a genuine emotion.
A few easy changes can help an emotion land. Here are five ways to edit for sentimentality:
- Tense. Is the tense right? Is it adding tension? Is it placing the reader in the moment of the action? Is the tense allowing the story to progress back and forth through time with a fluidity that keeps the reader engaged? Does the tense stay consistent? Changing tense can change the immediacy of a scene and can also give life to memory.
- Point of view. Does the story need an omniscient point of view so the reader can watch all of the events unfolding? Does the story need limited third person so the reader can see through the eyes of the protagonist? Or does it need first person in order for the reader to dive into the mind of the protagonist?
- Structure. Often, reorganizing the writing can help draw in the reader. Is there a better place to begin the story? Is there a better place to end it? Will changing the sections help with pacing?
- Show don’t tell. The reader would rather decide if they like the character based on dialogue and action rather than being told to, and they need to experience before they can feel. As the writer, you are often already feeling the emotions, so slow down and give the reader a chance to get on the ride.
- Know your audience. Picking a specific person to represent the target audience can help the writer’s voice stay consistent. E. L. James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey for the lady on the plane.
The idea of sentimentality is largely subjective, and just because the author is feeling it doesn’t mean the reader will. However, eliciting emotion is also an art. When the reader does feel it, the world melts away and the story takes over.