Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Risking Sentimentality

No offense to the Rejectionist, whom I adore, but sentimentality is, I feel, essential.  Well, I'll qualify that: Risking sentimentality is essential.

Yesterday would have been my dad's birthday.  Had he survived to this day he would be 61.  (Shhh...I didn't say that!)  I'm not overly sentimental, I don't think, but there are occasions which cause me to reflect on the past.  Not every memory is a sunshine or rainbow.  I've hinted once before at a couple of things from my past that aren't all happiness.  My mom and I went to his grave to lay flowers.  Now, we don't lay flowers for Dad.  It's not in our personal beliefs that he's tied to his grave in any way.  Nor do we think that he really cares whether we do this or not.

It's like in the Fox television show Bones when (SPOILER ALERT!  IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW BECAUSE YOU MIGHT WATCH THIS SHOW, SKIP THIS PART!) Booth takes her to her mother's grave.  She completely doesn't understand why she should be visiting the grave.  She knows what's down there, how long it will take for what's in the grave to fade away to dust (all that they ever found of her mother was her skeleton and some decayed pieces of fabric), etc.  Bones is totally not religious, she views all religions as equally inane, etc.  Booth is a fairly devout Catholic.  Sure he's got some conflicts (worked as a sniper with the Army Rangers), but he's far more religious than Bones.  He encouraged her in this scene to talk to her mother.  Her protest was that it wasn't her mother.

I have a point to make, I promise.  (OK, now I feel like Elle in Legally Blonde when she's interviewing a witness in the trial at the end.

When we go to my dad's grave, it's more for us.  Just to say to ourselves that while the days may pass with very little pain or sorrow, 9 years after his death, we still haven't forgotten.  And we never will forget.

Now, my point is this: We should always be risking sentimentality in our writing.  My mentor in grad school used to quote this.  But I don't remember who he attributed it to.  In Sunstone Trilogy, my other WiP that I haven't been working on lately, I'm not going to lie in saying that characters die.  One already happens in the first book.  When I wrote the chapter originally, about 3 years ago or maybe 4, I dredged up all those emotions I felt the night my dad died, the week between his death and funeral, the day of his funeral, the day after, and two days after (which was Father's Day), and put those in the book.

Now, a definition here will be helpful:

1a. an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling
1b. a specific view or notion
2a. emotion
2b. refined feeling, delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art
2c. emotional idealism
2d. a romantic or nostalgic feeling verging on sentimentality
3a. an idea colored by emotion
3b. the emotional significance of a passage or expression as distinguished from its verbal context

1. the quality or state of being sentimental, especially to excesses or in affectation
2. a sentimental idea or its expression

1a. (obsolete) disturbance
1b. (obsolete) excitement
2a. the affective aspect of consciousness
2b. a state of feeling
2c. a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physical and behavioral changes in the body

Now, why all these definitions?  Because they point to something.  We want to convey sentiments in our writing, not just emotions.  Sure, there are instances where pure emotion, not sentiment, will prevail and should prevail.  But we should risk sentimentality in order to get those sentiments across.

To my way of thinking, sentiment is emotion amped up a couple notches.  Sentimentality is where we cross the line and have gone the way of purple prose.  We need to toy with emotions and toe the line of sentiment to elicit a response we desire of the reader.

Back to my book.  When I re-read this passage early in the summer, prior to beginning my complete re-write and prior to forging onward with what had never been written, I felt the emotions again.  I cried the whole time I read the passage.  I knew what was coming.  I knew who died and how it affected my character in that moment.  And I still cried.  I felt what my character was going through.

I felt it because I risked sentimentality.


  1. Great post. Very thought provoking and I agree with you. I think sentimentality is a HUGE piece of what we do. It is about more than the emotion of it, but it is the connection to the characters and isn't that why people read? Because they can connect with someone who understands?

  2. Aw, I'm sorry NWA... it's been 9 years this year since my dad passed, too. He would have been 57. My condolences, and a *hug*.

    I think we can only make difficult scenes powerful in our writing by expressing emotions that we've experienced strongly enough to do so. It's all about how you can take what you've felt and put it into your characters, or amplify a similar situation to match. It's a driving force behind good writing, and I don't think sentimentality is any less of a human emotion than any of the others. If we're not supposed to be sentimental, may as well strip all the other feeling out of our work as well.

    I don't know, this is just my immediate thoughts on the subject.

  3. Oh, this is a great post for me right now. I'm struggling with this very issue. I am trying to figure out where to draw the line between sentiment and melodrama. How much sentiment do you think is too much? My ms relies heavily on sentiment as a driving force for the actions of my characters. I just don't want it to come across as melodramatic. Does this make sense?

  4. Thanks everyone.

    LW, that's what "risking sentimentality" is. It's toeing the line between strong emotion that's believable and the melodramatic.

    We should be on that edge, but not going over. Emotion and sentiment=good, sentimentality=bad.

    Sentimentality is the melodrama. It's the ooey gooey mushy emotions that make you roll your eyes.

  5. Excellent post, I can't think of anything to add except my agreement. And sorry about your Dad, mine has been gone for 5 1/2 years.

  6. I'm a sentimental sap by nature, so I do have to watch that I don't cross the line into melodrama in my writing.

  7. It's difficult, Roni, definitely difficult.


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