Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beware of the Big Bad “S”: Sentimentality vs. Sentiment

British poet, William Wordsworth once said “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” A beautiful message indeed. However, we have to pay heed that our feelings don’t metamorphose into sentimentalism when we’re writing. The predominance of sentimentality in the story can do more harm than good as it lessens the quality of our work. I once struggled with a story, my “bipolar” story as I used to call it while I was in the process of writing it, because it had both sentimentality and sentiment in some paragraphs. My mentor told me I was manipulating the reader’s emotions. So, he gave me a great piece of advice on this subject which I would like to share with you.

“There is a big difference between sentiment (which is good) and sentimentality (which is not). Sentimentality is unearned emotion. In other words, if, as a writer, I am asking a reader to fill in the story with experience from their own life, or with stock responses, then I am being sentimental. It is my job as a writer to bring energy to the reader, not to take it from the reader.”

Let me provide you with an example in order to prove his point. A story that begins with “Tears flowing like a river,” is sentimental. We don't know the character. We don't know the situation. Tears flowing like a river is a cliché. My mentor told me that “We are being asked for an emotional response that does not fit with anything we know from the story. If you had prepared us, given us a very emotional scene that led, eventually, to a moment of high emotion and conflict that demanded those tears, and if you had prepared us for that particular river, then it would not have been sentimental.”

Some key points that'll help you avoid sentimentality:
1- Use specific images and situations, not general or conceptual ones.
2- Don’t rely on clichés or trite subject matter.
3- Don't rely on adjectives.
4- Use events and images that amaze the reader.
5- Don’t tell the reader what to feel. Instead, let the reader experience feelings along with the character.

1 comment:

  1. This is great advice, indeed! Thanks for sharing it with us, Claudia.