The Tangle of Words and Emotion from a Child’s Point of View

“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” — James Michener

Words and emotions. Emotions and words. Simple concepts. But it’s the swirl, the swing, the tangle of the two, as author James Michener described, that make for good writing. 

I recently enrolled in a workshop conducted by author Tina Radcliffe. During her presentation, Radcliffe emphasized the importance of including emotions in one’s writing. In fact, she stated, “The single most important element of your story…is emotion.”  She suggested that each page of a novel should contain what Michener called the “tangle” of words and emotion.

Since I am writing a novel from the first person, point of view of an eleven year old, I wondered how the writing of emotion might be impacted by having a youthful narrator. What extent will the “tangle” of words and emotions in a novel be authentic when that book is written from a child’s viewpoint? What human emotions may that child even recognize? What is the extent of a child’s ability to properly assign emotions to the actions and reactions they witness?

Before answering these questions, I sought a greater understanding of emotions and their development. Emotions are commonly divided into the basic and the complex. These two categories are discussed in the Dictionary of Psychology from the American Psychology Association (APA) which states [basic] “simple emotions are those that are irreducible by analysis to any other emotion. They are pure, unmixed states and include anger, fear, and joy, among others.” Children are said to recognize these basic emotions at a very young age. On the other hand, recognition and understanding of complex emotions begin to develop as children grow older. The APA goes on to explain complex emotion as “any emotion that is an aggregate of two or more others. For example, hate may be considered a fusion of anger, fear, and disgust, whereas love blends tenderness, pleasure, devotion, and passion. … complex emotions include, among others, awe, disgust, embarrassment, envy, gratitude, guilt, jealousy, pride, remorse, shame, and worry. Research suggests that these emotional composites are seen more often in older adults than in children, who have only a partial conceptualization of such complexity.” (https://dictionary.apa.org/complex-emotion)

When writing emotion – basic or complex – it is important to “show” and not simply “tell” the reader what the character experienced regardless of the age of the book’s narrator. Emotions should not simply be named. They should be shown through internal and external expression. A physical reaction reveals emotion. An inner monologue reveals emotion. A visual symbol reveals emotion. Through such revelations, the emotion the character experiences becomes evident without the author directly stating the name of that emotion.

For example, Willie, a soldier in World War One and the main character in Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way, is filled with despair the moment he realizes the war will never be over for him. But, Barry does not “tell” the reader Willie’s emotions. Instead, he “shows” those feelings through Willie’s mental and physical reactions when he writes,

“…and then quite abruptly his brain was rinsed by a queer pain, all the words in his brain were swamped by a black ink and obliterated, he dug himself as deep as he could into the shallow mattress, his teeth chattering, and wept.” (excerpt from A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry”

A Long Long Way is an amazing novel of adult fiction with pages filled with images formed from the complex emotions of its characters. But, how can a novel written in first person from the viewpoint of a young person address matters based in deep emotion? For an answer, I looked to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee whose narrator is young Scout Finch.

Scout sees the world through an innocence that, at times, misinterprets the emotions of the people around her. But, as the book continues, she begins to find a deeper meaning behind the events she observes. The Scout who uttered racial epitaphs and stereotypes at the beginning of the book is not the Scout who witnesses the trial of Tom Robinson at the novel’s end. As she matures, so do both her emotions and the way she sees emotion in others. The intimacy and honesty in which Scout speaks bonds readers to the young protagonist and allows them to go on her journey to understand complex emotions such as empathy and tolerance in herself as well as those around her.

In my novel Sarah Finn, the young narrator, Cathryn Henderson, also encounters events impacted by emotions she doesn’t fully understand. In the following scene, Cathryn observes the meeting of her maternal grandmother, Grandmomma, and “the ole coot,” her paternal Grandfather Tanner. She allows her words to “tangle” with emotion through “showing” the reading the actions brought on by those emotions. So, although at this point in the novel, Cathryn doesn’t understand the complex emotions underlying these events, her confusion and curiosity in not knowing, serve to bring her and the reader on the path of discovering the foundation of the event.

“Grandmomma swung open the door of Sarah Finn’s sedan and grabbed Grandfather Tanner’s puny arm. Then she pulled his whole skinny self right out of the car. The ole coot teetered for a moment and then gained his balance. Grandmomma leaned in close, and he had no choice but to look up into her eyes that flared like two pieces of burning coal.

Then Grandmomma did something I had never seen her do, even when she had a sore throat or drank spoiled milk. Grandmomma spit! I could see she hit her target as spittle slowly dripped down Grandfather Tanner’s face.

William, who was awakened by the commotion, scooted across the car seat to get a better view. Daddy and Momma stared through the open window with their mouths opened. Without making a sound, Sarah Finn got out of the car as Grandmomma pulled Grandfather Tanner by his dirty blue shirt within two inches of her face. In a low voice that made me shiver like I had just taken a cold-water shower, Grandmomma slowly said, “I have been waiting 42 years to do that, you evil little toad, and if you think you…” but, before she was finished, Granddaddy was at her side, guiding her back to their pick up truck.” (excerpt from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor)

Cathryn simply relates to readers the actions she has seen without knowing past events that triggered them or the depth of the emotions underlying those events. But, as the story continues, the girl seeks to learn what about “the ole coot” would cause her lady-like grandmother to react in such a way. Cathryn’s journey to discover the truth is a trip readers may wish to join because they have a special bond with the young narrator because of the naivety and honesty of her youth, not in spite of them.

Thus, seeing the world through the eyes of child narrators like Scout Finch and Cathryn Henderson should not be considered deficits to a novel. The inability of these young characters to fully understand complex emotions can cause them to rely more on “showing” the effects of unfamiliar feelings in a way that pulls the reader into their world. The “pull” of these compelling narratives, are bringing more readers of all ages to the stories of young people. Thus, regardless of the reader’s age, the innocence inherent in these stories brings a truth that provides a compelling read as words of the young narrator “swirl and swing” as they “tangle with human emotions” in a way even Michener would have appreciated.

by PortiaLily Taylor

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

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