Pulling at the Heartstrings: Literary Techniques for Emotion in a Personal Essay

Pulling at the Heartstrings: Literary Techniques for Emotion in a Personal Essay.

By: Annie Jain

We’ve talked a lot about showing over telling in your essays, and a lot of you guys sending in your essays have been doing an amazing job with this as far as external imagery goes. Yet, the same HAS to apply to your internal state of emotions. A lot of you do a great job setting the scene, talking about the color of the curtains and the noise in the air and everything, but the most effective showing in a personal essay comes from your feelings, emotion, and character.

And some of you do extend showing to emotions – but still only reference emotions in an external, physical sense.

I give this advice to almost everyone that sends in their essay, so I thought to make a blog post about it for all of you guys in general. It seems like something that we all need to work on – even I need to pay more attention to this!

Basically, there are three levels to emotion in a college essay. In the most intensely heightened and climatic regions of your essay, you want to be hitting the third level: exaggeration of abstract emotion

Let’s lay it out:

Level 1: Telling of Emotion

This level may be useful when you are quickly giving some background concept or detail necessary for understanding the main points of your essay, and you want to brush past something while contextualizing, en route to the central ideas. However, for many novice personal essays we have read, this style often appears throughout, which is something you want to avoid. It looks something like this:

“I felt extremely disheartened following my failure.”

Like, yeah, it gets the point across.

But, when you usually read a fictional novel or short story, don’t you as the reader need to feel emotion too? Do authors use the above sentence to make you feel emotion as a reader? No.

All you know from this type of writing is the basic emotion the character was feeling, but it is very disconnected and impersonal. Good personal essays don’t just communicate emotion, but make the reader feel it by transporting the audience to the space of the narrator. This is where Level 2 comes in.

Level 2: Showing the Physicality of Emotions

“My knees felt weak as I glimpsed my score. I had failed. My lips quivered, and tears brimmed my eyes.”

Notice how this communicates the same idea above, but now you are adding details about your physical state. This is much more effective, and helps the reader visualize what “disheartened” truly meant for you. It is an extremely useful technique in showing: not just the scene you are in and other visual stimuli – such that the reader feels they are in your point of view – but also physiological symptoms representative of the feelings you are experiencing.

This type of writing helps the reader picture and imagine what you are going through. However, in the most climatic regions of your essay, this can even be taken further. In the most emotionally heightened sections, you want to combine Level 2 with Level 3

Level 3: Exaggeration of Abstract Emotion

“My heart dropped. I squeezed my eyes shut, tears spilling from underneath my scrunched eyelids. The score lighting up the computer screen in front of me had blurred and spun around into my mind, meshing with a scattered vortex of numbers representing my dream schools’ score cutoffs and my parents’ expectations. As I blinked my eyes open, I witnessed this tornado of failure encapsulating me in a whirling disaster, ripping apart my goals and dreams in front of my eyes.” 

Disclaimer: this is highly exaggerated in order to illustrate a point.

However, even this amount of exaggeration can work for certain things. (This is how some of you act when you get an ACT score approximately one point lower than what you wanted – anyways…) 

You can see that this abstract description, combined with some physical description of your tears, not only shows your physiological emotional state, but also shows your internal abstract emotional state by conceptualizing it visually as an overwhelming tornado in this example. Obviously, it is hard to describe internal emotions, because they are so abstract. So, the best way to do it is by visualizing it and showing it through a metaphor, such as the one I described above. 

I know this is a difficult concept, so I will provide another example. 

In order to connect the reader with your emotions, you really want to exaggerate and make your emotions larger than life.

I have displayed a crescendo sign above for some of you music nerds. Think about dynamics in a piece of music. Almost all musicians realize that dynamics have to be exaggerated, because oftentimes you can hear subtle changes that your audience doesn’t.

That mezzo-forte-to-forte crescendo in the music above might sound more like a piano-to-forte to the musician playing the piece if they are playing it so the audience can hear the crescendo, and a piano-to-forte written in the music might sound like a pianissimo-to-fortissimo to the player. This is because sound diminishes once it reaches the audience, and needs to be exaggerated in the reference frame of the musician.

If you are not musically inclined, just realize that things are more exaggerated to the musician than they are to the audience.

Basically – just like musicality or dynamics in a piece of music –  you can hear emotion in your essay a lot better than the audience, because you know and remember the emotions, but your reader doesn’t. So, you have to emphasize them in order to reach out and communicate effectively.

For example, you might say:

 “My leg was in utter pain.”

while you were running a race on an injured leg. This sentence would seem emotional to you, because you yourself would be recalling the sense of pain that you felt while writing, and you would know the specific magnitude of it. However, I, as the reader, don’t know the exact degree and the exact nuance of feeling of this pain, unless you describe that: 

“A stack of dynamite exploded in my leg each time it came in contact with the track, as I fought to finish the race.” 

Obviously your reader is going to know that there wasn’t literally dynamite in your leg. But, see how this makes it more story-like, and the exaggeration really gives us an idea of how painful the runner’s injury felt, when the emotions/feelings are written larger than life?


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