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Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing Relatable Descriptions to Power up Empathy

There is something that has been rattling around in my subconscious for a while, and it finally clicked into the forefront of my mind: relatable descriptions.

I have found unrelatable descriptions in my own writing.

I have found them in other people's writing.

It's not that the unrelatable is always bad or wrong. It's that, like everything, it has a place it should be and a place it shouldn't be.

And where it should not be is in empathetic writing--when you want the reader to feel, empathetically, what the character feels.

Let me give you an example to illustrate.

In my story, I was trying to write a powerful, mentally-sickening experience down. So I used a comparison, something like the experience of swallowing poison. But no matter how I wrote that sentence, it just didn't carry the power I wanted it to. Then I realize why. Ingesting poison is not a very universal experience. Most people don't have personal experience with having poison in their stomachs. The closest some people can get to it is food poisoning, but that wasn't the kind of poisoning I was referring to. In short, the description didn't carry empathetic power because it wasn't relatable. I, the writer, don't even know what it feels like to be poisoned. I can imagine, yes, but it's all cognitive, not from experience. Therefore, it lacks true empathetic power.

But I could write a more relatable comparison. Have you ever had a large ice cube suddenly slip unexpectedly down your throat? It definitely does not feel good. It can happen very fast, and the hard cold of it going down your throat and into your stomach can be surprisingly sickening and leave you feeling, maybe in a strange way, a little woozy.

Now, not everyone has experienced this, but it's likely, if you use ice in your drinks, that you'll experience it at some point. Either way, all of us have had some experience with ice against our bodies or in our mouth. We've all felt ice.

Most of us haven't felt the effects of poison.

So my description of an ice cube slipping down a throat is suddenly more relatable than my description of swallowing poison. So if I want to write with empathetic power, I should choose the ice cube.

Admittedly, in this particular case, I did end up going with the poison, but for other, specific reasons. I used the ice cube elsewhere. But I'll explain why I did use the poison example. See, for this particular description . . . it's going to be used for a sort of extended metaphor, and on a cognitive level, poison relates to that extended metaphor better than ice. I weighed the pros and cons and the effect I wanted and decided that it was more important to me that the reader makes the intellectual connection of an extended metaphor than it was that they feel empathetic in that specific moment. The intellectual and symbolic connection was more important than the emotional.

That's okay. But I did lose that emotional power, and I had to be okay with that. Poison would never be as emotionally powerful as an ice cube, because it's not as relatable. (This also meant I could stop being annoyed that I couldn't get that power out of the sentence like I'd initially wanted).

So there are times where the unrelatable is okay.

But I've seen other unrelatable descriptions when the author clearly wants the reader's experience to be empathetic. Here is an example:

Sadness shivered down her spine and constricted her ribs.

That description isn't that relatable, but not for the same reasons as my poison one.

We can probably relate to that feeling of a cold shiver down our spines. We can probably relate to our lungs or ribs being constricting, maybe from having the wind knocked out of us.

But the reason it's unrelatable is because it's describing sadness. A shiver down the spine is something we associate with creepy things, not sadness. Likewise, sadness has never constricted my ribs (after shivering down my spine). This is an unrelatable description by association.

You can find unrelatable descriptions in other places, too. It doesn't have to be metaphorical. It can be a line about setting. It can be a segment of description of a character. If the reader can't relate to it, he won't be able to experience the story very well. It will be more cognitive. Again, that's not always bad, but when you want your reader to experience your story most powerfully and emotionally, you want to use relatable descriptions.


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