I Get So Emotional, Baby

Girl showing her happy, sad, angry and wistful faces

Nicole's Many Emotions by allyaubry http://www.flickr.com/photos/allyaubryphotography/ / CC BY 2.0

I ❤ emoticons. They’re a short and sweet way to get your tone across…no guessing if that remark was meant to be a joke or if your friend was serious.

In the early days of email (yes, I’m from the Cretaceous Period), I remember people warning against using jokes and sarcasm in email because the recipient wouldn’t be able to read your intent and some catastrophic misunderstanding would ensue. At the same time these warnings were coming out, colons, parentheses and capital P faces popped up in emails.

There was also a debate over the goodness or badness of email: no attention span vs. the resurgence of something that resembled the letter. Even as I eagerly adopted emoticons, I was completely in the email=letter camp. This was the great literary comeback. TV may have rotted our brains, but email was going to make everyone love letter writing as much as I did.

Except that many people used email like a conversation. The older you were, the more formal the emails, but my friends and I wrote like we spoke, and emoticons fit in seamlessly.

Originally, this post was going to be about writing emotions and the difficultly of getting it right. The opening was shaping up to be something like: as much as I love emoticons, I would never want to see them used in prose. But they are. It’s just that, in literature, emoticons aren’t creative uses of punctuation, they’re words. Writers use full sentences and descriptive paragraphs to seduce the reader into feeling emotions along with the character, but they also use shorthand to get their point across quickly.

If “she smiled” you know she’s happy. There is no need for the author to explain that “her heart burst with joy” or that “she felt like she was soaring high above the clouds.” They might, but they don’t have to. On the other hand, if “he frowned,” the reader instantly know that the character is not pleased with the situation.

Let’s say a character says “You’re serious.” That alone doesn’t let the reader know the meaning behind his words. But by adding the emoticon, a single-word descriptor, the author is able to twist that phrase and tell the reader, very quickly, what’s going on.

“You’re serious.” Julia smiled.

“You’re serious.” Julia frowned.

You get a very different image of the character with each of those sentences. How her voice sounds. Even how she looks.

Personally, the first sentence makes me think Julia has a wide smile and that her eyes are dancing. In the second, I can see her standing with her hands on her hips. If that particular stance was important, I’d emphasis it, but if it wasn’t, I’d leave it out and use the rest of my words on more important details: action, other characters’ reactions or moving the plot forward.

While I don’t think I’d be OK with opening a book and seeing a lot of smiley faces, I feel that since authors have been using one word descriptors since forever it’s kind of like emoticons have been around forever…in one form or another.


One thought on “I Get So Emotional, Baby

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