Sentimentality in Writing Creative Fiction
Sentimentality vs. Sentiment—a World of Difference
Sentimentality comes up as an issue for nearly every writer at some point. In attempting to convey strong emotions, it's easy to go too far and make your reader feel manipulated instead of moved. Over-the-top emotion runs the risk of rolled eyes and – the worst case of all – of the reader putting your masterpiece aside, never to return to reading it.
Sentiment is a good thing. We want our readers to experience emotions as they read our work. Sentimentality, on the other hand, refers to excessive or inappropriate emotion, and it should be avoided in fiction at all costs.
What's the Difference?
Think of the last good book you read, the one you couldn't put down, the one that had you glancing at the bedside clock in the wee hours thinking, "I've got to get up and go to work soon. One more page and lights out, I swear." In all likelihood, you were in that story right along with the hero or heroine. You're experiencing what he or she experiences. That's sentiment.
Sentimentality is the writer telling you what he or she wants you to feel, often by informing you what the hero or heroine is feeling.
"The sight was terrifying" is a bare-bones example of sentimentality. "Blood dripped from the knife in slow, congealing globules" is sentiment. It inspires a feeling. It also tells the reader that the blood is no longer warm. You're setting a scene, not just telling the reader what's happening.
One of the most productive ways of achieving sentiment over sentimentality is to quite literally put yourself in your hero's or heroine's shoes as you're writing. See what he or she is seeing. Tell your readers what it is. Don't try to tell your readers how your character feels about or reacts to what he or she is experiencing. Show them. Conveying a story in the first person is a good practice ground to hone skills you can carry forward into other works.
Using dialog can also be very helpful in achieving sentiment. "'Run, run, run!' she shouted" gets the point across that the blood isn't a good thing at all, even if it's been dripping from the knife long enough to cool off a bit.
And throw clichés out the window. "Her heart stopped" is as condescending to a reader as "The sight was terrifying."
Do Some Research
The best way to learn about sentimentality is to read widely, both literature and pulp. Pay attention to your own reactions to books as you read, and study why they succeed or fail in provoking emotions in you.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that it's possible to overcorrect for sentimentality, as John Irving reminds us in his New York Times essay, "In Defense of Sentimentality."
But as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether. It is typical—and forgivable—among student writers to avoid being mush-minded by simply refusing to write about people, or by refusing to subject characters to emotional extremes. A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us, either. A fear of contamination by soap opera haunts the educated writer—and reader—though we both forget that in the hands of a clod, "Madame Bovary" would have been perfect material for daytime television and a contemporary treatment of "The Brothers Karamazov" could be stuck with a campus setting.