This installment of Odd Writer Terminology is inspired by a recent David Farland Writing Tip about writing emotions. If you haven’t subscribed to his daily emails, I highly recommend it. He provides insights not only into the vast writing universe, but also weighs in on current happenings in the publishing world. His post about emotions talks about avoiding both mawkish and maudlin prose and I would like to expound on the meanings of these two words.
Mawkish is defined as being “sickly or puerilely sentimental” or in a more archaic use “having an insipid often unpleasant taste” and stems from the Germanic word mawk meaning maggot. Even though it sounds like the word mock, being mawkish has nothing to do with making fun of the way people act or talk.
When it comes to writing in a mawkish way it means that the emotion has been so laden with adjectives and modifiers that it becomes extremely exaggerated and even embarrassing. The author has gone to extremes to try to elicit an emotional response from the reader by creating overly dramatic and unrealistic sequences for the sole purpose of arousing strong emotions.
The crushing weight of realization forced Jessie to her skinny knees and it felt as if there was an immense elephant stepping on her chest. She fought to breathe and could only manage small noisy gasps. The yellow stained linoleum burned with cold against her pale skin. She read the cruel note once more, “Brian never wants to see your ugly face again,” before crumpling the tear-stained paper to her heaving chest.
This example has had as many modifiers added as possible to make a point. It is heavy and dense and will get tiring to read after a page or so. There are times when the prose should slow down and showing extreme emotion is one of them, however an entire work written like this is a quick way to turn readers away.
Maudlin, on the other hand, is more simple and is defined as “showing or expressing too much emotion especially in a foolish or annoying way” and has roots in Latin and old French. The original image alludes to pictures of Mary Magdalen weeping. Magdalen evolved to maudlin. When used in real life is it usually referring to someone who is sloppy drunk and weepy.
In writing it refers to when the characters themselves are overly emotional all the time and seem to be crying at every page turn. As with mawkish writing this should be avoided. It is tiring to have a character crying all the time. More importantly, when a character openly cries all over the page it actually lessens the reader’s emotional response. This isn’t to say that a character should never cry. There are situations that it would be unnatural if the character didn’t cry, like if someone close to them dies. When a character cries it has to be over something worth crying for.
There are many ways to inject emotion into a story. However, using mawkish and maudlin writing aren’t one of them. If anything they lessen the impact of an otherwise powerful moment by making it comical or trite. It all comes back to balance and seeking honest and accurate ways of describing what is happening in the story. When this balance and honesty is found the story has the power to lift and transport readers to new places.
Other installments in the Odd Writer Terminology series:
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