I have trouble telling when cold writing is actually necessary and tend to just use it always. Is this just a writing style or a handicap? do I need to incorporate emotional adjectives into my first person writing? It feels like one of those things i'm not trying hard enough to overcome, but I'm not sure if I need to?
Hey! I’ve got two answers for you.
The first answer, and the main one, is no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “cold” writing in the first person. It’s absolutely a style. Ernest Hemingway is known for his lack of adjectival writing, and many love and praise him for it.
But I think there’s more to be said here.
Here’s a piece of advice from the creative nonfiction world that ended up helping me out in all genres: when the action is hot, write cold. When the action is cold, write hot. Allow me to provide an example from Stephen King’s “Carrie”.
Miss Desjardin, their slim, nonbreasted gym teacher, stepped in, craned her neck around briefly,
and slapped her hands together once, smartly. “What are you waiting for, Carrie? Doom? Bell in
five minutes.” Her shorts were blinding white, her legs not too curved but striking in their
unobtrusive muscularity. A silver whistle, won in college archery competition, hung around her
The girls giggled and Carrie looked up, her eyes slow and dazed from the heat and the steady,
pounding roar of the water. “Ohuh?”
It was a strangely froggy sound, grotesquely apt, and the girls giggled again. Sue Snell had
whipped a towel from her hair with the speed of a magician embarking on a wondrous feat and
began to comb rapidly. Miss Desjardin made an irritated cranking gesture at Carrie and stepped
Carrie turned off the shower. It died in a drip and a gurgle.
It wasn’t until she stepped out that they all saw the blood running down her leg.
[I have to disclaim here that I find this passage problematic and male-gazey in terms of content, but it does illustrate the idea pretty well.] King spends a lot of prose on the set up here, in particular on the inconsequential details of Miss Desjardin’s appearance. The lengthy prose is musical and full of adjectives and pulls you close into the scene, drawing your gaze from the coach to Carrie’s eyes to Sue’s towel, lingering on the noises, all to evoke a feel for the room.
But when the real action happens, all that disappears. He drops the ‘hot’ evocative language, loses all the adjectives, and takes you right to the moment. The lack of couching language gives the image a shock value, clearing away all imagery of the room so that Carrie herself stands out a stark and lonesome figure. The reader is placed right in with the other locker room girls, seeing exactly what they see how they see it. Our eye is forced to concentrate on the blood. The action becomes what evokes the emotion, instead of the prose.
Each author is going to have a different balance between stark language and rich prose. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work is full of imagery and adjectival prose. Amy Hempel is famous for the extreme experimental starkness of her stories, in which she leaves out every detail she possibly can while still maintaining a story. You are going to have your own unique balance.
That said, here’s a second answer. I do think it’s am important and useful exercise to write outside your strengths and tendencies, and to concentrate on one particular skill and experiment with it and exercise it. You may find it useful to take a scene you are having a hard time with, and trying to write it with the purplest prose you possibly can. The expectation here is not that the purple prose version will be great. In fact, a lot of it is liable to be pretty awful. But the experiment will exercise the muscle. Then you can set the purple scene aside and write it with your starkest prose possible. Probably this scene also won’t be exactly what you want either. Set it aside again. Hide them both and don’t look at them. Write the scene again, the best you can. I suspect you’ll find you naturally incorporate some of the best from both the other versions.
For still more practice, you could go back into each version of your scene and revise it as if it were the writing you planned to stick into your story. Revision is such an underrated skill, and practicing it will yet again get you to pay attention to when you use ‘cold’ writing and when you use ‘hot’ writing and why you’re making the choice to use it when.
Lastly, check out Geist’s 6 principles of good narrative. While it doesn’t directly answer your question, I think you may find it helpful when deciding what is working and not working in your story.
the cover to Overstreet’s FAN #7 by Dave Sim, Gerhard, Richard Sala, Terry Moore, Evan Dorkin, Chris Ware, Mark Hempel, Reed Waller, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Paul Pope, Drew Hayes, Shannon Wheeler, and Bernie Mireault
Summary: Isabella Lester, Dan and Phil’s youngest child, normally loves her
psychology class. But one lecture where her teacher uses Izzy’s
“out-of-the-ordinary” family as an example changes all of that. Dan and Phil
must help their daughter in some way.
He sat back down beside me and said it was time to change his life. He wanted to. “But how does a person start?”
“Small,” I said. “Start small and work up. The way you would clean a house. You start in one room. Maybe you give yourself more time than you need to finish that room, just so you finish it. Then you go on to the next one. You start small, and then everything you do gets bigger.”