On Writing Emotion

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Escapism is often a big part of pleasure reading. It is fun to get away from it all and get caught up in someone else’s  story.  To suspend disbelief and go on an adventure from the comfort of our chairs. For different genres “adventure” may conjure up images anywhere from epic battles to grisly crime scenes to erotic sex scenes, but is that what really draws us in? What makes us hang on to every word and flip the page? Is it really the blow by blow action of a fight, or is it the excitement, fear, and anticipation as we experience that fight with the character? Is it the detailed gore, or the horror, anger, and urgency we experience as the character investigates the crime? Is it inventive choreography of insert tab A in slot B, or is it the anticipation and passion as the characters we’ve been rooting for take their relationship to the next level.

For most of us, I think we can agree that it is the emotional connection to the story that keeps us riveted to the page.  That’s not to say the individual words and beats of the story are unimportant–those beats, if written well, inform us how to feel. I’m sure we’ve all read books where we were so caught up we’ve forgotten we were reading. These weren’t mere words on a page. We were there! We were with the character. We were on the edge of our seats during the tense parts, heartbroken in the sad bits, and grinning like fools as the character fell in love.

But how did the writer do that? How did they make us feel what the character felt?

They felt it as they wrote it, that’s how.

Okay, admittedly that’s not the complete answer. To cover that this post would also have to go into everything from pacing to word-choice, but boiling everything down to where it starts, if the writer can’t feel the emotion, he/she probably can’t write it. You can throw dead bodies on every third page and shoot at anything that moves, but if the writer feels no emotional connection to the actions of the character, it will be hard for the reader to care let alone get caught up. The word-choice won’t have an impact, the beats will fall flat, but even more telling, the character’s actions and reactions just won’t ring true.

So as writers, how can we try to instil every drop of emotion possible? Most of the time, we will probably do it naturally because we will ‘feel’ our scenes. We’ll be excited about what we’re writing and we will get caught up in our own characters and worlds. But, there are always bad days when writing is so very hard, and there are scenes that no matter what we do, just don’t seem to work. Those are the times we need to make a conscious effort to focus on the emotion that is supposed to be in the scene. Not just in choosing the right words that should convey that emotion, but in really, truly feeling the emotional impact.

Sometimes things aren’t working because the emotion rings false or just isn’t there (of course there are other reasons scenes get stuck, but again, that’s a different topic.) It can help to close our eyes and play the scene in our heads and then take stock of our own response. Did what you imagine cause silly, butterfly feelings in your stomach? Did your throat constrict and go raw? Did your thoughts start moving faster as your breathing and heartbeat sped up? Or did scene play out without any kind of emotional response? If it did, close your eyes again and keep imagining different scenarios until your internal reaction matches the emotion you want to convey. The results may surprise you, but the new actions/reactions of your characters will almost certainly draw a stronger response from readers.

Of course, not every scene is a huge emotional production. And even with tension and growing unease or anticipation, there are times we need to ease back our we will pull too tight too fast and the tension will snap in our face like an over-stretched rubber band. But you will know where your emotional ride should be at it’s height and where it is more subtle–adjust accordingly.

Okay, that’s it for me today. Have a happy Thursday everyone. I hope this helps you amp up the emotional response to your writing.

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12 comments to On Writing Emotion

  • I find that I do my best emotional writing when I have truly put myself in my character’s shoes. I find writing to be something like role-playing and something like what a spiritualist would call “channeling.” The more I can convince myself that for those moments on the page I AM my character, the more convincing the emotional content of my writing. I think this is one of the reasons why a really good day of writing for me is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Nice post, Kalayna!

  • Excellent post, and the topic is always something that writers need suggestions on how to do well.

    I want to add one bit of warning: be careful how deep into your characters you go. I wanted to connect as much as possible with a protag who starts the story as a self-absorbed dude who spends his time with a gang of cut-throats and mostly hates his life. He changes (as good protags should) but I had to know all about him at that stage in his life. I began to see everything through his eyes. *His* behavior coming from *me* was not pretty.

    I didn’t realize it was happening because it was gradual. I loved feeling that I understood this guy so well. Taken to extremes, connecting deeply with a badass character could lead to more than angry comments and that’s problematic enough. I’m just sayin’.

  • “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
    —Robert Frost (1874–1963)

  • A. R. Gideon

    I write a lot like David, I tend to role play my scenes. So many times I’ve had people walk in on me acting out a scene and look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I’m writing :)

  • Kalayna, I do most of my emotional writing on the second day. The first day of writing a scene is, for me, the poltting day, very much like building a wall or laying brick. This goes here, and it’s propped in place with this and this and this and leveled up with this. Yeah. The building blocks of plot are in place, laid out like the blurprint of the outline indicated.

    But the second day, the very next morning, I start with the rough scene and let it tell me where the emotion goes. Her eyes widened here, her breath caught there, she blinked against the vision on the floor, but it played out again on the dark of her lids… She struck out, anger adding power to the punch. Like that. The emotion goes in like mortar, holding everything together, but added after.

  • Great post. I’ve caught myself replaying the same scene many times over, with minor tweaks in dialog or emotion. Sometimes a lot of time passes before I realize it. Not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe a “role play alarm” is a good idea if you too often find yourself getting caught up in the drama :)

  • Megan B.

    This must be why I tune out during extended chase scenes in most movies!

    I have a tendency to play out scenes of my stories in my mind before writing them down. But I haven’t been doing it as much with my current middle-grade WIP, and now I think I know why I’ve been feeling less connected to that story. So thanks for the reminder!

  • Great reminder. I often find that when I’m struggling with a scene it’s because I don’t have a good feel for the emotion. I’ve also learned that I sometimes write best when I go for the emotion first and the plotting second.

  • Sometimes it’s easy to feel the emotion, but hard to write it. I sometimes have to close my eyes and feel the emotion first then write it.

  • Razziecat

    “I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” – Frank Capra.

    He was talking about movies, but it applies to the written word, too. David did this very well in Thieftaker! If you read it, you can guess which scene I’m referring to. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet 😉

  • Dealing with a lot of the emotional right now in my WIP. The character begins in a fairly dark place and he’s having to come to grips with what he is with the help of his new sidekick/assistant. Adding to the mess is that his older friend isn’t sure if he can be trusted anymore and has issues with what the MC’s become. I’ve always been pretty good with the emotional writing and I can see it and feel it as I’m writing (I see the scenes in my head as a movie and feel what the characters are feeling). Hopefully those scenes that choke me up while writing them will have the same impact for the readers. :)

    And yeah, Razzie, if it’s the scene I’m thinking in Thieftaker, I didn’t cry, but it had definite emotional impact.

  • Somebody once told me not to ‘revise’ scenes, but to ‘relive’ them. I think putting yourself in their place, imagining it’s you trapped under the rock, with more of the ceiling crashing down around you, really gets the heart thumping and the fingers clacking. Once you relive the scene and it’s emotionally charged, you can go back and revise to make sure of grammar and word choice.

    NGD