I’ve always poo-pooed the saying “Write what you know.” Bull, I’ve said. I’m pretty sure Mary Shelley never built a Creature from human cadavers in her basement, yet Frankenstein has become a classic. Great writers always write things they don’t know. If they can do it, so can the rest of us.
It only recently occurred to me that there’s another way to read that statement. What if “Write what you know” is about descriptions (like the beach details from last week), or a city layout, or –and here’s where it hooks into this week’s post—feelings and emotions?
Almost everyone has been in love. Has been angry, even pissed beyond all reckoning. Has lost something or someone close to them whether to circumstance or to Death. Has achieved something they worked their butts off for, and damn well deserved. Just about any emotion I could mention, you’ve likely felt it numerous times in your life.
So why is it so hard to write scenes with deep emotion?
Because putting those very personal feelings into words and then exposing them to the world is hard. It’s scary. It makes you vulnerable. Doesn’t matter. If you want to pluck your readers’ heartstrings, you gotta face that dragon.
In a recent critique class, a fellow student— Natalie—submitted a chapter from her work in progress wherein three teenaged girls are in a horrific car accident which leaves one of them dead. I’d read this segment of Natalie’s manuscript before, and each time the feedback from other students and the teacher confirmed what I felt myself: that the accident scene left me cold, and not in a good way. I just didn’t feel the horror, the anguish, the terror, the pain, the shock. This time, however, the teacher said to Natalie, “I know it’s going to be hard, but you’re going to have to relive your own accident if you want to get this right.”
Natalie had an accident? Wow. I never knew. She told me later that she plans to go back to the scene of the crash, look back through all the photos of her devastating injuries and relive it so that she can inject her own experience into the scene. She knows it will be difficult, upsetting, traumatic. But nobody ever said writing great fiction would be easy.
Another person in the class described using the death of her own sister, the unresolved issues between them and the persistent anger that followed to inform a similar death and lingering anguish in her own work. As she spoke about it in the class, her tone, expression, posture, body language, everything changed. Clearly, she said, I still harbor some resentment in this issue. It shows in her story.
So if you want your reader to surf the waves of your character’s emotions, you have to “bleed on the page.” If you don’t feel it, neither will the reader.
You can’t just say, “Jane was sad that her cat Buttons died.” You have to show us her anguish, her memories of bonding with the lost feline, or how saving the kitten from the shelter saved Jane from suicide. Make us feel how empty Jane’s house will be now, without Buttons to greet her at the door every day. If you’ve ever lost a pet, you know the hole left in your life by their passing. Draw on that. Use your memory of that sadness to describe Jane’s grief and how she mourns.
Don’t just tell us Jane is in love. Show us how she misses her subway stop because she’s daydreaming about her new partner, or texting them. Show us how Jane sings in the shower, even though she’s never done it before and can’t carry a tune in a bucket and doesn’t care if anyone hears. Show us how she’s eager to get out of bed in the morning because she knows she’ll see her lover after work. Don’t just tell us her heart is full. Fill our hearts with Jane’s joy, and we’ll feel it too.
Whenever you write any scene where emotion is key, put yourself in Jane’s skin. (Ewww!) Think with her brain, but use your own experience to feed hers. Maybe you have gone through something similar to Jane’s situation, as Natalie had with the character in her story. That’s personal gold right there. Mine it, painful thought it might be, for every nugget of drama or trauma that can inform your scene. Then filter it through Jane’s point of view to put your reader in Jane’s skin, too.
When Jane is angry, does her skin get hot? Her face flushed? Does she grind her teeth and spit her words? Does she cuss like a sailor? Is she vengeful?
When she’s sad, does she cry? Retreat? Does she refuse to face whatever made her sad? Stay busy until the pain recedes? Wallow?
When she’s afraid, does her heart race? Does her breathing grow shallow? Does her mouth go dry? Does she tremble? Get goosebumps? Grow cold?
Another trick to find different ways of demonstrating the expression of emotion is to ask other people in your life how they feel inside in emotional moments. Poke them until they give you all the gory, embarrassing details, and write them down. Call on those lists when you’re writing an emotional scene.
You can also check out the Emotion Thesaurus, by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. The authors also co-host a website with Lee Powell, creator of Scrivener for Windows, on One Stop for Writers, where writers can access the Emotion Thesaurus and other resources online. A few features are free for visitors, but if you want full content, you’ll need to subscribe.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” You can make your reader cry, or laugh, or scowl, or gasp, or tremble.
In fact, that’s your job. Be the best at it you can be.