I’ve heard it said, and no doubt you have too, that to write emotion you first have to feel it. Author blogs and writing books will tell you all sorts of things. Write what you know, write what you love, and write what you feel. These are all true statements in so far as they go. It’s how we understand those statements and what they mean, and how to apply them that the trouble starts.
I think there is a mistaken assumption about writing emotional impact into our writing. What it is and what it’s not.
I can write about fear because I know what fear feels like. It doesn't mean I have to feel my heart racing, have clammy hands, and hyperventilate as I'm writing the scene. I know what anger feels like too, and what makes me angry, but because I am choosing to put my characters in an emotional situation of anger or fear doesn’t mean I’m feeling those emotions as I write. You see what I mean?
As a writer, I'm ultimately the narrator carrying the story from point A to point Z. To do that, I have to be able to keep my wits about me. I have to keep my goals clearly in mind, which means I can’t get bogged down in emotion as I’m writing. Look at it this way, a writer is dealing with a set of people going through various situations, having problems, facing heartbreak, making love, laughing, anger and fear—the gamut of emotions. As narrator of this group’s story I have to be able to relay everything clearly. I have to stay removed from the situation to be focused. Otherwise I’ll go off in a tangent or lose the thread of where my story and characters are going.
I’m rather clinical as I write certain scenes. In that sense I’m the observer as well as narrator. I equate it to being a therapist. Therapists hear the most heartbreaking details of people’s lives. While they have to have compassion and understanding for their patient, they also have to remain detached to effectively do their job.
Knowing what an emotion feels like gives us a base from which to write emotion for our characters. Our characters have to be real not only to our readers but to us. They have to act and react realistically. As we write, we put our characters (or they put themselves), into certain settings/situations. Much of the inner conflict for our characters is about them facing their fears. So we produce external conflicts in our story so they have to face those internal demons.
For example, if we’re writing romance or a suspense and we have a character that has grown up in an abusive home that got so bad she and her mother have to run for their lives. They’re always looking over their shoulders, always changing their names, always in fear because they’re hunted. Never taking a stand and able to fight back. Now we have her background and some idea of her inner conflict. As an adult she stays clear of anything that resembles the trauma of her childhood. What is the worse external conflict we could put her in? To keep it simple, let’s place her in a situation where she has seen a murder, and the murderer knows she’s seen him. Now he’s after her. Just like that she is again on the run, living in fear. But now she is an adult, not a helpless child. She has to take her stand at some point. Add to it a hero whose job it is to keep her safe, keep her from harm. He’s tough and strong and very good at his job. But let’s say as a child he came face to face with the inability to keep those he loves safe because he was too young and inexperienced. Now his job choice makes sense, as does his inner pride/need in being very good at his job. But internally his greatest fear in not keeping someone he cares about safe from harm. Hero and heroine come together, and emotional attachment forms. Now we have both characters facing their inner conflict/fears while dealing the external conflict/fear. Now we have in place a plot specifically designed to trigger emotional responses from the hero and heroine. And the reader.
Writing what you feel is the ability to write or invoke an emotional response in your reader. You don’t have to be feeling whatever the emotion you’re writing as you write it. You do need to know what a particular emotion feels like to set it up and then amplify it via your character’s reaction to the stimuli. If you know the feeling then it follows you should be able to imbue that emotion in your writing by the story set up, character reactions and hence trigger the reader’s reaction.
That’s writing what you feel and what you know. That’s creating emotional impact for your reader.