Monday, April 4, 2011

Creating Emotional Impact

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 (although I’ll confess there have been time or two I have). 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.

What are you thoughts? 


Tonya Kappes said...

The more real the characters are to me, the more I become invested in the book and the author.

Stephen Tremp said...

Emotional impact is a great way to engage the reader. Placing the life of a character in immediate danger can acomplish this. So can someone walking away from a relationship.

Siv Maria said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Opening up, sharing my feelings and thoughts are not easy for me but the suppport of the blogging community is a huge help. I like your C posting and I agree, without emotional impact there is no story.

Talli Roland said...

I'm with Tonya. The more I know about my characters, the more I can make them real to readers! Great post, Sia.

Kat Sheridan said...

You know, almost 10 years, and I STILL can't look at that first picture, or any other having to do with that day. And I tend to inhabit my characters so completely that I almost always feel what I'm writing about. I tend to walk away from a writing session emotionally and physically exhausted.

Laurie C. said...

Hi, Sia!

Good article!

I'm with Kat, though -- I tend to walk away from a good writing session completely wrung out.

Just wanted to share a few tricks that help me with emotional impact, though.

Years ago, I read the Winston Graham Poldark novels (the ones that became the mini-series Poldark). At one point in the books, Ross and Demelza lose their first child to strept throat because Demelza had gone to the neighbors to take care of them. Ross almost loses Demelza, too. After she pulls through and learns the baby has died, the two of them begin to talk. But they never say a word about the baby or the illness or the part Demelza played in it. It's tender, awkward, painful, and ultimately heart-breaking.

For me, it was one of those aha! moments -- when characters are emotionally invested in something, sometimes that "something" needs to lie dormant but visible.

Now when I write scenes like that, I keep in mind what they're feeling, but what they say kind of tiptoes around their emotions.

I had another aha! moment with a suspense story -- the heroine was going through someone's desk looking for evidence, and I kept thinking, "Hurry up! Hurry UP!"

That's when I realized that for suspense scenes, you need to




You always put in that ticking clock (is that a footstep on the stairs? friend or foe?), but you slow everything else down until your reader is flopping up and down like the lid on a pan of boiling water.

Love your blog!

James Rafferty said...

In order to write about a particular emotion, it helps to have experienced that emotion or something close to it. The background of a character will be a factor in how they react to particular situations. The related challenge for the writer is to render the character and their emotional reactions to a particular situation in a convincing manner.

VA said...

I find that the process of writing an emotion creates a visceral reaction. By the end, I'm experiencing it. Unless it is a mystery, I need to the know the motivations and thought processes of the characters and so I try and provide it in my own writing.

Olivia Cunning said...

I do feel everything my characters are feeling when I write. Viscerally. That's why I laugh and cry and yell at my computer as I type. Feel aroused (*ahem*), angry, afraid, anxiety, love, frustration, pain, joy, elation, even hunger for frick's sake. And if I don't feel it when I write it, my writing falls flat. I wish I didn't feel everything my characters feel. It makes it hard to throw them off cliffs. This is going to hurt me more than it hurts them, because, yeah, they're fictional. :-) That's how my first drafts go. Then I edit and hope I feel half the stuff I feel when I read, that I felt when I wrote it.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Olivia, good points. It's not to say I'm not aroused by a good sex scene I'm writing, or cry at something I'm writing. I do. But I don't have to feel those things when I plan or set out to write. Having experienced those things, I can *channel* those feelings to give reality to the characters situation. Like an actor. They know they have to play an emotional scene. They have to reach into themselves and their experiences to produce it. I think a writer does the same.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Laurie, some great tips. If something doesn't touch me or engage my emotions the story might be interesting but I'm not invested in the outcome quite the same as something which has a good story and grabs my emotions.

I like touching others emotions, too.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Siv,it's not always an easy thing for me to share my personal emotions with others. There has to be a measure of trust to do so. There's a certain safety net built in with sharing some of those in my writing through my characters.

I really enjoyed your C article today, too. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Kat, even looking at the pictures is still hard. Not only what happened but how it effected me on a personal level. I lost a few friends there.

Pictures can be a good reminder of those emotions when we need them. Music can do the same--a particular song can bring back a moment in time. Times of joy and times of devastation.