Monday, May 23, 2011

Mentor Monday - And How Do You Feel About That? Creating Emotion.

Emotion is a powerful thing. People murder in the heat of rage and have nervous breakdowns in the pits of despair. Envy and greed can bring a man to ruin, or they can raise him to the heights of society. Hope has the power to lift the spirits of multitudes. Feeling emotions, and reacting to them, is part of being human. If we had no emotions, if we didn’t feel, we would be little more than robots. And if you want your characters to be more than robots, to be more than names on a page, they also have to experience emotions.

But writing emotion is a tricky thing. Not only does your character have to feel, but the reader must also feel those same emotions.

So how do you do that?


John was sad when his hamster died. He cried and cried.

Now did you feel sad for John? I might have gotten a two-second ‘awww’ from you, but I’ll bet nobody is wiping tears from their eyes. Why? Because you don’t know John yet. You don’t care about John. You don’t know how attached he was to his hamster. So the first step in writing emotion successfully is to prepare for it.

If you want to evoke some sadness when John’s hamster dies in chapter 10, make sure you’re showing the reader how much John loves his hamster in chapters 1-9. Show us why he picked that particular hamster from all the others at the store. Show him caring for the hamster and playing with it. Show us why the hamster is so important to him. Show us just how much he loves that hamster and then, when it dies and John cries, you’ll be pulling at heartstrings.

Forget Abstractions

Fear coursed through her body. She was frightened to her core.

What do those two sentences mean? She was really, really frightened? What images do they bring to mind? Nothing that I can see. And that’s the thing about abstractions. They’re abstract. You can’t see them. You can’t touch them. They’re sort of like emotions.

Fear is intangible and being fearful is a state of mind. Fear cannot race around someone’s body. The body can, however, react to the emotion, and that’s what you need to show--how fear physically affects your character. What happens when you are afraid? Does your heart race? Does your mind go blank? Does your body become numb? Are you unable to move or speak? Use your own emotional reactions to show the affects that same emotion has on your character. Allow your readers to see whatever emotion she is experiencing.

Show–Don’t Tell

We all know this, but we don’t always do it. So when John’s hamster dies, don’t tell us he was sad and that he cried and cried. Don’t even mention sadness. Show him having no interest in his favorite snack or toy. Show tears running down his face. Show him sniffling. Show his body heaving. Maybe he stutters when he tries to speak because he’s crying so hard. Maybe he hides out in his room and doesn’t want to talk to anybody. But regardless of how he reacts, write it in a way that it can be seen.

Remember who your character is

People are individuals and we don’t all experience emotion the same way. Your characters shouldn’t either. While one person may break down and cry when a loved one dies, another person may become angry and start to throw things. While some people have no problem being loud and boisterous when they’re happy, a more reserved or shy person may just simply smile. How your character reacts will depend on the type of person you have made them. And if you have prepared for that moment of joy, the reader will know that the character with the small smile is really jumping for joy on the inside. They will feel it. That little smile will be enormous in the readers’ minds and they will be just as happy for your character as she is for herself.

It may seem daunting, trying to evoke emotions from thousands of strangers, but it’s not as hard as it seems if you just remember that we all feel the same things. It may be in a different way, or for different reasons, but everyone knows what it’s like to be scared or lonely, to be excited or joyous. If you show your readers that fear or joy, if you make them see it, you will also make them feel.

And now, two minutes from a master storyteller.

1 comment:

Mur said...

Barbara, you always give us so much to think about in your posts. The Hitchcock bit was the cherry on the sundae!