Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harnessing the Power of Real-life Emotion---and Unleashing It In Your Story

Just as a story must have an external plot, it must also have what award-winning producer and writer Peter Dunne refers to as an “internal landscape.”

In his book Emotional Structure – Creating the Story Beneath the Plot: A Guide for Screenwriters, Dunne stresses that you may have created the most well-plotted book in the world, but if you don’t tap into a reader’s emotions, build them into the structure of your novel with as much care and deliberateness as you would plot, your story will disappoint. You’ll end up with action, but superficial reader reaction.

I won’t go into the details of Dunne’s 400-page book on the topic—but he does point out that writers must learn to delve deep into their own emotions in order to touch those of their readers. Time and energy (lack of both at the current moment) won’t allow me to go into examples from my own writing or that of others to make this a “keeper” teaching tool post. But today I want you to stop and think about how you can use real-life emotions to lend authenticity to those of your story characters and trigger emotions in your reader.

Not long ago I was chatting with a writer friend who’d gone through series of roller coaster events. One after another. She mentioned that at one point, in order not to be overwhelmed, she had to step back and distance herself somewhat from the kaleidoscope of emotions assailing her. Not suppressing them, but documenting them. Not recording the details of the events themselves, but how they made her feel. How her mental and physical and spiritual self reacted to the events.

She said it was not only therapeutic, but it forced her to analyze the sensations she experienced. Forced her to describe them. Later she returned to read her words and again felt the impact of the raw emotion once again. She then realized that this deep outpouring could, when whittled down and “prettied up,” fit a corresponding emotion of one of her story characters who was experiencing an event totally unrelated to her real-life one.

So when I recently got slammed with a particularly potent combo of emotions—anger and helplessness—I settled in with my trusty steno pad to document the sensations I felt. I don’t know if any of my “findings” will fit into my current WIP. But I imagine that at some point on down the road when life is rosy and peace is flowing and the power of the earlier emotions have faded, I’ll be tempted to NAME this emotion for a character. It’s then that I can draw from this documented “well” and weave it into a fictional scenario very unlike the situation that evoked the original emotion in real life.

So rather than: “She felt so helpless,” let the reader experience it:

It was as if being sucked into a grainy, cold quicksand. Slowly. Slowly. Paralyzed as the weight of his words pulled her down. Invisible fingers clawed at her throat, squeezing until her lungs trembled with each ragged breath. With a silent, reverberating cry, her heart reached out but no longer found anything to cling to.

Chad stared back at her as if willing her to speak. Dark eyes pleading. Needing her to say it would be okay between them. That it would all work out.

But it wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Not ever.

Okay, so that’s not the world’s greatest excerpt and I shouldn’t have used “was” and “ly” and all that other Big No-No stuff. But hey, give me a break, I’ve been awake since 2:30 this morning.

Not all emotions, of course, are quite so melodramatic as my illustration. And every emotion that flits through your hero or heroine doesn’t have to be mapped out in excruciating detail. But we all have them. Constantly. As should our story characters.

So think about what you’re feeling today. Joy? Confusion? Stress? Peace? Fear? Thankfulness? How can you make that feeling come alive for a reader? What are some techniques you can use to tap into the sensations that they’ve experienced? Think outside the box, too. What does fear taste like? What would be the texture of joy if you could touch it? How might dread sound?
So name an emotion today—and join us in the comments section to briefly describe it so we can experience it, too!

An ACFW "Genesis" and RWA Faith, Hope & Love "Touched by Love" award winner, GLYNNA KAYE'S first published book DREAMING OF HOME is an October 2009 Steeple Hill Love Inspired release.


  1. Hi Glynna, I'm feeling tired. I was just trying to stay awake to announce my winner. I posted it with much frustration in trying to get the photo installed. LOL
    I go to see if It worked and viola. Your blog is already on. Now I feel surprise and delight. So will be your first comment. But not fair as its last night. LOL

    Have a great day. I'll set up a large pot of coffee so the early birds can plug it in.

  2. Sandra, thank you! I plugged the pot in and it smells divine. All around Seekerville, people are opening their windows to the cooler morning temps and breathing the essence of Sandra's chocolate velvet coffee.

    Oh my, I can't wait until it stops burbling!!!


    What a great post. I'm printing this up BECAUSE you so aptly illustrated a common problem. Sometimes in our quest to use fewer words, we use... umm... fewer words.

    And we miss the flavor, the scents, the feel of the emotion.

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!!!

    So, feeling right now....????


    Fog-fingers shrouded the shadowed farm, gray, misty tendrils of quiet night broken by the rooster's throaty call-to-arms.

    Another day.

    Another dawn.

    Her fingers clenched and unclenched, reaching for a glass she didn't dare touch. Not now. Not ever again. For too many years she'd coasted through the days, living for the nights, never noticing how life had passed her by.

    Not anymore.

  3. Sandra -- I should have put you in charge of adding the photo to MY post. It was supposed to have this impressive thunderstorm with a flash of lightening, but I guess I need step-by-step techy instructions from Tina. :)

  4. Great example, Ruthy! Paints the emotional landscape as well as the physical one.

  5. Okay, I lied, I'm not printing it YET because bees have invaded my office where the printer lives.

    I'm working on my laptop now.

    Stupid bees.

    Bug-bombed 'em but the nest is between the walls. Don't you just love an old farmhouse???? ;)

    Anyway, I brought food from the kitchen which HAS NO BEES.

    It's lovely here, a little overcast but cool enough to cook so I thought fresh peach crepes would be a great late August offering. NY peaches are short-seasoned but wonderful. These are Red Havens or Hale Havens, not sure which... Yummy.

    And if you're not a peach fan, try some of the egg/sausage/hash brown fritatta topped with sharp cheddar cheese. Double yum.

    Stupid bees.


  6. Oh, Glynna, what a GREAT subject ... and a great example you gave us -- I loved it!

    Being an over-the-top emotional type, this is one of my favorite things to do -- and, wow, your blog describes it so well.

    In fact, one of the ways I used this recently was when I had the privilege of working the photo room at a "Special Needs Prom," a prom event for disabled and handicapped young men and women. I was blessed to meet this beautiful young girl in a wheelchair, radiant in a gauzy prom dress and rosebud corsage despite her bent and deformed body. My heart grieved when they wheeled her up to my registration table, but when that sweet girl lifted her head up a fraction of an inch to give me a smile, I couldn't stop the tears from stinging my eyes. She possessed the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful and transforming smile I have ever seen, and I will never forget it. It impacted me so much, in fact, that I had to turn away to collect my emotions while my husband handled the registration.

    With the gift of an innocent and joyful smile, that young woman not only transformed her own countenance, but me as well. So much so, that I used that flood of emotions to recreate a similar scene in my next book, A Hope Undaunted, and let me tell you, the memory of that angel's smile makes me cry every time I read it.

    How am I feeling today? That's an easy one -- a grateful woman with tears streaming her face.


  7. Ruthy,
    yellow jackets. not bees. trust me.
    This time of year they abandon the nest. no more babies to take care of and it's a free-for-all, every wasp for themselves. FIND SUGAR! FIND SUGAR. (Sounds like a 6yr old's birthday party)

    Thanks Sandra for thinking of me so the prize post was ready to go so early! What a blessing!

    I am definitely guilty of the well-plotted book but the emotions being the hardest part to open up. sounds like you would recommend the book. Maybe I'm guilty of holding back the emotions myself and being too in my head and not my heart.

    Thank you Glynna!

  8. Morning, Glynna!

    Thanks for the reminder that less is not always more. I'm going through the final cuts of my WIP and snipping needless words throughout the manuscript.

    I need to put my electronic sheers down and think, no feel, some of the emotion back in place. I think one of the most dangerous habits we writers have is to revise the soul right out of the story. We tighten, tighten, tighten until there's nothing left but the skin of a once well rounded book.

    Kinda anorexic, huh?

    Thanks for the reminder to leave the heart in the book. I'll trim away at my own eating regime and leave the emotional flavor, spice, fat where it belongs in my book.

    Speaking of flavor, peaches, raspberries and cantalope have ripened across Colorado. Dive into the compote I'm setting in the middle of our buffet and enjoy!

  9. Debra -- years ago Tina got me reading screenwriting books and I've really found them helpful.
    Movies SHOW the emotion in dialogue and body language so well that there's a lot I can learn from them.

    Even though a character might say "I'm so mad at you," the recipient of that comment probably didn't need that emotion "named." It would have been evident non-verbally.

    The thing I like about books over movies, though, is that reader can really get deeper inside a character's head. I find it totally amazing that WORDS on a page, if well done, can evoke a corresponding emotion in the reader as well.

  10. Julie -- that real-life experience sounds like one that will translate well into your story. You'll capture the moment for all time in words and touch Readers hearts as well.

  11. So true, Audra. In this day and age of texting, 30-second ads, and sound bite communication, we can forget as writers to go a bit deeper where it counts most--emotion.

  12. Wonderful, important post, Glynna! To write emotion well, we writers must experience that emotion. Too often we're caught up in the moment to look at ourselves objectively. I've tried, but I feel about as comfortable as a pinned frog in a zoology lab.

    Love your excerpt, Ruthy!

    Julie, thanks for sharing your precious encounter. I can't wait to see what you do with the emotions this smiling angel elicited.

    The food is amazing this morning. Thanks Ruthy!


  13. I love incorporating emotion into my stories. But I tend to go over the top. Some people like the over the top stuff, stomach clenching, unable to draw in a full breath, (I'm trying to think of all the things I used over and over in my last book that made one of my crit partners keep saying, "I don't believe this." Or "Not again!" It was too much for her.) But I honestly just imagine how I would feel, and how that character would feel, in a situation and write accordingly.

    Anyway, I need to analyze some of my favorite authors and figure out how they put so much emotion into their characters without sounding melodramatic. Ruth Axtell Morren is really great at this.

  14. Thanks for stopping in, Janet! Always good to see your smiling face. :)

  15. Melanie -- I had to laugh. My critiquers have to go in and delete all my "fist clenching." :)

  16. Hi Glynna:

    I enjoyed your post. I am a big believer in the need to emote as I believe in creating the most vivid ‘reading experience’.

    I have a little different approach to this.

    When I experience a strong emotion, I’ll try to write the poetry that stems from that emotion or emotional mix. I don’t try to describe the emotion; I try to lay down the track that will recreate the same emotional experience. This is like the information on a CD disk which recreates the music without describing it.

    I can read this poetry at a later time and it will often recreate the emotion matrix which was its genesis. Then like a method actor, who first gets in the mood, I write the words my character says while I am in the same emotional state as my character is suppose to be.

    These emotional poems are like ‘money in the bank’. However, any writer can ‘bank’ other people’s poems if those poems can elicit specific emotions when read.

    I just find it surprising that there is so little talk of poetry on Romance blogs. How about a blog about Putting the Power of Poetry in Your Writing? I think this would be a good topic for Ruth.


  17. I really enjoyed this post. And it is a keeper. When they say "write what you know" I try to think of it in terms of emotions and such that I am well acquainted with. Obviously, I don't know about some of the places and plots of my stories- that's why I have to research them - and that's what the imagination is for. To harness the emotions that you know can breathe life into your story. That's why I strive for. Thanks for your insights!

    Get some rest!!

  18. Debra, you're right of course.


    Yellow jackets are wasps, not bees.

    It's that whole secret life thing, you know????


    And I agree with Audra, it's important that though we may need to cut to fit today's market standards, too much cutting strips feelings and that should always be a no-no.

    Make 'em laugh.

    Make 'em cry.

    Then make 'em sigh and laugh again.

    Now that's a formula I can get into!


  19. Glynna, you know what? This might change my life. The next time I'm in the mood to strangle someone, I'll make notes. It will not only deepen my writing but it was save someone's life.

    You've saved a life here today, woman. Be proud

  20. Great idea, Vince. I used to write a lot of poetry in college, but I never thought about translating the emotion of it into my story.

  21. Mary -- so glad I did my good deed for the day. :)

  22. Great post, Glynna! And now, I'm going to go read back over my chapters! I'm afraid that they're too dry.


  23. LOL, Mary. Sometimes it just takes a little Madam Zelda channeling to get those emotions to the proper page on the place. Great post, GK.