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. http://www.glynnakaye.com/