Monday, December 2, 2013

Writing About Emotions... or Why You Have to Go Through Stuff

Blessed is the writer who has lived through some stuff. And the more stuff - the more milk spilt, hopes dashed and hearts broken, the more battles fought and won or lost (no matter), the better.

Everything is material. What else would you write about?

Someone once said (and if you know who it was please do tell) that a writer should not write that it started to rain, but should instead give the reader the sensation of getting wet.

Because of course, you tell stories not to relay facts (not even fictional facts) but to arouse sensation. Your reader picks up your book hoping to feel something. Don't disappoint her.

When it rains, let her feel her hair slick against the back of her neck, chilled to ice by every gust of January wind across the pond she just climbed out from.

Better yet, let her fear that no one will hear her call for help, no one will come to rescue.

Just never say that she is afraid.

Frighten her.

You are a writer. You have ways to do this.

Into the Skin and Into the Water


You realize, of course that every character you have ever written, or ever will, is you. Even the one modeled after someone you know is you, because that someone you know is interpreted by your assumptions and biases, and those are formed by your experience.

This is an advantage. You understand abandonment, and mind-numbing grief, and anger, and fear.

Want to know what your character does with her fear? Close your eyes. Find the experiences that inform your writing of her, and climb through them beneath her skin. What do you feel?

Fall into the pond with her, and climb back out onto the sheet of ice that cracked beneath your feet. Call for help, and listen to the rustling of the cedar branches and the call of a crow strutting along the bank. Try to stop your teeth from chattering so you can call louder. What does your body do now? Does it arch its back to give the call a greater force? Does your voice squeak at the end because your throat has constricted? Does your chest shudder from some sick feeling  beneath your ribs? Try calling once more. A little louder.

Do you hear anything?

No?

Never Say Never Say Never. 


The climb into your character to observe sensation and movement is a powerful tool to help you write about emotions, but it is not the only tool. Sometimes a well-placed reversal can leave your reader questioning why a character would do something he thought she would never do, and the answer he comes up with can be powerful.

Your character swore, all through the novel that (one) she hated Mr. Mandex next door who backed his truck over her dog two years ago, and (two) she would never enter the forest for any reason, not since she was lost there for three days when she was a child.

So on page 214, when your character stands on her front step still holding the note and the silk scarf he handed her just before he got into a car with his children to drive to the home of his daughter where he would live out the rest of his shortened life...

And on page 215, when a gust of January wind lifts the scarf from your character's hands and flicks it end over tassel across the fallow field into the forest... When she hesitates a long moment before charging across the field, pauses a moment more, and then follows the silk scarf into the forest...

You don't have to say much. The reader understands something important, whether she knows what the note says or not.

9 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

I love this Katy. It's such truth.
Reminds me of the time I locked myself in a toilet cubicle and bawled like the world was irreparably broken (and for me in that moment it felt like it was). I was exhausted, nothing left in me at all to redeem the situation. Pretty much the only thing that gave me the strength to hoik my socks up and get out of there smiling was the thought that one day, one day I could use that in a novel!

Patti Hill said...

Sigh, Katy, I love your wisdom and your amazing talent to evoke me as a reader.

Meagan: I locked myself in a bathroom in the middle of a church service. I will never forget the ridiculous shade of yellow the room was painted. When I heard the "exit" music, I knocked softly on the door. "Hello? Can someone please open the door? Hello?"

Cherry Odelberg said...

I don't know who first said it, but I read it in the Sunday comics (that Camelot sort of story, what was it called?). "A happy man makes a poor poet." I console myself often with this thought.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Oh Katy! I'm chilled to the bone and we are expecting 30cm of snow today and tomorrow! Brrrrr. At least the ice around here is too thick to fall through since the temperature without windchill is -35C
Just recently I came to a dead end with a character. The emotions wrote like midwinter Saskatchewan rainbow trout. Then I went there. Brrrr. I'll have to go there again to write her part.
Your words are the help, the hunky logger/trapper at the side of the pond with heated seats and blankets and hot toddy in his all terrain monster truck.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I gasped at the end of this post. It is gorgeous. Thank you for this inspiration, Katy. Makes me want to write!

Sharon K Souza said...

Beautiful, Katy, really beautiful. And, Patti, you gave me a good laugh already this morning. Bless you, my friend!

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I think that funny little thought, "I could use this in the novel," only ever occurs to writers.

Patti, what if no one had come?

Cherry, I don't know what story you mean, but I think I love to read it.

Henrietta, The white knight rides in with a monster truck? Oh dear.

Susie, I do love making you want to write.

Sharon: Mwah!

LeAnne Hardy said...

Cherry, Prince Valient. I used to read it religiously.

I skated on the lake this morning. I did NOT fall through but there were plenty of sensations to record with snow stinging my face and the wind blowing over across an empty expanse of white under a leaden sky. I hardly dared to breathe--when I wasn't panting from exertion.

Kathleen Popa said...

LeAnne! How wonderful to see you here. So glad you didn't fall in.