Monday, October 5, 2015

Writing Emotional Scenes

Every once in a while, when I have a really crappy week or when something goes horribly wrong in my life, I hear a well-meaning acquaintance utter these words: “Well, at least you can use this in one of your stories!” I don’t know if they think that will make me feel better, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their words make me wonder if my writing really would be better if I had a personal experience to go with every scene I write.

I’ve never accidentally killed my own sibling or watched my best friend go insane. I also haven’t lit a fire with my mind or practiced talking with dragons. Yet these are scenes/plotlines I’ve used in my own writing, and without the appropriate emotion, I know they would fall flat. Creating a compelling story means putting my brain into actress mode and empathizing with the pretend people in my head*.

Just because you haven’t lost a loved one or fallen head over heels in love doesn’t mean you can’t write about characters who do those things. The problem may not be your writing style or what you’ve made your characters say/do – it could be that you’ve missed a more universal way of dealing with elation or grief. Readers don’t expect what you describe to exactly match what has happened to them. But even the smallest comment or action can remind them of their own past joy or pain.

The emotions from losing a job, seeing a dead dog on the side of the road, going on a first date, and winning a gift card can all be elevated or decreased to hit exactly the tone you need to write an emotion-packed scene. And, yes, in case you were wondering, everything you write should have some kind of emotion in it. Without emotion, no one will be able to connect to what you’ve written.

That being said, don’t forget that writers fake emotions all the time, and being able to use personal experience in a manuscript isn’t the best way to feel better about something sad. If someone tells you to be happy about a situation because you can use it in your writing, feel free to smile and say, “Or I could just use you.”**

When these tactics don't work and the emotion in a scene just isn't working, Michelle turns to movies and film scores to get in the right mood. 

"The villain is coming!" = score from Princess Mononoke
"I love you" = The Holiday
"Intense fight scene!" = scores from the Dark Knight or the Bourne series
"I'm brokenhearted" = anything from Éponine's lips in Les Misérables

*Writers be crazy, man. Writers be crazy.
**Evil chuckle optional but recommended.

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