Writing emotion into fiction can be very challenging. Many writers rely on television, or other works of fiction, to gauge the best method to write believable emotion into their stories. While I never discount the value of studying popular fiction in your genre for examples of what to do, there is also value in trusting your own emotional background as a source of inspiration. Today I wanted to offer a simple exercise to help you tap into “secret” emotions and apply them to the page.
I read this in a more generic writing book I won’t mention, but the idea was this: when writing about pain, love, anguish, fear, or any other emotion, tap into your own emotional experiences. I remember seeing this and thinking, “Okay, that makes sense, but how do I actually apply this?”
How I perceive emotion is different than how you might. The classic example is love. Think about the first time you ever felt love, or on a more shallow level, had a flirting feeling of attraction. Maybe think about the first time you had your heart shattered. If each of us wrote a short biographical piece detailing these experiences, they would likely be similar in some aspects, but very different in others.
Sol Stein, in his book, Stein on Writing, talks about his “secret” technique. The technique is simple for some, and uncomfortable for others. The idea is simple. Think of an emotion and recall a point in your life where you experienced it. However, ensure it is an experience you wouldn’t want to share.
You may have to do some soul searching, but I think all of us have a certain experience we wouldn’t anyone to know about. For the exercise, I recommend locating a scene you are having particular trouble with and reading it a few times. Isolate the important emotional elements that are missing and write them down.
Now you have a basis to work from and emotion you are attempting to bring to life. Now go into you own emotional reserves. Think back to a moment where you experienced the emotion in question. More so, try to isolate a time where the experience was so great you would be very uncomfortable sharing it with anyone. No matter how painful, awful, wonderful, or horrible it is, sink into it.
Once you have found it, chronicle it. Write as if you were writing a journal or diary entry only you will see. Make it personal and don’t fabricate it. In your own words, write it as accurately as you possibly can.
After you are done, look at what you have written. Study the language and words. Now take that bottled lightning and apply it to your book.
You may do this exercise and find you have opened a door and it stays open. If that is the case, jump straight into your manuscript and start typing. Use that emotional high (or low) to add depth to the scene in question.
For others, pouring out those experiences may drain you emotionally and leave you with little in the tank. The good news is you have a source of original emotions to pull into your writing. You need only reference the secret entry you made.
I like this exercise for a couple reasons.
One reason, is it forces the writer to pour themselves onto the page. Like I mentioned earlier, everyone experiences emotions in a different way. In regards to fiction, being able to apply this unique perspective to the emotional elements of your book will add to your own style and voice.
The second reason I like it, is because it’s a tangible tool for isolating and tapping into emotions. It’s nice to be able to temper problems with actual solutions. As an editor and writer, I like to have useful tools I can apply and share.
On a side note, I have considered the value of an emotion journal. As frilly as this may sound, for some people it could be useful. It’s a commonly accepted practice for a writer to keep something to write with them at all times (or at least a means of recording ideas). This way, if inspiration strikes, you can capture it.
With that being said, some of the best writing we do is when our hands are shaking and we are emotionally charged. An idea journal could serve another purpose as a storage bank for emotions as well. Perhaps after a heated discussion, or moment of introspection, you could flip it open and quickly transcribe your thoughts and feelings in the moment. Arguably, the fresher the emotion, the more meat you should be able to pull from it. In essence, you are capturing emotions to apply later to your work.
That’s it for today! I hope you find some merit in this technique. I’d be curious to know some of the methods you all employ to add emotional context to your writing. Do you do what I just described, or do you have a different method for tapping into those feelings? I’d love to talk about it and learn more. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!