Don’t you just love feedback from beta-readers or your critique partners that goes something like this:
“I think you feel the emotion here, but the reader? Not so much.”
Or maybe, you get the dreaded, “Meh. Cliché.”
Today, we’re going to strap on our scuba set and dive deep into our stories with emotion, giving our characters oxygen with fresh viscerals and appropriate emotional levels.
How to Write Fresh Viscerals
Everyone has their own tried-and- true process for writing. However, writing fresh viscerals—involuntary physiological responses to external factors (like bad news)—requires a whole other skill set. It’s not one I’ve seen taught very often (Margie Lawson has some great courses and an Immersion cruise with Cruising Writers this December on viscerals), but I believe this particular skill set at the heart of every tip or strategy I’ve come across on ‘how to’ write emotion.
Yup. I went there.
Brené Brown talks in great depth about this subject and if you’ve never searched her out, I’d start with her fabulous TED Talk on the subject.
As authors, to access deep emotion and be able to write it in an authentic way that connects with our readers, we must become vulnerable.
Vulnerability means accessing your own pain or joy, and at times reliving those crucial turning points in your own life. But not just the facts. You’ve got to pull on those emotions…and what your body was doing at the time.
I can recall in great clarity the moment I got the phone call that my best friend had died. I was sitting on the second step of the stairs in my childhood home. My dad was in his study, and my friend was on the phone telling me the news. And I remember going numb. I remember my dad’s words about the news and how foggy they sounded, and at the same time became so clear that they’ll stick with me for the rest of my life. But most of all, I remember how loud my heart got. It drowned out everything else, and the beats were slow, and hard, and vibrated my bones.
When my character is facing a death or a moment of tragedy, I have to go back to that moment or moments like that. I have to allow myself to sink back into that pain. Or a moment of joy, depending on the scene. And then, I have to put it on the page.
Instead of telling your reader that your character felt the pain like the edge of a knife, go deeper. Get personal by being vulnerable. What would that pain feel like to you? Does it feel like the edge of a knife, or is it more of a gut pain, or a chest pain? Where would you feel that pain? What does your body do?
Then expand that. If you feel stress in your chest, chest tightening, heart racing, is that where your character experiences stress? Maybe your character’s thighs clench whenever her mother barrels through the door like a whirlwind of anxiety. Or maybe her fingertips tingle. The Emotion Thesaurus and One Stop For Writers are great resources for drilling down to various emotional responses.
Another great tool is a cliché twist. This is my favorite tool to use to write fresh emotion. It goes something like this:
Jane’s heart thundered.
Heart. Heart beat? Beat and thundered. That’s rather cliché. We’ve read it a bunch of times. But beat and thundered—those sounds are closely related. What can you do with those?
Jane’s heart sounded like the beat of a drum, thundering through the jungle in a slow, ancient tribal rhythm. Ba-da-dum, dum, dum, ba-da-dum.
Using vulnerability to access a deeper level of emotion, then using twists on old clichés, can help you get to fresh emotion that not only connects with your reader, but adds a layer of emotional depth to your characters.
How to Stay at the Appropriate Emotional Depth
However, you can go too deep. Depending on the level of emotion and action in the scene, the example above could be too much.
If Jane is getting news that her kid didn’t make it into the gifted program, she wouldn’t experience the same emotional depth as she would if she got a phone call saying her kid had been in an accident.
You can even set up your own scoring system. Kid not making it into the gifted program gets a score of 5 on an emotional intensity scale. Kid being in an accident gets a score of 10.
So, let’s stick with the original emotion example, in the context of Jane getting the news that her kid didn’t make it into the gifted program at school.
Jane’s heart thundered.
Yes, she could still have a heart reaction to this news, but it wouldn’t be so drawn out. An emotional intensity level of 5 would be more thoughtful and less of the base physical response of a 10.
Using the same thought process: Heart? Heart beat? What else makes a beat sound? Drum. Like a kick drum. Relates to music.
Jane’s heart kicked up in her chest, timing the beats to the worry wheel spinning in her head. How was she going to break the news? Ba-dum. Sally would be so disappointed—not even ice cream could fix this. Ba-dum. How would she keep Sally’s self-confidence up, after she’d tried so hard…and failed? Ba-dum.
Recognizing the emotional intensity of a scene and writing an appropriate level of emotional response can save you from overwriting, and also save your scenes from falling flat.