This book gave me “all the feels.”
We all strive to write the quintessential delivery system for “feels,” whether we know it or not, whether we’re consciously striving to deliver, or not. We do this because that’s what drives us to tell stories in the first place. Somewhere along the line—whether it was Vonnegut or Brontë, Irving or Rowling—we all read something that touched a chord and made us say, “Ah. Yes. I’ve been there.”
Or maybe we were too busy blowing our noses to get those actual words out, but you get the idea.
So what can you as a writer do to elicit more empathic reactions from your readers than detached ones? Writing emotional scenes has less to do with the scene itself and more to do with tapping into universal experiences and the emotions that go with them. Not many people (if any at all) will have experienced the exact scene you are writing and be able to connect to it. But all people have experienced some sort of loss, triumph, grief, disappointment, or love.
Empathy creates a bond. When you as the writer find your empathy for the character, chances are you will create an empathetic bond between your reader and the character, as well. Therefore, if you find yourself in a scene that is so much bigger (emotionally) in your head than it is coming out on the page, take a step back. Identify the emotion you are going for, then recall the last time you felt that way yourself.
Confession time. I talk the big talk. Walking it is a whole lot harder. I come from a long line of stiff-upper-lipped Scandinavians who settled in the Midwest. Stoicism is a virtue; “not too bad,” is high praise. My natural reaction to writing an emotional scene is to pull back. Getting in there and feeling right along with my character seems very rude and more than a tad voyeuristic. Good manners tells me to fade the scene to black. But I know in my phlegmatic Midwestern heart, that this won’t do for storytelling. So I make a list.
If you’re familiar with my past posts, you know how fond I am of lists, and it will be no surprise to you that my way of dealing with the emotional scene and getting over my natural impulses is to take a step-by-step, methodical approach to the problem. It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you (especially if your surname ends in -son, -sen, or has a silent “j”).
Step One: Identify the emotion you wish to elicit from the scene. Example: Despair at being a failure.
Step Two: Commit to not identifying the emotion (or its synonyms) by name in the scene. Example: Commit to not using the words despair, sadness, hopelessness etc. The reason being, when you tell the reader what they’re supposed to feel, the reader may subconsciously feel trapped and resentful that they weren’t allowed to form their own reaction.
Step Three: Identify a time in your life when you felt the same emotion (e.g., that time in 8th grade when you didn’t make the cheerleading team when all your friends did).
Step Four: Write about the personal experience (keeping in mind Step Two), including:
- How you learned that you’d failed (e.g., coach posted list of names on the locker room wall);
- The sights/sounds/visceral sensations you experienced when hearing the news (e.g., eyes scanning list of names that blurred together, the sensation of thinking you couldn’t remember what your own name looked like, the sound of whispers around you, others’ shouts of joy, tears from others; the scent of sweat and damp towels from the locker room; the prickly feeling running over your scalp when you realized your name wasn’t there; the burn in your chest when you remember telling your parents that you’d “nailed” the try-out…);
- How others reacted (e.g., pats on back, sympathetic murmurs, unhelpful clichés from your mother about how “into every life some rain must fall”);
- How you felt/reacted to others’ reactions (e.g., trying to smile and be happy for them; shrugging off their attempts to make you feel better);
- What you instantly worried about (e.g., friends talking behind your back)
- How you protected yourself from the feelings (e.g., skipping school on game days when they wore their uniforms);
- The fallout, or the fallout you imagined would happen (e.g., being out of the loop; cut off socially when they all had their cheerleading parties, etc.)
Step Five: Use as much of that essay as you can in the new scene. For example, a woman despairs after having another miscarriage, thinking she’s a “failure” as a wife. The smell of the sweaty locker room becomes an antiseptic exam room and instead of avoiding game days she avoids baby showers; but while the details change, the visceral sensations and thought processes that you had in your personal experience can remain much the same in your fictional scene.
Or maybe a character has lost out on a promotion. The names blurring together on the team list become the character’s boss’s face going blurry as the character focuses on the slatted blinds behind his head. The character’s chest burns at the memory of prematurely celebrating with his spouse the night before.
You see how that works?
One last thing: If it’s a sad scene, if at all possible, delete the part where the character cries, sobs, and wails. Some of the best advice I ever got: if the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to.
So there it is. I hope this list helps some of you. And if you’re ever in Minnesota, stop on by. I’ll make you some Swedish meatballs and a strong cup of coffee. Then we can have a good long “sit” and talk about our feelings. Or…probably not.
Are emotional scenes hard for you, or are they your favorite part?
Any more steps you’d add to my list?