by Jewel Leann Williams
Have you ever been reading, watching a movie or show, or listening to music, and felt emotions so strong it was like you'd been punched in the gut?
Who are we kidding? Of course you have. Everyone has. It's part of the reason people like watching TV, or reading books, or listening to music. These things stir our emotions--and when it happens, it can make our entertainment become so much more than just entertainment.
We've discussed before about how stories--good stories--actually activate areas of our brain that cause us to sort of emotionally live out the arc along with the characters, and that this may be an evolutionary mechanism hard-wired into our biology.
It's strange how those experiences we are living vicariously can be etched in our memories almost as clearly as real, true memories.
Do you have a story, a song, a movie, a play, that is burned into your memory as if it really happened?
As an example, I've been taking notice of this with music. Today, I was actually watching a video of Adele singing "When We Were Young" live, and I felt it--the punch in the gut--the emotion of the music, the lyrics, the drum beats, everything. Since I've been thinking about emotion and writing and wanting to follow up on that, I took a few moments to think about WHY that song elicits that response from me.
A big part of it has to do with both the memory of prior relationships, back in my single years, and how I felt when they failed, or when I saw those people I'd loved later and had to deal with those emotions.
More importantly, I now translate that longing I remembered into the present--what I might feel if it were to happen now with my husband, my real true love--because like any person in love I relate everything to he and I--even just writing those last few lines makes my heart squeeze and my pulse skip in fear.
The result is a real, visceral reaction to the song--it's not my journal entry, but it could be. Adele successfully tapped into my past, and into my own emotions. Now, since Adele and I are not (yet) besties, there is no way for her to know my history or my emotions.
But she doesn't have to. She only has to know her own, and be able to translate those onto the page, or into the song. Since really those visceral emotions of love and loss and longing and wondering are universal, my own mind and heart do the real work.
So how do we, as writers, tap into those universal emotions?
Simple. We mine our own emotions and use them.
Something I've been experimenting with a bit is an "emotion journal." When I feel a particularly strong emotion, I try and close my eyes and imagine it. What is it doing to my facial expressions? My eyes? My body language? Did my voice change? Am I speaking more slowly or quickly? Louder or softer?
Then I write it out. I let my pen go where it will, say the most ridiculous things it wants to--the more melodramatic the better-- and I either save them to a file if I'm on the computer, or I tear out the page and literally put it away in a file. Sometimes I don't want anybody happening upon them, because I don't filter my words--that's the point of the exercise.
Now, when I need to write that sort of emotion for a character, I can pull those pages and read them.
Usually two things happen:
1) I start to feel that emotion all over again, and
2) I can more efficiently translate that emotion to my character.
Not only that, but I've also already written physical, observable attributes to help me "show, not tell" the emotion. I can talk about the pitch of voice, speed of speech, facial expressions or tics, etc. instead of just saying "angry," "sad," "giddy," or whatever. I have a good idea that those particular descriptors will be something a real person would possess feeling that real emotion, because I did.
(An added benefit is that as I get more scientific about my emotions, for lack of a better word, I can manage them a little better.)
So there you have it. One tip for plugging into your own emotions to enhance your ability to plug into your readers' emotions.
What tips do you have for tapping into emotion in writing?