Writing Emotionally Gripping Text
At the beginning of Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner’s character is banging away on her typewriter as she bawls her eyes out over the conclusion of her story. A nice scene and one I heard other writers talk about playing out in their own writing life. Here they are finally able to let their little darlings live happily ever after, or maybe it’s more of an Old Yeller ending.
The notion is that authors cry while writing emotional scenes. Some do, some don’t, but in reality their tears have nothing to do with their prose’s ability to evoke tears in their reader’s eyes.
Authors are often too close to the big scenes and the weight of the emotion overwhelms them. So while they weep, they pull back from the scene and mistakenly think their emotions will evoke the same emotion in the reader. It won’t.
Susan looked over the wide spread of her father’s ranch. How sad it was that she’d never see it again. Her love for Bart meant she’d follow him to the cold and dirty streets of New York City. Heaving one last sigh over the sunset on the mountains she turned back to the house to finish her packing, and maybe win a farewell word from her father.
So there you have a nice emotional scene. Susan is leaving her beloved western home to follow true love to the big city. In the process her father stops talking to her, adding to her sorrow. Who wouldn’t shed a tear?
Pretty much anybody who reads it. There are several things wrong, but I’ll stick with three that haven’t shown up in other articles.
First, there is no context. In order for a big scene to be a big scene, I have to build up to it. Susan must start feeling ambivalent about the move long before this paragraph. Showing how much she loves the ranch (and dear old dad) in earlier scenes will prepare a fertile ground for the evocation goodbye. If you never show how dear her home is, there is no reason why she should be sad to leave it.
Second, there is no emotion. Sure you say she’s sad, but that’s not emotion. Emotion hits us as a physical thing. Our bodies have different sensations when we’re sad, angry, happy etc. (See the article on nuance). She’s standing there, but there’s no physical component to the emotion. We don’t feel her tears because we don’t know what they feel like.
Third, it’s too short. If this is really a climactic scene, you need to give is some room to develop and bloom. One paragraph, however evocatively written will not do the job. Look at the paragraph and block it out.
Susan is looking out at her father’s ranch for the last time.
She feels sad – where in her body does it live, what are the physical signs, etc.
She loves Bart
You guessed it, where is that feeling located etc? How does it conflict with the sadness?
She isn’t looking forward to New York City.
Again, feeling, physical sensation, interaction with other emotions.
She heaves a sigh – about as cliched a showing of emotion as there is.
What is unique about this sigh? How is it different from her sighing over her love of Bart? Generic word will not evoke emotion.
She bravely returns to packing.
What emotions are conflicting here? What memories as well as things is she leaving behind?
Her father isn’t talking to her.
Why not? How does she feel about it. Write a scene in which they don’t talk.
Each of these bullets are at least a paragraph. I want to have the physical sensations of her emotions as connected as possible with the thing which evokes the emotion. I have it blocked out so I see the description/action piece interwoven with the emotional part. They should be inseparable. I don’t want the emotion to stop the plot, nor the plot to short change the emotion.
As I comment in the article on Weight, the things which are important to the plot in the past need to be important here, and the things which are important here, must carry through to the conclusion. It isn’t much good writing a beautifully evocative goodbye to the ranch if she never thinks or speaks of it again. Think of it as a wave. There is a slope up the wave which builds imperceptibly to the point where the wave breaks and all is turmoil, but then there is a slope down from that turmoil as it carries forward into the rest of the story.
So how do you achieve all this? Plan the scene. Don’t let your emotions force you to skim over the emotions of the character. Dig deep and and show what is beneath the surface. Don’t pull out and narrate the scene. Pull in tight. Show the emotions as much as possible without explaining them. Be specific, avoid the generic emotions and responses. Make sure the scene is true to her character.
Last bit of advice on this one and it’s a doozy. Don’t let one emotion rule the day. She’s not just sad, but sad, and hopeful and determined and a bit peeved. Humans are complex and we’re used to layers of feeling. If you can create those layers in your work, you will have the reader eating out of the palm of your hand.
And reaching for the tissue box.
Tags: Emotion, evocative, how to