Fear, joy, love, sadness, surprise, anger. What do these six things have in common? They are all emotions, all of which we should be incorporating into our stories. Whether we write picture books or angst-ridden novels for the young adult set, we need to infuse our stories with emotion.
I’m not talking about the purple prose of the novelists of earlier generations. Nor am I talking about the writing of soap-operas or daytime dramas. I’m talking about honest emotion that resonates within our readers and makes them think, “I’ve felt just that way. I know what that character is going through.”
Easier said than done. How do we tap into these emotions? What can we uses as triggers to free our writing of restraint and stiffness?
Let’s take a look at the emotions I listed above and see how we can translate them to screen, then into books our readers won’t be able to put down.
Fear. I’ve never had to run from a vampire or face a serial killer. But I have been frightened. My fears frequently had to do when a child was sick. When our then seven-year-old son, Robbie, faced serious surgery on his leg for osteomyelitis (infection of the bone), I was terrified. My heart was beating so rapidly that I feared I was going to pass out when we received the diagnosis and the doctor described a brutal sounding operation where the bone would actually be scraped. At the same time, my palms were sweaty, my stomach churning, my throat filled with bile.
These are physiological reactions of a body under extreme stress. I go back in my mind to that horrible time (it didn’t help that I was pregnant at the time with our fourth child) and tap into those feelings when I need to write a scene where my protagonist is terrified. Are you thinking that the fears of a mother for a child are not the same as those of a young character facing down evil in the form of zombies? Think again. Those visceral responses are universal. Use them. It’s not enough to say “She was scared.” You must find those emotions, then show the reader what your character is feeling. Remember: show, don’t tell.
Joy. What brings you joy? When you think back over your life and try to pinpoint the most joyous events, what do you think of? Is it the birth of a child? Is it the sale of that first short story or book? Is it that first kiss between you and your spouse on your wedding day? Whatever it is, relive it. Bask in it. Then bring those feelings to your character as she experiences overwhelming joy.
Sadness. None of us escape this life unscathed by sadness and grief. What has brought you intense sadness? The death of a beloved pet when you were a child? For those of us of a certain age, we might think of the death of a parent. Many have experienced divorce, another kind of death. Our current world situation is enough to make anyone sad. Whatever produces sadness or grief within you can be used to describe those same emotions for your character who is enduring a heart-breaking situation.
Surprise. What surprises you? Was it the birthday party that friends threw for you, even when you expressly told them that you didn’t want a party? Was it a letter from a friend you haven’t seen in twenty years? Was it a present from your husband for no particular reason?
Anger. Just as none of us escape this life untouched by sadness and grief, none of us escape without knowing, at least a few times, intense anger. What makes you angry? For me, it goes back to my family. Hurts and slights to myself, I can pretty much pass off. Let someone hurt my children, my husband, my friends, and I turn into a mama grizzly. (Really, my husband says I skip the grizzly stage and go straight to mama wolverine, supposedly one of the most vicious animals alive.) My claws come out, and I’m ready to do battle. When I need to describe a character who is ready to fight, for survival, for standing up for the truth, for protecting a loved one, I go to those memories when someone threatened someone I love. With that, my words take on an authenticity that goes far beyond the insipid phrase, “She was angry.”
Find those emotions within yourself. Find the triggers that will you back to when you felt fear, joy, sadness, surprise, or anger. Then write with all the feeling inside of you.