Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Digging for the Emotional Truth in Your Stories

As most of you know, I am a school psychologist by trade. So, it's no wonder that I am really into the emotional aspects and depth of a story. I love it when I can feel what the characters are feeling. If they cry, I want my eyes to water a bit. If they are angry, I want to feel my own anger rising. I want to have a visceral reaction to the story and the characters.

But how do I, or any writer for that matter, create that emotional depth - the emotional hook?

I believe that emotional depth is one of the many layers needed in a story. For me, it is part of the original draft, and something that is added in and refined during the revision process.

Being a psychologist, I have spent the better part of my adult life studying human emotion and behavior.  The same techniques I use in my professional life - observations of people, being very in tune with my own visceral reactions to things, a clear understanding of why people react the way they do - has enabled me to add an emotional backstory to my pieces.  I flesh out each character so I understand their motivations, their "story".  That information helps me understand how my characters would react to things.

When the act of writing finally occurs, the use of active verbs, sprinkled with describtive adjectives and the right mix of dialogue and narrative work together like the yarn in a tapestry, weaving emotions throughout the story.

Getting the "right" amount of emotions in a scene is the hard part, I think. Since every reader is different, every reaction to emotional content is different.  In my critique groups I am an emotional nazi.  My crit buddies know that I am always looking at how characters react to things that occur - and likewise, how I am reacting to it.  Sometimes I find that while the details of the story are correct - good writing, good plot, good tension - I still am not "feeling" the way I want to in response to the events.  At that point, whether it is my piece or someone elses, I go back and read the section in question over and over, looking for the moment I lost a connection with the story.  This is often the place where the emotional context crumbles.  Once I can identify it, I can usually come up with a way to fix it.

Which leads me to authenticity.  Have you every read something and thought "no way, that person would NEVER do that"?  Maybe it happens because the character is flat in response to something big (like a friend dying, or finding out your love interest just left you - again).  And maybe it happens because a character is reacting strangely to an event (like giggling when something is profoundly serious, or angry without context).  I think emotions only work when they are authentic - something the character would DO based on what we, as the reader, know about them.

I read a book once - something most people loved (and no, I am not spilling which book it was).  Suffice it to say that I hated it.  Really hated it.

It wasn't the writing, or the unphathomable plot.  It was the emotions.  They were off - too placid and disingenuous.  When I thought about the author, I realized that none of their books have intense dark emotions.  Not one.  The stories are excellent - the author just can't go deep into the darker emotions of life.  I have experienced dificulties in this myself from time to time - not being able to really go as far as I needed to with a particular emotion because of my own hang ups.  Fortunately I have honest crit buddies who always tell me when my emotions are off.

Authenticity requires the authors to fully explore whatever emotion the character is experiencing - and fully commit to it.  This can be the hardest part of writing, because sometimes our characters go someplace too uncomfortable for us to follow.  We are left vulnerable, our insides splayed out for the world to see.  And yet, if we are going to add authentic emotions to the story, we have to be willing to "go there" 100%.

What about you important is emotional context to you?  Are there times you can't "go there"?  What do you do to work past it?


  1. I'm constantly trying to go deeper into my characters feelings, because they tend to be the type of people who don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. But if it's their POV they would know what they are feeling! I just have a problem expressing it sometimes.

    I might have to try that method of reading until I find out where the disconnect is.

  2. I totally agree with you on the importance of emotional authenticity! A book can have a great plot and writing, but it won't have the same effect on me if I don't connect to the character.

    And yes, sometimes it's really hard to go far enough with the emotion. I honestly don't think I do go far enough, but I try to push myself a little more each time.

  3. This was such a great post! Just became a campaigner and stopped by to say hello. After reading this post, I'm so glad I did!

  4. I second Catherine's comment. I'm looking forward to getting to know you through the Campaigner's group. I have a memoir in progress, and much of my story centers on pain from my youth that I've buried deeply over the years. It's a real struggle to "go there," as you say, and I have to put a lot of energy into it. Sometimes pictures help, sometimes discussions with other family members help - it's a mixed bag, depending on what I'm trying to get at. Great post!


Thanks for your input!