You’ve probably heard the advice to “write what you know,” and if this whole idea confused you, you’re not alone.
If you can only write “what you know,” then how does John Green write so convincingly and beautifully about dying from cancer? He’s still alive and well, and I don’t think he’s had cancer.
Or, how does Stephen King write so amazingly about psychotic serial killers and possessed children returning from the dead?
I can guarantee John Green has felt deep love, loss, rejection, confusion, and anger. Stephen King has felt fear, anxiety, and probably even rage. It’s the emotion that these writers bring to their stories that we connect with. We get the feelings.
You’ve felt rage, fear, anxiety, love, loss, rejection and myriad other emotions. Great writers bring these emotions to every story. This post is all about mining your own life for emotional experiences to help you deepen your plots and characters.
If you can identify times and places where you felt strong emotion, then you can bring those feelings to any situation be it zombies attacking, getting lost in a foreign country (even if you’ve never traveled more than 100 miles from home), or losing a best friend.
This is where the “write what you know” idea comes from – not specifically the actual incident but the emotion behind the incident that makes stories great, not just the characters or plot.
So how do you use this in your own writing? Grab your notebook and I’ll give you an exercise to help you get started. You’ll be creating an “Emotion Resource Guide” for yourself.
You’ll need nine blank pages. Divide each paper into four sections
We’re going to make nine lists. Some of these lists have you focus on experiences and some focus on emotions. There will probably be some overlap and that’s okay. The point is to push you to list as many experiences that created deep emotion as possible, so you can transfer these feelings and learn how to write emotional scenes.
Even if you only think of two things to list, push yourself to list at least three or four more, dig a little deeper. Try to get to ten – my teen students often have a hard time with this as they don’t necessarily like to be introspective, but nobody is going to ever read or see your bupropion hydrochloride buy list. Your eyes only, so go for it.
Label each of the nine pages with one of the following headings, so you’ll devote a whole page to each list.
You might re-visit these lists several times over the next few days to add more ideas which is great. The goal here is to create a memory bank of emotional experiences you can draw on for your own stories.
Now comes the fun part. Review your list of events and dredge up those feelings.
In the empty right-hand column on your page, write about the emotion. What did it feel like? Did your heart race? Did tears track down your cheeks? Or did your face ache from laughing and smiling so much? Try to remember the physical sensations and actions as well as the internal feelings behind those events and describe them in detail.
You’re doing great, but we still have one more step. Still with me?
The last step is to review what you’ve written and thought about. On the bottom portion of the page, make a list of the physical cues for those emotions and the internal feelings.
Now, when you’re writing a scene and you have a character feeling elated or terrified, you can go back to these pages and add some depth to their emotional responses. Just flip to your “Happy” or “Scared” page and you have a list of physical and emotional cues ready to go to develop your story further. And, since they came from your own experience, your description of those feelings will be that much richer and deeper.
To write effective emotional scenes, be they happy or sad, we need to add authentic emotional details. And you definitely have experience with those.
We don’t want to merely tell a story; we want our readers to feel it and to do that, we need to know how it feels to feel. Thankfully, as a human being, you know how it feels to feel. The challenge is putting it in writing, but now you’re ready to meet that challenge.
Have you ever struggled to add emotion to a scene or to your characters? How did you solve that writerly problem?
Let me know in the comments below. I’m interested to hear other strategies that you have used.
Thanks so much for taking this writerly journey with me.