Monday, July 5, 2010

Make 'em Laugh, Make 'em Cry: Emotional Writing

I recently had the opportunity to see a live theatre production of Steel Magnolias. Many of you will be familiar with the film version made in the 1989 starring Sally Field. In a nutshell, the play is about six Southern women, and their love, support and friendship for each other.

The play is very funny, funnier than I remember the movie being. In Truvy’s hair salon, a lot of barbed remarks are directed at husbands and ex-husbands. Much of the humor is provided by the two oldest members of the cast, two old friends played in the movie by Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. We come to know Shirley as a grouch with a heart of gold.

But under the humor, tragedy lurks. Sally Field’s daughter, a character we grow to love, (played in the movie by Julia Roberts) eventually dies from complications from diabetes. In one riveting, emotional scene of the play, the Sally Field character rails against the unfairness of her daughter’s death. She tells the others how cheated she feels, how angry. She screams that she doesn’t understand any of it. “I just want to hit someone,” she cries.

At this point Olympia Dukakis grabs Shirley MacLaine and thrusts her in front of the distraught Sally Field. “Here! Hit her! You’ll feel much better!” I was literally laughing through my tears, along with the rest of the audience.

Writing with that kind of emotion, the kind that takes a reader from the depths of despair to the heights of giddiness, is what I’m striving to do. Novels that make me feel a myriad of emotions are the ones I enjoy the most. It’s the emotion in a novel that hooks the reader and creates empathy between her and your story. But how can I bring this emotion to my own writing? I scoured the Internet and came up with some observations:

- Emotion arises from the plot. Are the consequences high enough if the hero and heroine don’t succeed in their quest? To ramp up the emotions of fear and apprehension, something very important must be at stake for the characters. The outcome must be crucial. In my novel “Seeing Things”, a kidnapped boy’s life is in jeopardy if David and Leah don’t find him.

- The hero/heroine must face an epic struggle. If there is a serious problem but it is easily sorted out, no one’s going to care. But if the characters must struggle against the bad guys, each other at times and even themselves, you’ll build empathy with readers. They’ll feel the characters’ sorrow when they lose and their joy when they win.

- There must be passion. The characters must be passionate about what they’re doing. If they care, the reader will care. In “Forever Blue” by Suzanne Brockman, Blue McCoy is being framed for his step-brother’s murder. Blue desperately wants to uncover the truth of his beloved brother’s death, and to exonerate himself.

- Use atmosphere to create emotion. Mood can create emotion. For example, an abandoned house, a stormy night, oppressive weather can all create apprehension in the reader.

- Use the senses to create or heighten emotion. Have your characters see, hear, touch, taste, smell everything in their world so the reader can experience those feelings as well.

- Write with restraint. It seems counter-intuitive when trying to heighten emotion but A.J. Barnett says “Play down the most moving events. Encounter in itself carries drama, and key sentiments become implicit without description.” By over writing an emotional scene, the writer runs the risk of turning an event that should move the reader into simple melodrama, and melodrama can seem fake or farcical, two things a writer wants to avoid. For ways to avoid melodrama in romance writing, click here.

- Use journal writing to help find the emotion in your writing. This article from Writer’s Block says “Keeping a journal not only keeps you writing, but it keeps your mind constantly thinking, and words constantly churning as you think up the best way to write your next emotion, attitude, or other creative notion.”

- Remember, it’s not just the emotion, but the way your characters react to the emotion that affects the reader. Your character is angry. What does she do with that anger? Does she scream and yell, kick the dog, toss her cheating boyfriend’s clothes into the street? Or does she keep it inside, silently seething and plotting revenge?

- Show don’t tell. Don’t tell your readers Suzy is mad as hell; show them. If you tell me a character is angry, I don’t feel it. But if you show me how your character rages as she keys her cheating boyfriend’s brand new car, I’ll feel it. Check out this website for examples of showing vs. telling emotion.

Emotional writing is the difference between flat, cookie cutter characters and characters that come to life for readers. It’s the difference between empathy and indifference. The books/movies/plays that make you feel are the ones you remember.

What books/movies/plays have made an impact on you? What are your favorite examples of emotional writing? What do you do to give your writing emotional impact?


Janet said...

Fabulous post, Jana - great points to keep in mind as we all try to create more emotion in our writing. I think the biggest 'aha' for me was the reminder to make the character react to the emotion - and react in a way that is true to her personality (which means you need to know your character very, very well).

Huge movie fan - and I loved Steel Magnolias (haven't seen it in a while). But there's something about seeing a play - everything is bigger, more apparent! Sounds like this one was a good one to see.

Liz Fichera said...

For me, creating atmosphere is very important to getting attached (or not) to a character in a book, movie, play, etc. I think that's why GLEE was so popular this last season, as an example. Even though some of the characters were cliched, you could really feel the high school atmosphere and perhaps even able to relate to some (or, a lot) of it.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I totally agree. A character must react appropriately (to their character) to whatever emotion they're feeling. I sometimes forget that or think that I have expressed that emotion when it isn't apparent to other readers. And yes, it helps to know your character really well so you know what they'll do and feel in any given situation.

My husband and I have had season's tickets to one of the theatre companies here and we really enjoy it. Most of the plays have been really good, although there have been a few duds. My favorites are usually the musicals, which kind of surprises me because I'm not a big fan of movie musicals. But a live performance is different. There have been a lot of really good ones but my all-time favorites so far have been "My Fair Lady" and "Fiddler on the Roof". The music and the costumes were outstanding.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Liz,
Atmosphere is very important when creating emotion. A setting has to have the feel of the world you're trying to create. If its a high school you want to create that atmosphere of teenage angst. If you set your story in the world of the police or military you have to give a sense of danger, urgency and perhaps intrigue.

One of my favorite Canadian novels is a little gem called "As for me and my House", which is set in a small town in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. The book captures perfectly the sense of despair and desperation of the depression and the horrible drought of the time. It also conveys the stifling nature of small town life. As a result, the book has huge emotional impact.

Thanks for stopping by.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Jana. It reminds me of Honorary Prairie Dog Vince Mooney's post on Rewards Per Page. You need those emotional kicks, whether big or small, happy or sad, to reach the reader on the 'heart' level.

I cry at almost every romance movie and book, so I won't pick one. But as for my own writing, I try to do what Vince says Nora Roberts does and use those little rewards in every scene.

I'm having a hard time with the links this morning, but I like the ones I've managed to get through on.


Silver James said...

Jana, I always think of the scene in ROMANCING THE STONE when Jane Wilder is crying her eyes out over what she's written. Writers can often make me laugh but it takes someone very talented to make me cry. Like you, I want the words I write to have that profound an effect on a reader. These were great tips and I'm going to refer back to them when I take a last polishing read through of the current WIP.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Thanks for the reminder about Vince's post. I like his concept of giving the reader an emotional reward on every page. I think that emotional hit is what we read romance for.

I'll check the links to be sure they're working correctly. Thanks for the heads up.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
I love that scene in "Romancing the Stone" too. It's a classic.

Actually, I find just the opposite with laughing and crying. I cry over sappy TV commercials so it doesn't take much to bring a tear to my eye. But I find it takes a real talent to make me genuinely laugh. Good comedy has to be just about the hardest thing to write, IMHO.

Good luck with your current WIP.

Mary Ricksen said...

Great informative post!
Jana you have hit on so many key points. Thanks!

Karyn Good said...

Thanks for the great compilation of tips on enhancing the emotional conflict, Jana. I always need to be reminded to make use of the five senses to create a more intense experience for the reader. And I'm always trying to find ways to up my 'emotional writing'.

I remember a production of Sexy Laundry at the Globe Theater which was very funny but very appealing. It's about a woman determined to bring the spark back into a 25 year marriage even if it means wearing leather and consulting Sex for Dummies. Under all the funny is a woman who's lost and flundering and trying to figure out the next stage of her life. Very emotional!

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Hi Jana - I really enjoyed reading this. I'm trying to dig deeper with my WIP and your post has helped clarify some of my thoughts. Thank you!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Thanks for dropping by. I hope there's some information here that's helpful to you.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I have to remind myself to use the 5 senses as well. In a first draft I often have used only the sense of sight. Then I need to go back and weave in more of the other senses.

Some of my favorite works, whether plays, movies or books, are funny on the surface but have a touch of poignancy or tragedy underneath. I'll have to make sure to check out "Sexy Laundry" when it comes to town.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Leigh,
Thanks for stopping by. Taking my writing to the next level by adding emotion is a goal of mine as well. I'm glad you found the blog useful. I hope you drop by again soon!


Liz Flaherty said...

What a great post!