Have you ever heard "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". It is part of a quote from Robert Frost. The sentence is followed by "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."
The quote goes in two directions - Robert Frost later elaborated, that he also referred to the hard work a writer has to put into his work; tears, like in "blood, sweat and tears".
However, in this blog post I want to go into the more common interpretation, that without the feelings in the writer, there wouldn't be feelings in the reader. As a writer, you need to be able to feel what you write, love, fear, anger. But how can you write about extreme emotions? So, you are not allowed to write about them. Well, there are multiple ways to understand emotions.
Mending a Broken Heart by Nicolas Raymond (photo from Flickr)
Most of us experience a variety of emotions throughout childhood, adolescence and later in live, being loved and cherished, falling in love, anger etc. When writing about these emotions, it should not be too difficult to recall them. I am usually so into my story, that the emotions come automatically. If not, you can try to concentrate on certain events or moments in life where you remember these emotions to be very strong. That might help.
I know that sounds so easy now, but usually it is. However, there might be situations which are more difficult, for example when you grieve for someone, when you just had a fight with loved ones or simply when you are anyways stressed out and just got another deadline on your calendar. The only way to get through that is to sit down and write. Either you try to write the scene, knowing you might have to rewrite it (actually, you might even like the undertone of how you wrote it). Or, you write something different and come back later to this scene. It all depends on what works better for you.
Having said all that, there are emotions that are more difficult to recall, such as guilt, shame, envy, schadenfreude, angst etc. They are difficult to recall because we usually try to hide them from ourselves. Myself, I remember some of them and I don't like to recall them. On the other side I know that my writing becomes so much stronger when I do so... no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
If you are not sure how an emotion feels that you want to write about, it actually doesn't matter if you did not have this emotion yet in the magnitude you would like to write about it or you simply haven't been able to recall it. In that case, you can try to use surrogate techniques such as observation or empathy.
Observation and Empathy
Watching people live, on video or in movies can be a good surrogate to see emotions. Observing their reaction and trying to feel them, can help your writing.
Examples? Here you go:
- Watch the Lovabull proposal on Youtube. The cheerleader is surprised at the beginning and she knows something is on, but she maintains a professional manner. She knows she is on stage. The moment when she realized what it is, she laughs and then she is overwhelmed for ten seconds until she regains control. Try to catch that moment and feel what she might feel.
- In The Patriot, watch the scene when Mel Gibson as Benjamin Marin loses his faith after his second son Gabriel died. Don't listen to what he says, just watch him. He can barely breath.
- Another movie example is Falling Down with Michael Douglas. Can you follow him the moment, when it clicks? He gets out of the car and tries to escape, but he's not there yet. He tries to see his children and gets rejected, but he's still not there yet. Very slowly he pushes the limits further until there is no way back.
- There are also examples in real live. Have you ever watched a couple fight in a restaurant - this mixture of suppression of anger together with sudden small outbursts. Can you feel how the chest is always under pressure, when they talk. In private they would probably fight with a rapier or a broadsword, but in public they fight with a needle.
Don't get me wrong here - I don't want you to copy these feelings, but to understand them in order to be able to produce characters that express them. You need to understand the underlying emotion and realize what it can cause when it gets extrapolated and the controlling mechanisms are taken away.
Your writer in a foreign land