Author Resources/Tips/Tools: Writing Emotions
Emotions & Trauma in Writing
Emotions and trauma are heavy topics, but for writing, it's an important one. Someone once told me that the best writers write from experience, and I have since found that to be true.
Another old saying says something like “within every lie, there is a kernel of truth”. Another true statement for writers, fiction writers, that is.
If you have never seen the sun, could you write about its brightness, its golden glow, the colors of fire, of golds, reds, and pinks as it rises and sets? No. Not with any truth or emotion. You could say “the sun is yellow” but does that really grab you as a reader or fill you with emotion or a longing for the warmth of its sunbeam across your back? No.
The same concept applies to emotions and trauma when you are writing. Those things in life that have hurt you will come through in what you write by lending emotion to what you write. It can be scary to open those doors, even painful, but cathartic. You do not need to put it all in there. Small pieces can go a long way towards pulling the reader in for a deeper, more meaningful connection to your story. You WANT them to relate to your characters, to their situations.
Have you been bullied? Were you a bully? Were you a lonely child? An abused child? A survivor of something horrible? Assault, violence, abuse, addiction, depression, heartbreak and grief. All of it translates to emotion in your writing that a reader can feel.
Think for a moment about the first time you lost someone close to you, by death or heartbreak. How did it feel? What physical signs did you notice? What were you experiencing at that moment? Really think about it. Don’t say “Loss.” Of course, it's all loss. But how did it feel?
Did your mouth go dry? Did your chest begin to ache? Were you shaking or trembling? White noise or static in your brain, drowning out all other sounds? A sudden rush of heat, flushed cheeks, tears, or sobs? Did you collapse or get weak on your feet? How did it feel an hour later? That evening? The next day? When did the numbness set in? The surrealness of going about your everyday life, while preparing for life alone, for the funeral, for the void they left behind?
That needs to be on the page. Take that and describe it. Pour it on the page, let the tears fall again, if you need to feel that ache and release it on the page. Let the ink share the burden.
For instance, your main character finds out her mom suddenly died. How do you write her reaction?
Ex. 1: Jane hung up the phone, turned to her husband, and said “Mom died.” Then she sat down and cried.
Ex. 2: Jane began to shake as she tried to hang up the receiver, but it slipped from her suddenly sweaty hand. Her face paled as tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision, her knees buckled as white noise filled her mind. She could not register her husband's words as he rushed to her side. Someone was sobbing. The sound filled her core until it was all she could hear, then she realized it was her. “My mom is dead, my mom is dead,” her wails filled the small kitchen as her husband wrapped his arms around her.
Which one did you feel, example 1 or 2?
If you said example two, then you are correct. While example one tells us what is going on and it's adequate, example two makes us feel it. It puts the reader right there with Jane, brings them back to memories of their own loss, their grief. It creates empathy for the character, compassion, unity. It makes the reader care about them and their outcome.
This applies to all writing, not just horror. But with horror, we have the proverbial sandbox of emotions to play with, as it all applies to horror. Fear, grief, anger, loss, heartbreak, love, lust, suspicion, dread, the list is endless. But to really write it, you must have experience with it, on some level.
No, I don’t mean you need to survive a massacre or a violent assault, but when did you experience fear? Real fear, that knotted your stomach, made sweat run down the small of your back, made your heart slam against your chest?
What about pain? Ever step on a nail, slam your hand in a door, been stabbed, or fallen down a flight of stairs? You know that pain. You can write it. You can describe the aches, the bruises, the feel, the taste of blood in your mouth or the sight of it oozing from your foot. Put it on the page.
Trauma. Yes. That nasty word. I won’t spell it all out, but if you are writing horror, if your character is being assaulted, and you were assaulted at some point; yes, open that door. Put it on the page. It doesn’t have to be a replay of your trauma but take some of that emotion, that fear, those feelings after the anger, the rage, the helplessness, and give it to your character.
Take whatever awful things happened to you and give them to your character as needed, when needed. Let them carry it, let the reader share it. Yes. It will hurt to open those wounds, but when you finish, that pain will be a little less.
Also, your reader will love you for it. Why? Because by sharing a small piece of your truth with your character, you are telling them that they are not alone in this world, not alone in their feelings, and in their fears. You share it, your characters share it, your readers share it and together, we all heal a little.
This same advice goes for all writing scenarios. If you have never been in the woods, can you truly write how it feels to be there? The smells, the sounds, the peacefulness? If you have never been to a hospital or worked in one, can you describe the smells of the sterile halls? The crying, the grief, the joy, the pain, the stress that the workers witness and see every day?
Keep in mind, I am referring to scenarios only, not your entire story. We create from our imagination, we can write in the past, the present, and the future. This advice applies to adding emotion to what you are writing and how best to do it.
Write that western, but when Bessie dies, remember when your loved one died and put it on the page. Make it real for your reader. Write what you know and lend it your truth.
Need more help on writing emotion? The below link takes you to a whole series of helpful books on writing emotions, conflicts, and more.