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

downloadA while back, I 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. Here’s some tips on bringing emotion to our writing:

–          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 seeks to uncover the truth of his brother’s death, not only to exonerate himself, but to seek justice for the brother he loved.

–          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 by over writing an emotional scene, the writer runs the risk of turning an event that should move the reader into simple melodrama. Melodrama can seem fake or farcical, two things a writer wants to avoid. For ways to avoid melodrama in romance writing, click here.

–          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 kicks her cheating boyfriend to the curb, I’ll feel it. Check out this article from The Write Practice for tips on showing emotions and moods vs. telling readers about them.

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, and plays that make you feel are the ones you remember.

What books/movies/plays have made an impact on you? What are your favourite examples of emotional writing? Your favourite authors who write with emotion?


Make ’em Laugh, Make ’em Cry: Emotional Writing — 8 Comments

  1. Great, great post, Jana! The fact that you use one of my favorite shows of all time to illustrate helps. I haven’t seen it on stage, but I’ve probably seen the movie a dozen times.

    • You’re so right. As Reese said, it’s easy to go over that melodrama cliff. In one of my novels, the hero finds his estranged father (after not knowing who he was his entire life) only weeks before the father dies of a terminal disease. It was tough know how far to take the emotion. I walked a line between hand wringing, over-the-top drama and real gut-wrenching emotion. I was pleased when my editor told me that I’d avoided being melodramatic. Thank goodness!

  2. Fabulous post, Jana! My favorite stories are those that make me feel what the characters are feeling–whether that’s joy, passion or pain.

    One of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou is: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I try to remember that as a writer. But Samantha is right, it can be hard not to fall off the melodrama cliff. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips and resources.

    • I love that quote, Reese! I think I’m going to print it out and place it near my computer. Emotion is the reason I read romance, and the writers who make me feel something are my favorites. Making my readers feel is my objective as a writer.

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