Lessons to Practice #12: Emotionally Charging Your Scenes

Hello and good evening, faithful audience. For this next installment of my “Lessons to Practice” series, I’m taking a closer look at the way in which we bring scenes alive in order to sustain a viable, engaging, and memorable story.  In my humble opinion, the most critical key to making a scene grab my readers is to make it emotional. Even if you’re not a counselor, an empath, or someone who is around a great deal of emotionally charged situations, I firmly believe that you can still learn how to give a serious injection of feelings into all of the scenes that you write.

Oh great…I hope he doesn’t mean inserting melodramatics. Actually, yes and no. I take human emotions and their connective experiences very seriously. As a counselor, I’ve seen the gamut of emotions and honored my clients by stepping in to their world, no matter how painful or triggering their sentiments are. However, I also have a fairly good sense of where to draw the line when tying feelings into my writings. Emotions are the same as butterflies: they are hardy, yet easily crushed, and ultimately not easy to lay our hands on – not only because they can fly away from us, but also because something in our nature is compelled to preserve their beauty, rather than capture it and keep it for ourselves.

Let’s talk about how we can recreate that esoteric essence of emotion without taking away its allure.

Imbuing Emotions into Our Writings

Defining emotion is a more nuanced experience than I think many of us realize. Sure, I can throw the Merriam-Webster definition at you [i.e., 2 . a : the affective aspect of consciousness; b : a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as a strong feeling…typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body). However, what a definition fails to capture is the sensations which linger within us long after said physiological and behavioral changes have passed.

Really, emotion is a process and a journey. When I feel anger, I’m taken back to the time my dad and I argued over the phone about tuition, and I feel my chest tighten as adrenaline pumps into my system. When I say “sadness,” you might start to notice more hues of blue in your vision, feel an ache in your heart, and/or conjure up a memory of when your beloved pet died. In short, we’re more often than not swept up into our memories, bodily sensations, and reflexive thoughts when emotions strike.

How does one translate an emotional strike into writing? The short answer is: not without struggle. Like I said earlier, emotions can become too hammy or sentimental if used as a crutch. Your main character’s mom died in a car accident? That is a critical story point and deserves our respect and attention; it should be as if we are literally giving our condolences to a real-life person. However, it can be easy to go off the deep end. Maybe you make your main character do things that are so self-deprecating and self-serving that it comes off as melodramatic, rather than as an authentic human response. Of course a person’s response to a loved one’s death is going to be extreme, overwhelming, and uncomfortable. That intensity should be because of the rawness of it all, rather than any exaggerated portrayal on your behalf as the author.

Some Quick Tips

  1. Use your own real-life experiences. That’s the best way to convey your own genuine emotional reactions.
  2. Don’t be afraid to touch on others’ tragedies. You can honor them by giving a respectful voice to their most intense emotional responses.
  3. Don’t make it all doom and gloom; joy, confusion, and indifference all have their place in the book world as well.
  4. Watch movies that get you laughing, crying, or jumping out of your seat. Then take notes: What triggered your emotional response? Where in your body did you feel it? How long did it last?

Case Study: Looking for Alaska

Check out this poignant and heart-rending scene from John Green’s YA novel, Looking for Alaska. Ask yourself the following: What is Miles (the main character) feeling? What is the emotional reading of the entire gym when the terrible news breaks? What emotions are welling up inside me as the reader?

*Please be warned: Major spoilers ahead:*

The gym was half full by the time we arrived. A podium had been set up in the middle of the basketball court, close to the bleachers. I sat in the second row, with the Colonel directly in front of me. My thoughts were split between sadness for Dr. Hyde and excitement about Alaska, remembering the up-close sight of her mouth whispering, “To be continued?”
And it did not occur to me—not even when Dr. Hyde shuffled into the gym, taking tiny, slow steps toward the Colonel and me.
I tapped the Colonel on the shoulder and said, “Hyde’s here,” and the Colonel said, “Oh shit,” and I said, “What?” and he said, “Where’s Alaska?” and I said, “No,” and he said, “Pudge, is she here or not?” and then we both stood up and scanned the faces in the gym.
The Eagle walked up to the podium and said, “Is everyone here?”
“No,” I said to him. “Alaska isn’t here.”
The Eagle looked down. “Is everyone else here?”
“Alaska isn’t here!”
“Okay, Miles. Thank you.”
“We can’t start without Alaska.”
The Eagle looked at me. He was crying, noiselessly. Tears just rolled from his eyes to his chin and then fell onto his corduroy pants. He stared at me, but it was not the Look of Doom. His eyes blinking the tears down his face, the Eagle looked, for all the world, sorry.
“Please, sir,” I said. “Can we please wait for Alaska?” I felt all of them staring at us, trying to understand what I now knew, but didn’t quite believe.
The Eagle looked down and bit his lower lip. “Last night, Alaska Young was in a terrible accident.” His tears came faster, then. “And she was killed. Alaska has passed away.”
For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.
I thought: It’s all my fault.
I thought: I don’t feel very good.
I thought: I’m going to throw up.

Thank you for checking out my newest lesson! How do you incorporate emotions into your own writings? Do you find it easy or difficult to do? Do you get help from others as you write an emotional scene?

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