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Writing Excuses 7.33: Authentic Emotion

Writing Excuses 7.33: Authentic Emotion


Key Points: How do you fake an emotion? Make faces -- i.e., method writing! Think of times when you have felt analogous emotions. Convey the physical reactions that go with the emotion to the reader. Background music. Use sounds and other senses to convey resonant, visceral details. Pay attention to focus, what the character notices, breath, how long they linger on something, and muscle, internal motivation. What the character pays attention to, how long they think about it, and what makes them notice it. Authentic emotion means the character is consistent, and has good reasons for their emotions. Changing emotions need to be plausible, to make sense to the reader. Be careful to model how people really react, not overdo it. Let your characters have a range of emotional reactions, not just one.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 33.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. This week's episode, authentic emotion.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to talk about emotion. The thing about emotion, a lot of people actually ask us about this, is, in a lot of ways as writers, we're kind of like actors, in that we have to be able to fake emotion when we're not feeling it. We have to create… Have objects that… Mary knows about this, that have no life feel like they have life and emotion. So we're going to talk about that. How do you fake characters being in love if you've never been in love? Let's throw that hard question at us. It's something that one of our fans wanted us to talk about. Howard?
[Howard] [splutter] I've been in love, so that's the wrong example.
[Brandon] Okay. How would you fake an emotion? How do you fake love between two characters that don't exist?
[Howard] I… To be honest with you, I make faces. If you're having an emotion, one of the most difficult things to do is to not show it on your face. If you make the face that goes with that emotion… Anger's easy…
[Brandon] So you cheat.
[Howard] No, I actually make the face. I make the face… I scowl, I cheer, I make that face and then I start writing because the face… It's a biofeedback thing.
[Brandon] Right. Okay.
[Dan] I totally do that, too.
[Howard] You can be sad by crying first. You can be happy by smiling first.
[Brandon] Wow. I don't do any of that.
[Dan] I do that with action scenes, too. Which isn't really authentic emotion, but if I try to get myself to feel whatever I need the characters to feel, like tension or frustration or happiness or whatever, then I'll do it. That made writing some of the John Cleaver chapters really weird. The scene where he threatens his mom with a knife just messed me up because I was in that moment, feeling what he was feeling…
[Howard] Running around the kitchen with a knife.
[Dan] Yeah. I mean, my mom was so confused, but…

[Mary] I do some of that. It sounds like you guys are method actors. But one of the things that I also do is, I try to think of a time when I've experienced an emotion that is at least analogous to what the character's feeling. Like I have never been in a life-threatening situation. But I have been in situations where I have been terrified, and briefly thought… Where the entire fight-or-flight thing had kicked in. Recalling what that was like, and remembering that the… The physical emotions that I experienced. A lot of times, in order to get the emotion across to the reader, it's less about trying to convey the emotion words like "he was angry" and more about doing what these guys are talking about, which is conveying the physical reaction to those emotions. So if I can think about an analogous time, I can often take that and expand it into making sense for the character.
[Brandon] That's interesting. I do a little bit of that. I'm more definitely on Mary's side. One thing that I do is to kind of simulate what you guys are going through, is I will turn on the appropriate music. I don't know if anyone else uses this, but I will search for… And it works really well if it's soundtrack from a scene where that emotion played out on screen. I turn it on and it reminds me of that emotion, and kind of creates a connection in my head. Sometimes it can just be music that has its own emotion.
[Howard] So now I gotta ask, what are your soundtrack albums for this kind of work?
[Brandon] Honestly, it's going to depend on what I've seen recently. If I'm specifically searching for emotion, the older that gets, the less powerful a lot of times the emotion will be, and the more the music will simply become what it is to me rather than what the show was. So, last summer, I grabbed the X-Men First Class music because it was good music and there were some good emotions, some good character interplays in that, and I was using that on occasion between characters when I wanted that same interplay.

[Mary] That actually… Just the idea of using sound is actually something that is useful for characters as well. Because sound will often call up a specific memory or emotion. So having them focus in on a specific sound in a scene can often, by triggering it for the reader as well… Like the sound of a knife scraping across a kitchen counter…
[Dan] Which we all know what that's like.
[Mary] But that's something that can trigger that visceral emotion in the reader, which will allow them to transfer it to the character that they are reading about.
[Brandon] Yeah. We've mentioned before numerous times on the podcast that non-auditory senses are underused generally in fiction, which allows you as a writer to really make some of these things more powerful. The knife scraping across the table, like that… The counter, that immediately evokes this image. It's one of these small details that we frequently talk about that can be more important than spending three paragraphs describing what's going on. That single scrape, and it runs chills down your spine, and then they hold up the knife… And you're like, "I'm there. I'm with them."

[Dan] See, people don't think about that as a way to convey a character's emotion, because it's a sound a knife makes. That has nothing to do with the character. But what you're trying to do to convey an emotion is to get your reader to feel it, at least in part.
[Mary] I would say that that's not true, that it has nothing to do with emotion because it's what your character is noticing in that moment, so it has everything to do with their emotional state.
[Dan] Well, that's true.
[Brandon] Thanks for being wrong, Dan.
[Dan] Dang it.
[Mary] That's right.
[Dan] No, but what I'm trying to say is, in part, what you're trying to do with this, with emotions is to get your reader to experience it. So if you can pull out those things that will scare them or remind them of people that they love or whatever emotion it is that you're trying to pull out, then even little setting details or what's going on in the scenery can still work very effectively.

[Mary] Yeah. I actually have an exercise that I ask students to do sometimes, where I ask them to just describe a room. Then I ask them to go back and take that description and re-describe it three times. Once describing it as though the character is happy, once describing it as though the character is angry, and once as though the character is afraid. In those, they are not allowed to use any of the emotion words, anger, afraid… It's all about the things that the character is noticing and their physical reactions to those. I find that that's a way to often trigger things, just that exercise.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's a great exercise.
[Mary] Maybe that can be our writing prompt today?
[Mary] Wait, we're way early for that.
[Dan] [garbled]
[Howard] Way early for the writing prompt.
[Mary] You can tell that this is the… For those of you listening, this is the first episode that we're recording…
[Brandon] Of a big batch. We're all… Gung ho…
[Dan] We're on our game right now.
[Brandon] Except for Dan, who is laying down and lounging…
[Dan] Dan is on narcotics right now. He is allowed to lounge.
[Brandon] Dan had his tailbone removed. So…
[Dan] So if anyone knows where it is, please email us.

[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] Yes. I want to talk about Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius. This is a really interesting book, in part because he's written it in omniscient. But that allows him to explore the emotions of a lot of different characters. He does it through really kind of drilling into what they're noticing, and the physical responses, and the tiny details around them. But it's… I enjoyed the book so much. It's like… It's a young woman who has to cross-dress in order to go to this really amazing school in an alternate Victorian England.
[Brandon] Okay. Awesome. Howard, how can they get that book?
[Howard] Head over to You can kick off a 15 day free trial membership… Used to be 14 days, now it's 15.
[Brandon] Oh, good. An extra day!
[Dan] They've added a day because we love you, dear listeners.
[Howard] I say 15. It might be 30. Now I need to go look.
[Brandon] Uh-oh.
[Howard] At any rate…
[Brandon] Yes, we are on our way, Dan.
[Dan] A multi-day free trial membership.
[Howard] Two weeks, 15 days, that's plenty of time to sample an audiobook.

[Brandon] All right. I'm going to put Mary back on the spot, because one of the best episodes we've ever done was the first episode that Mary was on, and we talked a little bit about this. I want you to kind of give us a little bit of a refresher, making the inanimate objects, making the puppets come to life and express emotion. What sort of things can you relate that to in fiction that can help our listeners?
[Mary] Sure. So, one of the things I talked about in that podcast was focus indicates thought, what your character is thinking about. So that can tell you what specifically by the items that your character notices. That can tell you which items are the most emotionally resonant in a scene. But the two other pieces for me that are most useful are breath or rhythm, which is how long they linger over something, and internal motivation or muscle. The idea with breath and rhythm is that the… The easiest way to describe this is, if you notice someone breathing, the rate at which they are breathing tells you a lot about their emotional state. A short, quick breath is going to mean something very different from a long drawn… Indrawn one. Rapid panting means they've probably just run in from someplace. That relates, if you recall that writing developed from the spoken language… That relates to the length of your sentence structure, which can convey a subtle layer of emotion, but it also relates to how long a person lingers on something. So, for instance, the example that I use is, and this is not particularly good writing, but, "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. She had long curling hair that went down to the base of her spine." Which is different from "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. The chair was a fine bent hardwood."
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] All I'm changing there is my pacing in terms of how long he lingers on each object, that tells you which one is most emotionally resonant to him.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Mary] Then with the internal motivation, you can bump that up a little bit, by also playing with… Or muscle, I should say. I can do an entire thing talking about body language.

[Brandon] Right. Let's move off this topic though. Because, I think, the title of the episode is authentic emotion. I do want to talk about, once you've got the emotion in there, you're feeling it, how do you make it authentic? Dan?
[Dan] I think consistency is a huge part of making emotions authentic. What a character is feeling from one scene to the next, or from one part of a scene to the next, it has to feel like it's all coming from the same place and from the same character. If they change tracks too abruptly and the reader can't follow them, then all of a sudden these emotions seem very forced and like the author's just making it up.
[Mary] Yes. At the same time, I think that one thing that can be really interesting, that is much easier to do in fiction than it is in pretty much any other medium is having a character who has two emotional responses to the same situation.
[Dan] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's… It's something you can do in fiction. It is much easier to create a character who can change emotions. We can establish that, we can make it work. We… I want to send a warning, what Dan said is absolutely correct, but by one definition at least, melodrama is the sort of fiction where each character has only one emotion, you're only seeing one face of them. That's… What's going to make it feel authentic I think is if they feel like real people. Real people are never feeling just one thing except maybe in the most powerful of moments.
[Dan] Exactly. If someone is changing emotions, the reader needs to be able to see why, or needs to be able to feel like it's plausible and go, "Oh, I can understand why this character suddenly loves this person instead of hates them. It makes sense to me."
[Mary] Yeah, we need to see that… Go ahead.
[Howard] One of the… Oh, sorry. I was just going to say that I've found with regard to authentic emotion, and it's problematic, is that my emotional state colors what I am writing.
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Howard] If I'm having a horrible day, and I need to write about this moment where the characters are all rejoicing, writing the rejoicing helps me have a better day. I feel better at the end of it. But it is not the rejoicing scene that the story needed. I end up having to go back and fine tune.

[Mary] You know what, I just realized that I do actually totally cheat sometimes and I do my version of the making a face, which is I go read fiction that is…
[Brandon] Of that emotion.
[Mary] That is that emotion. And use it as a kind of software patch on my own…
[Dan] That's not cheating.
[Howard] When I've been scripting some of the… Zombie chase scenes in Random-Access Memorabilia…
[Mary] Which I'm enjoying so much.
[Howard] I have turned off the lights in my office.
[Howard] And written with just the light of the screen in front of me. It's fun. It's really fun. I can't draw them that way because then the lines are in the wrong places, right?
[Mary] [garbled]

[Brandon] I'm going to make you guys play doctor a little bit.
[Dan] Oh!
[Loud cough]
[Mary] Well, then.
[Brandon] Book doctor, a little bit. So, here's a scene with authentic emotions that just didn't work for me. That is, there's the show Lost. I was watching with a big group of people. There's one part in Lost where this one father loses his son, his son is kidnapped. I don't know if you guys have seen it.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] It seems like some of you have. He loses his son, and he spends like the next 12 episodes at every moment pointing out to us that his son is lost and he's grieving for his lost son. This becomes… He's like, "MY SON!" It's really powerful for the character. Everyone that watched it with us hated it. They're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your son, your son. Leave us alone." But if you really lost your son, I mean, this would be one of those overpowering things that would drive you. What went wrong?
[Howard] Can I share… You know what, I'm going to flip this on its head. Genuine experience, and it's 25 years old so I can talk about it very clinically. The day that my dad died, I went out and helped people pour a concrete driveway, and spent the whole time just very quietly pushing concrete around. I didn't want to talk to anybody, I didn't want to unload emotions. There were many, many times in the weeks that followed when I engaged in similar sorts of activities where it was not about me distracting myself from the pain. It was about me quietly contemplating, "I don't want to unload on people. I just… I just want to push concrete. I just want to trim the hedge. I just want to do…" If in Lost what they had instead done is have a couple of the other characters standing aside saying, "Man, it looks like he's taking this pretty well." Then you cut to him with a completely blank expression on his face… I don't know what they did in Lost… Tying a hut together or something. You realize that he's not dealing with it well. He's focusing on this piece of rope instead of whining.
[Brandon] Okay. So what you're saying is the emotion wasn't authentic. It was overblown and overdone, and it wasn't how a person really reacts.
[Howard] No. Well, it wasn't how I would react. I haven't seen Lost, so I have no idea what…
[Brandon] Go ahead, Mary. You have seen it.
[Mary] I have seen it. For me, what I think happens there is that they only showed him in the moments of extreme emotion. Because they just needed to show him… It was a plot device to remind us that this thing is happening. So they only showed us those extreme emotions. Whereas probably the character arc that the character him… If we had been able to watch him the entire time, he would have had…
[Brandon] They would have had him through moments of depression, moments of insecurity, moments of these things. I think that's right, as I consider it. It probably just comes back down to what we were talking about before. Painting a character with only one… In one emotional state is going to make us dislike the character. They're going to become a prop to us, rather than a person.
[Howard] I think that Mary used the key word there. It was a plot device. They needed to remind the reader that the son is an important plot piece. If they had done that in ways similar to what I described, where a couple of the other characters talk about it and we look at his emotional state, now we have two plot devices. One, we've been reminded, and two, we're seeing his emotional journey.
[Brandon] All right. We are actually out of time. I want Mary to remind us what our writing prompt is going to be.

[Mary] Ah. Take a scene. Describe a setting. Then go back and describe that same setting with three different emotional states. One, your character is happy. One, they are angry. One, they are frightened. You may not use any emotion words, like anger, happy, or frightened.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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