Writing secret–emotions are everything

I believe our natural instincts–to write not to fail, and follow all the rules–tends to strip our ability to evoke emotion in readers. And no matter type of writing you do–poems, screenplays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles–the trick is getting something to resonate with the reader.

That doesn’t happen with facts or logic, though both of those elements have their place.

It happens emotionally.

Viscerally.

The best writing makes you laugh and cry, smell and taste, hope and fear. It awakens something inside of you.

So: I believe, deep in my evil little soul, that every writer is trying for this, consciously or not.

Except 99 percent of pieces I read miss the target. Wide left or wide right. Not because of grammar or syntax, or breaking any of the rules you were taught from kindergarten through college. There are technically sound pieces published ten times a second that follow the rules, except none of that matters because the text utterly fails to resonate in the reader’s emotional core.

Which is a waste, both of talent and good material.

In journalism school, they drill us to be objective and factual. Spock-like, unless you’re doing a flowery feature story, in which case you’re allowed to show the subjects expressing some emotion, though you have to be invisible, My Young Reporter, invisible and unseen and unmoved by any of the joys or horrors that you’re witnessing. Fiery car crash? Give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Cute little girl with a pet turtle that plays soccer with her in the backyard? Spend the last line of the piece inverted pyramid style by telling us the color of the little girl’s house.

I’ve discovered, the hard way, that (a) emotions matter most and (b) few writers are trained in how to evoke them. Believe me, I felt plenty of emotion covering those fiery car wrecks, little kids with turtles or hedgehogs, and murder scenes. You always feel something. It wouldn’t be worth covering if you didn’t.

If evoking emotion is important to all writing, how do you do it?

My old friend Robin Boyes had the first step. He said, “You have to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel.” He was a speechwriter and coach, so that advice was aimed first at speakers. Except it applies to speechwriters, and all writers. If you’re not feeling something when you write it, the fact that you intend for the audience to feel something during that part of the text is completely irrelevant. They don’t know your secret plan. There are no album liners, no footnotes telling people “hey, be sad here” or “this is where I hope you get truly pissed off.”

True emotion starts with you, as a writer or speaker. Because you can’t fake it, or cheat your way to this. I believe this is why a lot of writers, rock stars, and other artists tended to turn to alcohol and other things.

I tell people to overdo it at first. Go wild. Let go of your inhibitions, your extensive notes, the mound of quotes and facts you planned on including in the text. Put all of that away, as George Pica taught me, and tell me the story like you’re sharing it with a good friend. “You would not believe what the city council just did. What the hell?” Write it like that.

Include the passion, the short-hand, the slang, the things you felt and why.

That’s your first draft.

Then go back and clean it up. Insert the facts, quotes, details. Take out the slang and short-hand. Fix the structure to give it a beginning and end, because we’re taking the Inverted Pyramid out behind the barn and sending it home to heaven and the angels.

This is your second draft, which you’re going to have edited by somebody else. A pro. Not your husband, cousin, neighbor, or best friend from college. A professional.

Third draft should be the final, where you want to double-check all the usual things, as a habit, while looking at the emotional arc. It can’t be one-note, entirely happy or sad. That’s repetitive and ineffective. If it’s a story about a mom and her daughter getting hit by a drunk driver, you don’t start with that and end with details about the license plate of the suspected drunk. When you’re ending is down, the beginning should be up, and vice versa. You don’t pile horror on top of horror, or stack joy on more joy until you have a mountain of happiness. Doesn’t work that way. It’s why the Marvel movies use humor so consistently–they’re cleansing your palate. More thrilling action scenes would actually detract from the movie.

Whatever you’re writing, the goal should be the biggest possible difference, emotionally, from the beginning to the end. A hero sheriff becomes a villain, stealing money from the evidence locker while arrogantly believing whatever he did was right, because he was the one doing it, and the money was being taken from criminals, so who cares? Two estranged brothers, who refused to talk to each for fifty years, forgive each other during a five-shots-of-tequila night at the local biker’s bar.

Because there’s always a beginning and an end, though you wouldn’t know it from how most pieces are written, and the audience doesn’t want to be told how to feel, or beaten over the head with an explicit message. Give them subtext and details, then let the audience decide for themselves.

So I hope this helps even one writer struggling to figure out why a piece isn’t working. I hope it helps generate a few more stories which make people laugh and cry and see things differently.

And I hope you feel more than a little something the next time you brew a fresh pot of coffee and start banging on the keyboard. Let yourself feel a lot. It’s the only way your audience will feel anything at all.

Further reading:

The secret truth about writing

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

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