Emotion Is Physical

c. 2019 by Alicia Rasley



     What's the hardest scene to write well?  To get across to the reader what you want to get across? To get the reader to experience the right experience?

     For me, and many other writers, it's the deeply emotional scene.  We try, we give it our all, we get our character emoting up a storm, and the reader responds with muttered comments like, "What a whiner. Hey, if I want self-pity, I'll call my sister.  She could give this guy a run for his money. They could have a pity party for the ages!"


Thank you for your astute comments, critique group!  :)


    You can tell I had that exact experience. You know what I did? I went back and stripped all the emotion out of the scene. So much for the moss dripping on the walls, the single tear rolling off the character's cheek, the fierce storm raging outside, the outpouring of revelatory dialogue, the friend reacting with helpless admiration for his strength and openness—Gone. All gone. Now I had a scene stripped bare enough for even the minimalist Raymond Carver to love.

    Took it back to the critique group.  "You know," they said, "this guy seems like a sociopath to me. Doesn't he feel anything?"

     Gee whiz! I can't win!

     Anyway, that experience taught me that writing is harder than it looks.  :)  Or writing emotion is harder than I ever imagined. Oh, easy enough to write it… but how do you make the reader FEEL it? 

     I realized that humans have a shutdown mechanism on their emotional engine. That's what allows us to get through that talk with the funeral director about Mom's coffin when all we want to do is go home and cry.  And this mechanism comes into play when we read something that is highly emotional, that is, moreover, trying to get US to feel emotion too.  We have an instinctive need to distance ourselves from the pain.  Hence the dismissal of our poor character as a whiner filled with self-pity. That's the reader distancing.

      Well, okay, knowing many readers don't love a book until it makes them cry, but how do we get around that shutdown mechanism?  Taking out all the emotion doesn't work, apparently. So what does?

         I think the trick is not to tell the reader what to feel (come on, you know what that single tear dropping off his cheek is meant to make the reader feel), but to get the reader feeling what the character is feeling (or would feel, if he let himself).    

     That is, use the scene to inspire in the reader the emotion. Don't tell the reader what the emotion is. Don't even necessarily SHOW the reader the emotion.  INSPIRE the reader to experience the emotion.

     We've already talked about this in Emotion without Sentimentality.  Now I want to discuss how using the action/perception levels of point of view, rather than the thinking and emotion levels, can actually let the readers FEEL the feeling, by putting them into the physical experience of emotion. 

     Consider a scene potentially fraught with system-shutdown emotion.  Brad is still mourning the recent death of his beloved father when his childhood home burns down.  Since the funeral, he hadn't been able to bring himself to sort through and move Dad's possessions, so they all go up in smoke inside the house. Great symbols-- fire, ashes, rubble... let's see if I can restrain myself. :)

     Now we're going to be in Brad's POV for the entire scene, but we'll exploit the levels for the most intensity.

     First, we won't describe emotion– we'll show Brad experiencing it.  So we'll avoid emotional words and explanations (like "he sat down, grieving for his father, his sadness overcoming him and filling him with despair") or the patented displays of emotions (like "he flung himself on the ground in an agony of grief, howling his anguish while his tears flowed like rain").  An odd aspect of reader identification with the character is that... well, you have to leave room for the reader to feel emotion, and if the character is over-emoting, then there's no reason for the reader to help out.

     But this doesn't mean going to some extreme of non-communicative non-feeling.  Rather we'll let the character subtly act out the emotion, let the action be evocative rather than truly expressive. Go for subtext-- let the whole scene create a sense of emotion, because if it's the entire scene, the reader has to put the parts together to feel the emotion. Remember, interactivity is the great goal of crafting POV.

     So back to Brad.  Use the setting-- the rubble, the smoke, the ashes-- describing it through his viewpoint... but a bit dispassionately.  Let him be in shock, emotions under tight control because he's afraid of how he might fall apart if he doesn't hang on.  (Remember that he might not fully have processed his father's recent death, and this is what he's really scared of-- facing the enormity of his grief.)

      He's trying to be calm.  Walking through the rubble.  What's his purpose? To find what's left.  To, oh, maybe try to remember what went where to tell the insurance agent. (A cool rational task can help with holding on to that tenuous control.)  We'll even give him a prop, a clipboard for noting down what

But at some point, make him think about Dad.  Like a stab of regret-- why didn't I make copies of all Dad's photos?  Now they're lost-- but cut it off.  It's really important not to let him take the thought/feeling all the way, because, remember, he's trying to hold on to his composure.

     But every now and again, let the perception level overwhelm him– the awful smell of wet ash, the choking taste of the smoke, the crunch of broken brick under his feet, the sight of the chimney standing tall and forlorn in the ruin.

     Then back to action, safe, focused action–


     He gripped the clipboard and methodically listed the missing furniture from the living room.  The couch. The marble-topped coffee table. There was the marble, broken into three pieces, half-buried in the ash.  Dad's old desk used to be across from there–


     Then let him have a totally irrational flash of a thought-- the photo box was in the desk!  Maybe-- no, it's too crazy-- maybe it survived the fire.  It was metal, right? Maybe--

     Then, unbidden, comes the emotion, the most dangerous emotion of all, the one that kills us everytime– hope. This is the one emotion that nothing can hold back, not even the iron control of a man's will.  (That's what escaped from Pandora's box, remember, hope.) Show it not in words, however, but in his actions, in how he risks getting burned to rescue that metal box:


     He dropped the clipboard, crossed the room, or what was left of the room, and knelt in the wet ash, and started digging. His right hand hit something.  He yanked it out– and dropped it, it was so hot– the half-melted steel box.  He grabbed it again, hearing but not feeling the sizzle on his wet fingers, rose to his feet and wrenched it open, and blinked, and saw... nothing but ashes inside.


     Now try and put yourself into the character's body.  I'd say underplay the emotional words and go deep into his point of view and use the body.  He's on his feet.  What would his body do, confronted with this shattering disappointment?  I think it would slump.  He would slump to his knees– not fling himself to the ground, but slump, because his strength has given out.  No editorial comment-- just use the body-- action and perception.



     He slumped back to his knees in the rubble.  The ground was wet under him, soaking through his jeans.  He wiped a hand across his face and tasted the ashes, always more ashes...  I  have to get up, he thought, and slowly, with effort, he put his hand down on the ground, pushing himself up, pushing the hand splayed open deeper into the ashes.  And then he felt, under his palm, something hot.... Slowly, almost reluctantly, he pulled it out, pulled it up to his chest, and then he opened his hand.

     Dad's pipe.



     Now chop off any inner dialogue.  Go with perception and action only.  In highly emotional moments, let the experience unfold from within the body.  In this case, go with the powerful sense of smell– the most primary of the senses, the one linked directly to memory–-



     The plastic mouthpiece was melted, but the bowl was clay and unmarred except for the soot.  He held it in his hand, letting it burn into his palm, remembering Dad's ritual of cleaning it out, then filling it, carefully tamping the cheap tobacco down before adding more.

     Sometimes, when he was a boy, Brad would get to light it, carefully striking the match and holding it to the bowl while Dad inhaled deeply and then said, his voice deep with satisfaction, "Thanks, son.  That's good."

     Brad brought the pipe to his nose and inhaled.  Even within the overpowering stench of the dying fire, he could breathe in the sweet rich smell of ancient tobacco.  He closed his eyes and waited for the moment to pass.  Then he jammed the pipe into his pocket and went back to searching through the ashes.


     Almost all the emotion is conveyed through action and sense here.   I believe that works better than describing the actual emotion ("He remembered his father and wept inwardly, as renewed grief swept over him...")-- especially with male characters.  The concreteness of the object (the pipe) somehow encapsulates the emotion.

     Try that-- find the emotion in the physical, in the character's body, perception, and actions, and also if possible in some "prop" of a physical object. After all, we endow objects with all sorts of emotional value and power, so the reader will have no trouble imagining Brad's dad in that pipe.

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