How to Weave Emotion on to the Page
Let's dive in to a few examples of what this looks like on the page, and I thought, I mean I know some of you out there might be accomplished writers, published writers, well-published writers even and you're just here thinking, gee, I wonder what I can discover, maybe this is some new way of looking at things, but I think a lot of you might be working on your first novel, your debut novel, your work in progress, so I thought it would be really interesting to look at examples not from published books but from writers just like you who are working on their work in progress that they hope to become their debut novel, so I have four examples, two are short, two are a bit longer. One of them is, the last one I'll do, is by a man who has already published a very successful novel and he is now working on his second novel. So just to get the notion of emotion and backstory and how we make sense of what's going on, this is a very short snippet. This comes early in this novel, this is a young a...
dult novel, little bit to set it up, just small bit, main character, her name is Audrey, she's a senior in high school, she has a condition called selective mutism, which is really interesting. It's a condition where you can speak, like this particular character, she can speak at home but she can't speak anywhere else, the tension, she just absolutely, positively cannot speak, has never really spoken really anywhere except at home. She's a senior in high school, she was hoping, she had a brother who's two years older than her, Matthew, and they were very close, and he had kind of like eased the way in school for her all the way through, and her hope was she'd graduate school, he went to college, it was an easy college to get into, she thought she'd get into it and he said he would help her ease the way there as well. Unfortunately, a year earlier, a year to the day when this novel opens, Matthew died, and so now here she is and she's about to graduate and she has like no idea where to go or what to do or, 'cause out in the world, there's nobody to cover for her and she literally can't speak, so she's really in a quandary. Now this is the opening of the book, first couple of pages, so we're just learning stuff, we don't know all that much yet, so what's happened and you'll see how you can get emotion on the page over just about lunch. So what's happened is at lunch, she goes into a small room in the library where the librarian has let her, like, process books to keep her away from everybody because she really can't speak. So she's in there and I think she had, I think it was a Cheese Whiz packet things that she was playing with and it just exploded all over her, she's like oh my gosh. So this is just four lines, four short lines, and it's this: "mom used to make me nice lunches, "the kind with homemade cookies and handwritten notes "with phrases like one step at a time "or go on, take the day," about the selective mutism, hoping that she could speak. "But when Matthew got sick, she spent all her time "at the hospital and I became an expert "in over 20 different varieties of pre-packaged junk food." Now all that's there is the difference between homemade cookies and Lunchables. That is it, and yet in that short sentence, as she's making sense of what's going on and just thinking about lunch, this writer was able to get layer after layer in about we already knew that Matthew had died, that was something that we knew, but about her mom and you can feel from there how attentive her mom was, how much her mom was there, how much her mom was trying to help her and now, since Matthew's sick, since Matthew's sick, she wasn't there. So she's lost both Matthew and her mom and she's facing something that is the hardest thing that she's ever had to face. So we get all of that, the layers there, you can feel that pain of mom being at the hospital, forgetting the cookies she got, forgetting any of that. You can feel that layer of this was someone who was there for her, one champion, and now she's lost her and she's lost her brother. But you can see how just with something like that, looking into the past, thinking about those cookies, we got meaningful stuff and we got a lot of backstory there, too. Next is another really simple way that we get emotion onto the page and meaning and with this a bit of backstory too, and we set this one up. This is a contemporary novel, main character her name is Emma, although she won't be named here. She is 30, she's been estranged from her mother since she was 17. She had a really bad mother, like her mom, if she would've gotten Lunchables, she would've been lucky. Mom didn't give her anything for lunch. Her father died when she was very young, her mother was very beautiful, and her mother sort of went from guy to guy and just did not have time for Emma, so Emma sort of brought herself up. She left when she was 17, right when her mother had married this guy Keith, and Emma just left because she graduated high school. So at this moment, Maggie is her mom, Maggie Hart, is coming back into her life. Maggie's husband Keith has just died, they did stay married all that time and the only other thing you need to know here, again, there's so many other things but we don't have time, and we don't need to know it for this, is that Emma also right now has been reunited with her high school crush and discovered that she, she always knew she still liked him but he really likes her. Unfortunately, he's about to marry someone else in a week, so that's where we are. Her mother's come in, she's trying to figure out if she can trust her mother who's suddenly reappeared in her life. This is just a few lines and what's happened is her mother's sitting in a booth at a restaurant and she's just seen her there. So, and the mom is Maggie Hart. So she says "flashing me her incredible Maggie Hart smile, "I notice it doesn't reach her eyes this morning, "and the pain she's feeling slams into my chest "like a freight train." Now that is where most writers would've left it, because that's generic, that's simple, that's a nice metaphor there. We could feel that feeling of it slamming into but so what, does that give us any specifics? Is there any more than oh my god, she looks sad and that makes me feel sad too? Like no, do we know anymore about anything from that? So she goes on. She says, "if something like that had happened to Ryan, "I wouldn't be able to breathe, and he's not "even my husband." This is what we do, something happens in our lives, her agenda is to get together with Ryan, although he's getting married so she doesn't know if she'll be able to that, but we take what other people are doing and we relate it to us in our lives, given what our agenda is. So she's done that right there but it's not just that. She goes forward, comes back to her mom. "Maybe mom really did find what she was looking for "with Keith. "All the other guys left, but this time, "it was different. "Maybe she loved Keith as much as dad." Now in that moment, she's seeing that sorrow, she was making sense of it. She was looking into the past to think about yeah, that's how she felt about dad. She's realizing that maybe in the 12 years she hasn't seen her maybe that her mom and Keith had this good relationship and the reason she's probing this, it's not just hypothetically or oh yeah, maybe mom did love him as much as Keith. So what? The reason she's thinking about this is because she's trying to figure out if she can trust her mother because she has a big need right now and she's trying to figure out is her mother trustworthy or not, and that's why she's thinking of it. That is how you get emotion and meaning and internality onto the page. So let's now dive into one that is a bit longer and a bit deeper. This one comes from a novel that is a contemporary novel, it spans a long period of time but this particular, these two snippets come, happening in 1968. Main character, her name is Julia and she had a very sad and difficult childhood. Her father was bipolar, her mother died when she was I think about 12 in a freak accident that was sort of her father's fault. Her father couldn't really manage without her mother and right after Julia's 13th birthday, her father killed himself and Julia found the body. So she was just bereft. At that point, her aunt came and took her to live in Chicago where she grew up, and when she got there, she was befriended by a boy named Hoover and Hoover really liked her and really sort of protected her so it was sort of that, and Julia was frozen, I mean she was in so much pain that she really could hardly even respond, she was just very happy to have someone there to take care of her and as the years passed, they became boyfriend and girlfriend and it just sort of looked like they would go to college together and they would get married and that would be that. But, and this scene takes place when they're both about 19, instead what's happened is they were gonna stay together and then as often happens in our lives, we think that what we've got is exactly what we want until we walk into a room and we see someone else, and she walked into a room and saw another character, guy by the name of Hadrian and that was it, like it was over for her. That was it, so she knew I'm gonna be with this guy now and I've gotta break up with Hoover. That's what she decides to do. So in this scene, that's what's happened. Now what she tells herself because we always tell ourself this is really gonna be okay. This is gonna be okay for this person because, because we don't wanna think we're causing somebody the massive pain that often we in fact are. So what she believes is is that the pain that she's felt, she thinks she's kept it under wraps. She thinks he doesn't really know her, so she thinks that really, by letting him go, he'll be able to go find someone who really he can get to know and so he can really get to love much more deeply than he loves her. What she doesn't realize and what's happened here is that he probably knows her way better than she thought because when she went to tell him what's gone on and why they were meeting, he already knew. He knew what was going on and he also knew who it was that she was leaving him for. So this is just one paragraph and notice again this one does use backstory but notice how there's not that much emotion on the page and she's making sense of it. In other words, she's not telling us how she feels. He has just said to her, Hoover's just said to her, "'I understand you,' he said, 'better than I think you do.'" Now we're in her head. "I didn't believe him at the time, how could he? "With him, I had always been afraid that if he knew "who I really was, what I was like in my heart, "he would never be able to look at me the same way, "never be able to love me as he did. "Everything had been easy for him." Now had she stopped there, that would be boring, big deal. It's hard for her, easy for him, so what? Why would that mean really anything? Where is she drawing that conclusion from? So she goes on. "His parents were both still alive, for one thing. "Hoover's grandparents were still alive. "They came over to the house for holidays. "He invited me one year to Thanksgiving, and I remember "thinking I'd stepped into the pages "of Good Housekeeping. "His mother fretted over the sweet potatoes, "his father carved the dog," carved the dog, carved the turkey (laughs). Now that would've been something. "His father carved the turkey, Buster," see the dog's gonna be there. "Buster, the family dog also still alive, "followed Hoover everywhere, sat at his feet "as we ate at a table surrounded by his aunts, "uncles, cousins, brother, and sister." Now if you see that, all she's doing is painting us a picture of what happened in the past, but in that picture, you can feel and again, had you read this in the context of the novel itself, you can really feel how much she felt like an outsider at that point. What that was really saying is, inside, I'm in so much pain, whenever I was with him and with him in his family, I felt nothing but outside because I knew if they really knew me, they wouldn't like me, and we can feel her uncomfortably there in that scene and in that setting and also, we get a pretty good idea of Hoover and what his family is like as well. But so let's go even deeper into that one. So what's gonna happen is, there's a little bit I cut out, and now she's really wanting to break up with him and she says, "'you deserve someone better,' I told him. "I meant it." Now this is Hoover, he says "'I still remember "the day I first saw you,' he said, as if he hadn't "heard me." "'You walked into the room and everything changed. "I knew from the second I saw you, it was all "going to be different after that.'" Now if she left it there, it would be that same general generic thing, you know, or he left it there, like yeah, the minute I saw you, the world went away. So what? Everybody's had an experience like that. You have to go in deeper to make us feel what it was and to put us into that moment, so she thinks after that, she says, "I could only bear to look him in the eyes "for a few moments, I could see the hurt in them, "hurt I put there." Now he's gonna go on. "'You just moved here from Pennsylvania. "You had your socks pulled up almost to your knees, "but they kept falling because your legs "were so thin. "I remember watching you reach down, pull them up again. "You were blushing. "That day, that first day of class, they had us "read aloud, do you remember? "I wouldn't, except you were there. "You read a poem. "I can't think of the name because I wasn't "paying attention to it. "I got a terrible grade in English that year "because they sat you next to me "and I thought I was the luckiest.' "He stopped and let out his breath, slow and heavy. "'I guess it doesn't matter now anyway.'" Now you can see in that, did he mention any real emotion there? No, he reached into the past, he brought in a moment that defined how he felt about her, and he put that on the page and you can feel that she is tearing his heart out at that moment. That is, he's not crying, he's not sobbing, he's not throwing himself on the ground, he's not setting her car on fire. He is just telling her how he feels about her without saying darling I love you, I can't live without you. And it goes on and she says, and this is a key thing to think about, then she says, so he said, "'I guess it doesn't matter now anyway'" and she thinks, "I didn't know what to say. "It was the saddest I'd ever seen him," which is the other point when you're getting emotion or anything onto the page, you want your character to draw a conclusion. This thing has happened, they've probed it, and now they're drawing a conclusion that's going to play forward given what they want and what they're afraid of. Draw a conclusion, I can't say it strongly enough and you want them to draw a conclusion not a general conclusion, in the sense of something general that doesn't play forward that now they know something about people or about life but it doesn't have to do with the story. You want that conclusion they draw to have something to do with their agenda and how it's going to effect them going forward. Really have them draw conclusion whenever anybody's thinking anything, this will keep you from writing info dumps, this will keep you from going internal when you don't really need to. This will keep you from info dumps, this will keep you from having them saying something objective, this will keep you from writing things it will be very difficult to get rid of later. Have them draw a story-specific conclusion that plays forward because that's what the reader is coming for. They feel this, they know this, they learned this, and so what are they gonna do as a result, how is this new piece of information landing and how might that change what they are about to do next or how they see things? That is how you get meaning and emotion because remember that internal struggle and meaning is what evokes emotion. Getting emotion on the page does not mean writing they were happy, they were sad, they ran, it's about putting the struggle on the page so that you evoke the emotion both in the protagonist or the point of view character and your reader. So let's do one more and since that one was sad, let's do one that is not sad. It's very similar, but it's not sad and now this is a writer who has already written one very successful novel and he's working on his second, and I'll just set it up very quickly. Two main characters, I don't think they've even named here but I will name them anyway. There's a boy and it's interesting, they were 19 in that and that was a contemporary novel, here they're about I think 18 and it's still contemporary, it's not a, neither were YAs. But here they're both about 18. They boy is named Easy, the girl is named Penny. This is happening in Lafayette, Louisiana, and back when they were 12, they went to school together in Lafayette, Louisiana, for very short period of time. They both really like each other, but they never actually spoke to each other, for reasons that don't matter and they're both very odd people so they never really spoke to each other. Something big happened that blew everything up when they were 12, doesn't matter, would take too long to explain it but she ended up moving with her father to New York and she has not seen him since and neither one of them have spoken to each other since. But something has just happened in the present day that's made her have to go back and find him because she realizes that he might be in danger. And she's gone back to Louisiana, that's where this is taking place, and so they have not really had time to talk to each other much because she got there and then this other big thing that I don't have time to explain, it doesn't matter right now has happened and they are on the run from the police. They're on the run from the police, they've dodged the police, they're in a moment of safety where they can finally sit down and talk a bit. They're in the middle of sort of the woods out there near where he lives. So and they're talking about, and he says the first line refers to what happened the last time they saw each other when they were 12. He says, "'I can still see it clear as a bell,' "he said after awhile. "'See what?' "'You, that day, you wore a pea-colored cardigan "over a white blouse.' "He looked down the length of his shoulder at me "and then he grinned. "'Come to think of it, you're wearing the same "kind of jeans you have on now, only back then, "you'd roll them up at the hem.' "'You noticed that?' "He reached out and rubbed his fingers over one of "the waxy leaves that blanketed the bench. "'I notice a lot of things, like how you don't like onions. "You'd pick them out of your salad before you'd eat "a single bite, you tap your pencil against your nose "before writing down test answers, and did you know "that the array of freckles on your left cheek "has the same configuration as Ursula Minor, "only in reverse?' "He turned beet read, which I could only hazard a guess "was just about the same shade I'd turned, "considering how this comment had affected me." Now notice how, I mean she couldn't head hop or she couldn't turn around and say the color she turned because how would she know, but she can assume it from the other. She didn't tell us how she was feeling, but she really led us, the same shade considering how this commented had affected me, we totally get that. "'How many stars,' I blurted it out before he could "retreat to safer ground. "'Seven,' his voice was hoarse. "I would later remember wondering what the hell "had come over me, but at the moment, "I simply turned to face him. "'What are their names?' "I looked him in the eyes, I had to. "When his met mine, the constellation that made up "his pupils went supernova, and that's when I knew: "he liked me, he always had." Now right there again, you've got a memory, not that it always has to be a memory but you've got a memory with emotion that pulls us back, it's how we're making sense of it and she's making sense of it. It's not just oh, that's really nice, you like me. Oh, I've got it, it's you like me, you like me, he always had. That changes everything going back and going forward, that is a major moment right here in this novel. And again, there wasn't any big talk of love or lust or hearts pounding, I mean you did get people blushing, that was it, you did get the blushing, but that was it and we got a rough voice, but that was it. The point is, the way that you get any kind of emotion or feeling on the page is via this sort of internal struggle and it needs to go all the way across as your protagonist or point of view character is making sense of things. They are feeling something, all you have to do is give us that internal making sense of, given the struggle that every single scene is gonna force them to go through as they struggle with that, they're gonna feel something based on the meaning, they're reading into it as they try to figure out what to do because there's urgency to that. And so we're gonna feel something at the same time. So the point is, what evokes emotion in your character and your reader is, something external happens. Now it doesn't necessarily mean that something has to happen happen, I mean it means that they can walk into a room and see something that they didn't expect to see there and that's something happening, it doesn't necessarily refer to an event per se. But something external has happened. Your character struggles to make sense of it, given her agenda and her misbelief, given what she wants, given that thing that we're watching move forward scene by scene by scene by scene. And then once that's happened, your character draws a conclusion that gives her an insight and that plays forward. Gives her an insight that plays forward, sometimes that insight is oh my gosh I've gotta go do this, oh my gosh they really meant that, oh my gosh now I realize what love actually is, whatever that would be, you want them to draw a story-specific conclusion meaning it goes toward those storylines that we're watching unfold. It's not just a generic conclusion that would be objective but that does not play forward, that could not be more important and that's why it's all part of as we've been talking about from the beginning, your novel's narrative thread. The way your protagonist or point of view character is making sense of what's happening based on what they want and what they're trying to get across and what's holding them back and the obstacles they are facing to bring that agenda to fruition. You get that onto the page and we are going to feel it as deeply as your protagonist feels it because stories are Vulcan mind melds between your reader and between your protagonist and what your reader feels, your protagonist feels. They've done those functional MRI studies we're always talking about that show the same areas of our brain light up that would light up if we were doing what the protagonist is doing. So you have to tell us how the character feels, and so I'm saying to every writer, don't tell me how the character feels, put me in their skin as they experience that tough struggle and make me feel it. If you can do that, you will have harnessed the power of story and you will be able to change how your reader sees everything, or more particularly, change what you want your reader to change. They'll see it the way that you want them to see it, they will realize that, that information, that thing that you wanna put across, in terms of how we should live, how we should treat each other, what makes people tick, they will have internalized it. That is the power that you have as a writer. So as I always like to end, now that you have the power, please use it wisely. Thank you.