Let me start today’s email with some Q & A:
Reader Question: “My weakness, I think, is emotion. I have a hard time describing emotions. So I definitely want to work on that. So I guess that would fall into character development?” “My weakness, I think, is emotion. I have a hard time describing emotions. So I definitely want to work on that. So I guess that would fall into character development?”
Reader Question: “In your day 2 of 90 blog post, you mentioned “emotional writing.” Are you suggesting to write this for fiction writing, or if you can’t think of a scene, just write stream of consciousness?”
Both of these are excellent questions, and I think I can answer them both with this explanation:
Let’s use the emotion of fear as an example.
The problem that newer writers have is they “tell” instead of “show”.
I imagine you’ve heard that one before, but let’s actually unpack what it means. I don’t think many writers understand HOW to “show” instead of “tell”. Let’s see if we can fix that.
When you tell your reader “Jonathan was afraid for his life. He had never felt such fear before.” (telling) you remove the most important piece of the reading experience from your story:
The reader themselves.
You see, the reader shows up to the page to EXPERIENCE something new.
They aren’t there to watch others experience something, they are there to experience it themselves.
Let me give you an example outside of fiction to help paint the difference between “tell” and “show” and to help you understand the reader’s desire to EXPERIENCE:
Instead of trying to explain what oculus rift is, watch this short video.
Take careful note of a few things about that video:
1. The game is played from the point of view of the player. They are given sights and sounds to absorb from the game itself. These sights and sounds are processed by the player’s brain to produce a reaction.
2. The designers and creators of that game have done everything they can to amplify the experience of the player so that he or she believes it is real.
These are both very significant lessons in “showing” versus “telling” in writing.
Your reader wants the same experience from your book that these people are having playing a virtual reality game on oculus rift.
Because second person point of view is so difficult, and so jarring to the average reader, your challenge is to emulate the effects of oculus rift (a.k.a. VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIENCE) using the tools of third person point of view and/or first-person point of view.
Which point of view you choose is a topic for another email. However, the main objective of your writing is the same:
You want your reader to EXPERIENCE what your main character is experiencing.
Your reader shows up to the page to “play the game” (a.k.a. your story) THROUGH your main character.
They did not open your book so that they could learn about another person. They want to learn about themselves.
In order to do that, you must paint a virtual reality through your words that your main character can exist in.
Don’t tell your reader that your main character is cold.
Make your reader FEEL cold by giving them sensory signals. Sights, sounds, touch etc.
These sensory signals can be communicated to your reader through bits of dialogue, setting, action, and more.
Going back to our fear example, perhaps the love interest of your main character is curled up in a ball in the corner of the room. Your main character is there watching:
She’s shaking, and mumbling “Father in heaven, father in heaven, father in heaven” as her head swings in large round circles. Her eyes appear to have rolled back, exposing only the whites. Her lips turn black. She claws at her face drawing blood. Then, as quickly as the episode had begun, silence and stillness. Only dark shadows and a single beam of moonlight hitting her cheek. A soft breeze blows through the open window and turns her pale soft skin into gooseflesh. She cries out in a terrible piercing shriek and the episode begins again.
… and whatever.
The point is, even with the simple unedited prose that I wrote above you began to feel something. You felt an emotion. Perhaps the emotion was fear, perhaps it was disgust, or maybe it was even boredom (and yes, boredom absolutely is an emotion. Unfortunately, it’s an emotion that turns readers off.).
But notice, that the only reference I made to the main character was in passing by setting up the relationship to the person curled up in a ball in the corner of the room. And telling you that the main character was watching.
You felt that emotion/experience because of the sensory signals that I had given you.
Much like the person playing a virtual reality game. They are experiencing ONLY the sensory signals that the video game designers and programmers specifically chose for them to experience.
But how does the main character fit into all of this?
While I am using virtual reality as an example to give you a visual, virtual-reality video games and fiction books are NOT the same artform.
They are as separate, unique, and different as painting and fiction. They use a different set of techniques to communicate emotion/experience.
People who flock to fiction prefer to experience these sensory signals THROUGH another person. That person, that conduit of experience, is your main character.
When readers of fiction pick up a book, they are doing so with the intent to live life vicariously through your main character.
So, when the question is asked:
“How do I write emotionally? “
It is the same as asking “How do I write better characters?”
Which is the same as asking:
“How do I “show” instead of “tell”?”
This is why experiencing real life is so critical to writing better.
When you experience pain, for example, you don’t go to the page and write, “I felt pain.”
Instead, you take note of what was happening when you felt that pain. You put on the page ONLY that information. The sensory clues and signals that caused YOU to feel pain.
Then, you hold your breath and trust in the combined human experience.
I won’t go into too much detail in this particular email about the combined human experience. Just know that the sensory signals that caused you pain, are HIGHLY likely to cause me pain as well.
When I am reading a book in which the main character is living through the sensory signals that caused YOU pain, my sense of empathy towards the main character (a.k.a. my instinct and desire to live vicariously through your main character) produces in me the SAME emotional reaction that you had to those sensory signals.
Let me put it another way:
When you strap into oculus rift and play a certain game, you are subjected to visual and auditory signals. Your body accepts those signals and reacts emotionally to them.
If I strapped into the same game, and receive those same visual and auditory signals, I will also have the same emotional reaction as you.
Does this work 100% of the time?
And this is why even the greatest authors in the world have bad reviews.
The set of sensory signals that frighten me, may not frighten you at all. However, because of combined human experience, there will be a large enough group of individuals who ARE frightened by those same set of visual signals.
Your job is not to try and manipulate or find the largest/most common set of sensory signals. You aren’t trying to cast a wide net, because the wider you cast it the less effective it becomes.
Instead, to write emotionally, you must write honestly.
The honesty comes from being truthful with yourself. What honestly frightens you? Get specific. Is it the dark? What kind of dark? What kind of setting must be dark to make you the most afraid? Are there any experiences in your past that you can remember the sensory signals where you are most frightened?
Answer those questions, then put your main character INTO those sensory signals. Strap them into the virtual reality game. Put them where you would be scared/in love/happy/angry/[INSERT EMOTION].
Your reader will pick up those sensory signals through the eyes of your main character. You don’t have to tell the reader what to feel. Their brain is already doing it for them through their desire to live through your character.
This email is already really long, so I won’t go into taking this a step further in writing great characters (it will save that for another email). Instead, try this exercise:
Take a scene that you have written or are about to write.
Determine what emotion you would like the scene to portray.
Think back to a specific experience that you have had in which you felt that specific emotion.
Now, describe that experience using ONLY sensory details. How you communicate those details (exposition, dialogue, action, etc.) is entirely up to you.
But in this exercise, you are NOT allowed to EVER say “he felt/she felt”.
Play with this idea of putting your main character into the oculus rift, and trust in your reader’s ability to empathize and experience vicariously through that character.
Then, send me an email and I will give you my bank account information so that you can send me royalty percentages on all the millions you will make from this small change in the way you write 🙂
Mike “The Oracle Of Oculus” Shreeve