Emotion Driven Writing

How to mix the perfect cocktail of emotions in your writing.

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The airport scene in romantic comedies has been repeated so many times it has become a cliché of the highest order. There is the tug inside us of willing the character to take decisive action and the writer toying with us, making us believe it is too late and the opportunity will be gone forever. This has been proven time and again to heighten the happy ending to the point where it has become an expectation of the genre.

Turn now to your own writing. Are you thinking about how the reader is feeling at the decisive moments in your story? You might hope they laugh at a comic moment or feel sad at the death of a character, but do you think actively about the interplay between the story and the reader? Or are you too caught up in the actions and consequences of the characters themselves to think about the reader?

If your story is a tragic one, ask yourself how you can heighten the tragedy for the reader, how you can make them feel a greater level of connection to a character who dies, or how they might feel conflicted between a dislike for a character at the same time as feeling sorry for their fate.

When the stirring of emotions goes too far in the theatre we say that an actor is “hamming it up”, but as with everything in writing (and its performance) there is a balance to be found. To dismiss the reader’s emotional response as irrelevant, or to take a laissez-faire attitude, is to neglect an opportunity to connect with them.

Although everyone is different, we still respond to stimuli in largely similar ways. If a bomb explodes we’ll likely feel a rush of adrenaline and fear, whereas an embrace will produce a feeling of happiness and love.

The events in your writing can be seen as a recipe leading not only your characters towards a certain emotion but also your reader. It is a dual level: your reader might feel anticipation while your character feels murderousness. There are in turn layered emotions; imagine yourself being at a recording studio mixing desk, bringing in one emotion followed by another, perhaps dropping sympathy out of the mix by having a character we feel sorry for revealing something inhuman about themselves. Or having a character move from boredom to excitement as they receive news of some kind, or meet a stranger on a bus.

The spectrum of emotions is broad and learning how to trigger them is an incredibly powerful tool for the writer. Challenge yourself to think beyond the basics of love, fear and hate, and travel into more nuanced emotions, exploring recognisable feelings that go to the limits of language’s ability to describe.

Fine tune this by the process of mixing human feelings into a balanced cocktail of experience. It will take your reader not simply along a narrative arc but on an emotional journey.

To end this essay, it is time to turn the mirror back on yourself: the writer is often driven to write by emotions. This might be the feeling of frustration, powerlessness and acquiesence, or else a feeling of empathy with the plight of a real-world individual. Perhaps the need to capture something awe inspiring has triggered your imagination and you wish to reproduce the awe you’ve felt by expanding it in a way that a wider audience can experience it.

A transference, or communication, of feeling can be an important drive for a writer. Recognise this in yourself and be clear about the purpose of your writing. It is then that you will be able to take command of the process.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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