Finding Emotional Resonance

I've been studying emotional resonance lately. I've noticed in my own writing that sometimes I write something that I felt was emotionally powerful, but then I come back to it a few weeks later, and it just falls flat. Which is, of course, sucksville.


First off, read this. This article was super helpful to me. I love how she talks about the limbic system, where emotions come from and how to trigger them.

TIP #1-- Emotion isn't created, it's triggered.

The reader has to bring their own emotion to the words in order to feel emotion.

 "Flannery O’Connor once said that as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We have to provide it with a body; we have to create a world with weight and extension."

So the first step of creating emotional resonance is to think of what emotion you would like the readers to feel, and then pepper the world with clues and an underscoring of details that trigger that feeling. I tried to do that here in this passage from The Waxling.
A girl bit her chipped fingernails as she walked down the aisle, her bag catching on the vinyl bench in front of me before it let go. I flinched as it slammed into my shoulder. Her heavy bag dragged against the corner of my seat before it swung backward like a pendulum. The kid behind us grunted, but didn't say anything. Some kids in the front of the bus were fighting over something stupid, while the driver eyed them from the large mirror at the front. The cloying smell of exhaust filtered in from under the rumbling bus as we waited for the bus to close its accordion doors and take us home.

At this point in the story, I want the reader to be feeling some dread, and anxiety, as I start to pick up the pace. So I chose a location where a teenager might feel anxiety. I.E. on the bus.

In movies, they use music to underscore the emotion. But we don't get a soundtrack to intensify a heartbreak, or speed up an action scene. But we have something better. The words we use act as music. We can write with short staccatto sentences, or long lyrical ones. We can use specific words that are tied to a feeling. In this example, I used details that put me a bit on edge (Chipped fingernails, grunts, rumbling bus, smell of exhaust, accordion). These small details are almost an underscore of what I'd like the reader to feel.

TIP #2-- The bigger the emotion, the smaller the detail you focus on.

Think Mulan.  Do You remember that scene where her troop arrive at a destroyed village? They were supposed to protect them, but they were too late. 

The music stops. And it never really starts again. It's a moment that changes the rest of the movie.

There's a huge emotional moment here, and they show this moment by having Mulan pick up a small dirty doll. Now the focus point of the tragedy is the loss of one little girl, which seems more manageable than hundreds of unnamed people.

So when you have a major emotional moment, focus on something small. A dapple of light. A freckle on someone's nose. The smoke from a gun recently shot. 

TIP #3-- Telling creates distance.

This is the tricky one. I think this is the difference between watching someone cry, and being the person who is crying. Obviously our goal as writers is to create as much emotional damage as possible, so in moments of severe emotion get in as close as writerly possible.

But also don't just circle in on your own emotion. It's not story telling if you are the only one who gets to feel it. Find the light, look downstage, and share it with your audience.

Michael Caine wrote a book on acting, and in it, he talks about whenever there's a big emotional moment, he gives a blank face. The story and the character motivation before the moment should clue the reader in on how the character is feeling. so when the zoom in comes, he freezes at full tilt. He holds still. He gives space for the moment, and the audience supplies the emotion.

This doesn't mean he steps away from the moment. He's still there, with energy, tense face muscles. and tears in his eyes, but he doesn't over shoot the emotion. He's British, but he's still human. The tears sparkle, but they don't fall.

I think this can apply to writing. 99% of the work that goes into an emotional moment happens long before the moment. It's the set up that will make the limbic system tingle.

TIP #4 -- Give objects meaning.

The first chapter of the Hunger Games we meet Butterball, the cat who hates Katniss, and loves Prim. It's just a cat, but his existence underscores one of the rules Katniss believes, that Prim is better than Katniss. There's no jealousy attached to this, it's simply a guiding truth of who she is. Katniss believes for the good of the world that she should die before Prim. That belief is the reason Katniss volunteers as tribute, it's tied to her overarching motivation as a character, and becomes a truth for her, that when she loves someone she has to die before they do.

And Butterball is the first clue to that motivation.

In the final book, when Katniss has to tell Butterball that Prim isn't coming back, it's so HUGELY powerful of an emotional moment. In reality, it is a girl talking to a cat, but because of all those truths and emotions tied to that object, it is a killer sob-your-eyes-out kind of a moment. It's her admitting that she failed. It's her acknowledged the loss to the world, and to her world, because Prim is gone. 

If you attach meaning and motivation and truth to an object, then it becomes more than just a cat, more than just a wardrobe, or a ring, or a book, or a song. The object could be anything, the important thing is the work you do before the moment attaching meaning, and utilizing that object for a big emotional moment.

Essentially, it's about giving us something to look at while we are sobbing.

TIP #5 -- When in doubt, make it rain.

Go forth and cause emotional damage, people!

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