Calculating Emotion

The end of Season 4 of House is one of the more touching moments I’ve seen on TV in a long time. As I recall, my shirt looked like I had just come in out of the rain when it was over. Upon reflecting, the next day, when I had calmed down a bit, I thought that this was what I hoped to accomplish someday with my writing. Not, you know, to make people feel like crap, but to elicit that kind of emotional response from my audience.

Now, House had a couple things going for it–great actors, soulful music to set the mood, superior directing et cetera–that I don’t have for a short story or novel, obviously. But there are certainly lots of books out there that can create those emotional responses as well. And I have to wonder:

How the hell do they do it?

I’ve written a couple of pieces that are meant to strike very emotional chords. And when I’m caught up in writing them, I usually feel quite emotional about it. And then I finish, and I give it to other people, and then they just point out the problems with the story, or that they don’t understand why the characters are feeling that way, or that they don’t particularly like the character that was supposed to be the sympathetic one.

So then after I cry for awhile about it, I look at it, and I try to figure out where I went wrong. Why do I feel things about it when no one else does? I was so caught up in it when I wrote it, why didn’t that passion get transferred onto the page? Or at least, why wasn’t it transferred as effectively as I wanted it to?

I think maybe sometimes the other problems with the piece are just too distracting for the emotion to be felt, or without those problems fixed the emotional aspect isn’t as compelling. But then when I try to rework things to make it work I always worry–if I’m going back to something I wrote from the heart, I wrote with emotion flowing through my pen, and start analyzing it and making little changes here and there in an attempt to calculatingly maximize what the reader feels… will the emotion of my original writing be lost? What if I start that way–can I really elicit a strong emotional response to something that I write in a cold, calculating manner?

Just how does emotion get transferred from a writer to an audience?

Besides a soundtrack, I mean.

Writing , , ,


  1. When you’re watching something happen to a real person, it’s easier to connect with the event because there’s no leap of logic necessary, no processing. Comparatively speaking it’s the pure stuff hitting your brain directly. Thinking back to having just watched LA Confidential tonight, there’s a scene after a really intense and dramatic fight where Russell Crowe’s character asks Guy Pierce’s if he really wants to destroy (the case that made) his reputation. The visual of Pierce staring up at Crowe just after getting his ass kicked, blood trickling from his mouth saying with a wry smile, “With a wrecking ball. Want to help?” just cannot be matched in words alone.

    In prose though, you can dig as deep into a character and situation as you want to. You can make the audience blind, deaf, or numb through carefully rationing information or overload them with a deluge of it. It’s useful to feel emotionally engaged in your work as you write those charged scenes, but what is truly important is the report of the experience. How closely, how faithfully can you portray what’s being felt? If you know that emotion, that experience, those circumstances then you need to deconstruct them. Peel it back layer by layer until you can feel the taste and texture of the experience and relate it back in language that best evokes those textures.

    If you don’t know them, observe them. Want to report on what it feels like to get the shit kicked out of you? Watch a UFC fight, especially if it’s in the context of the Ultimate Fighter show, and listen to what they say about feeling a loss. Watch the body language. For almost every human experience you can find it or a first hand recounting of it recorded somewhere. I remember Chuck Palahniuk telling George Strombalopoulous that he frequently writes in hospital waiting rooms and cafeterias because the full spectrum of human emotion is on display there, which speaks volumes as to why the premiere of ER changed the face of prime time television forever.

  2. karina

    This is one of the things I struggle most when I write: how to convey what it means/feels like to be her, him, it, us, you, them? I read something that helped me figure it out — it’s an essay from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Seminars From the Tin House Writers Workshop. I’ll email you the excerpt.

  3. Pingback: Mood Music « Words and Things

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