Writing Emotion

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I heard my friend Susan Wiggs say one time that the hardest thing in the world to write was the scene of a woman crying. I was happy to hear that, because that is also my experience.

I have no patience with scenes that have tears running down a point of view character’s face without any precipitating, gut-wrenching emotion. And that is damned hard to write.

I don’t know about you, but occasionally I have a genuine, world-class meltdown. When that happens, it’s hard to step out of myself to view my emotions so that I might capture the physical sensations along with the “fuck you and the horse you rode in on” attitude, but occasionally, I am able to do that. The physicality of a good cry is delicate and profound.

But those things that make us cry are not the only emotions that we—and our fictional characters—have. We have the blushing madness of infatuation, we have the soul-crushing realization of having been betrayed, we have the satisfaction of achieving something we never thought we would be able to do, we have nagging suspicions that drive us to obsession. We engage in fantasies far beyond what is healthy. We justify ourselves into true delusions (I can handle a couple of cocktails. I don’t eat that much ice cream. They’re just nickel slots—how bad could it get? I know he’s married, but…). All of these things come with intense physical reactions that many writers ignore for the expediency of either telling instead of showing, or just letting those tears run down a cheek.

But if you’re going to craft something truly worthy of your talents, you must step into the skin of your point of view character and describe exactly what he/she is feeling as well as thinking, and you must do it without “she felt” and “she thought”. Be it. Live it.

Let the tears not fall down her cheeks, but into your keyboard.

It’s harder than you know, but then you’ll have that satisfaction that I mentioned, and someday you will write about that, too.

One thought on “Writing Emotion

  1. Cheap tears are soap operay. I know what you mean. My characters sometimes cry, but only in relation to something they’d really cry about. Of course, I’m not above making up a just plain sobby, whiny person in order to make fun of them.

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