Lately I’ve been posting on emotions in writing, and with good reason. Everything we write must come from a deep place of authenticity or else our readers will see past surface or phony stuff and stop reading.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about emotional resonance
in our writing.
Don’t Chew the Scenery
Emotional resonance in both fiction or nonfiction is about
the unspoken relationship between writer and reader which either validates or nullifies
the reading experience. In other words, you write a truth the reader verifies
from his own experience, or not.
Emotional resonance is not waxing theatrical or hamming it up. In writing about emotions, we’ve discussed that surface “telling” by using mostly tags (she was sad, mad, etc) or all physical reactions (he clenched his fists) only gives a shallow nod to the true emotions we all feel.
Rather than chewing the scenery, strive to insert into your
character’s thoughts and actions the rich landscape of lessons learned,
misbeliefs and failures, deep wounds and self-protection we all employ at one
time or another. Become an astute observer of not only your own emotions but
those around you.
Let Emotions Mature
Emotional resonance in our writing can be stopped in its
tracks when we try to write our own experiences without the benefit of time. If
you just lost a loved one six months ago, you might not yet have the
perspective that comes with the passage of time. Your intense emotions over a
recent or unexpected trauma aren’t wrong—but they may lack the wisdom and
healing that time provides.
I’ve seen this in student work as well as my own. Those who
read this blog surely know that my family struggles with substance use and
mental illness. It’s a longstanding problem, and I’ve been told I should wait
to write about it when “there’s a happy ending” or my kids are in recovery.
While I don’t think I should wait (those outcomes aren’t
guaranteed), I have read memoirs of writers whose spouses died of cancer a few
months or even a couple of years earlier. The problem in the writing isn’t the
quality of the emotions but what the writer concentrates upon. Readers quickly
become overwhelmed if you focus on all the medical procedures and language
instead of the process of the emotions you are writing about. Those emotions
will probably change significantly over time.
Peel Back Layers
When we write to elicit emotional resonance, we often think
we can just barf out everything we feel. But for most, writing authentic
emotions happens within a process. Everyone self-protects in some way, and even
when we think we’re being honest, we often can’t see underneath that layer of
Most writers must approach emotional resonance in layers. We peel away a hidden layer only to discover another deeper feeling. It may take many drafts before you get to an aha! moment. And sometimes, we need others to help us recognize when we are hiding behind that self-protecting layer.
Writing in a true, authentic way can be painful. Even if you
apply your experience to a fictional story, mining those feelings can upset
your cool. Stuff you thought was in the past comes roaring back to haunt you.
Even if you need some therapy, creating emotional resonance in your writing is
well worth the temporary pain. Shoot for the deepest, most authentic emotions
for your work, be willing to peel back those layers and write honestly. These
are the signposts of writing that hooks readers and won’t let them go.