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writing about emotions

Writing Prompt LogoPost #179 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Three Tips on Writing Highly-Charged Scenes

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

[Note from Women's Memoirs: We love Pamela's new book and think that if you like cats and can't get enough of Jane Austen then you'll also want to read this book. At the bottom of this blog post, we've put Pamela's new book trailer.]

Anton Chekov

Anton Chekov

“When you… want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly… The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” – Anton Chekov

Recently, I was reading a chapter of my memoir to my writing group.  In one passage, another character makes a startling confession, and my response was something like,  “I felt shattered.”  Later, when I was reading the group’s comments on my story, I saw that Joyce, a highly perceptive critic, had written next to that passage, “I don’t feel the intensity here.”  Others agreed.

I thought about this for a while.  Why didn’t my writing convey to readers the intensity of my emotional response?  After all, I had felt shattered  – or had I?  I frowned, trying to remember.  Did “shattered” truly describe what I had felt?  Or was that just a word that had popped conveniently into my head, ­an approximation of what I was experiencing at that moment in my story?

When I pondered this question, I realized I hadn’t really felt shattered as much as horrified.   Yes, “horrified” was the right word, I thought; it described exactly what I had felt.

Finding the right word, led to a realization.  I had felt horrified not only because of what another person was confessing to me, but because I recognized the same feelings in myself.  Now I could go back to my story and build up to that moment of horror by describing and developing events that led up to it.   This gave my response emotional resonance, and allowed me to develop the scene within a richer context.

Woman-reading-bookThat’s one of the rewards of writing a memoir.  You not only have to figure out the story.  You have to figure out yourself.   The more successfully you achieve this, the more real your story will be to your reader.

Following are three tips for writing intense, highly-charged scenes that will engross and engage your readers.  Try them out, and see if they work for you!

1.    Let the reader do the work

Below is a passage from A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean.  In this scene, Norman has just told his father about the brutal murder of Norman’s younger brother, Paul.

From the film "A River Runs Through It"

From the film "A River Runs Through It"

“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again.  He had to struggle to lift his feet, and when he did get them up, they came down slightly out of control.  From time to time Paul’s right hand had to be reaffirmed; then my father would shuffle away again.  He could not shuffle in a straight line from trying to lift his feet.  Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.”

The author doesn’t say, “My father was in shock,” or even “my father was never the same.”  He simply describes, in brief, telling detail, his father’s inability to walk well again.  From this, we realize that Norman’s father is a broken man.  And because we come to this conclusion without being explicitly told, the scene has much greater impact.  Maclean lets the reader do the work.

Norman’s father keeps asking the question about which hand was broken.  It’s only further on in the text that the narrator acknowledges why (although we can figure it out).  Maclean writes: “Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting,” With these words, Paul’s death takes on a deeper dimension of human destiny and human history.

A memoir is a dialogue between author and reader, and it’s the dialogue –  what the reader brings to the work – that makes the story meaningful to her.  In a sense, the reader is creating her own subtext.

2.    Let the facts speak

Diane Lane in "Lonesome Dove"

Diane Lane in "Lonesome Dove"

I remember reading a scene of unimaginable horror in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove.  Recently , I went back to see how he achieved such an unforgettable, haunting atmosphere of menace.  I looked up the episode where the treacherous Blue Duck, the very essence of evil, castrates another man.  What I noticed when I read the passage was the matter-of-fact way McMurtry described the action.  He simply and quietly stated what happened without trying to instill horror in the reader.  (Of course, such an event hardly needs elaboration to be horrifying.)  The author was masterful in letting the facts speak for themselves.

3.   Let the perspective shift

Last week, my friend Debbie, who teaches creative writing, asked me if I could suggest ways to make a character’s grief at a funeral more real to readers.  One of her students had written a story in which a woman is sobbing at her mother’s funeral, but the readers didn’t feel her sadness.

Pondering this dilemma called to mind a funeral of a friend’s father I attended many years ago.  My friend, who was very close to her dad, was grief-stricken, but as she walked out of the synagogue she turned and winked at me.  This made a lasting impression, because it showed spunk and courage in the face of irremediable loss.  In a story, a similar scene can be more moving than having a character break down in sobs, or become hysterical.

I  hope these tips are helpful, and that they will lead you to develop more of your own.  And remember, if someone doesn’t react or respond to an intensely emotional scene you’ve written, take heart!

As with most things we write, this too will pass can be fixed.

Below is the trailer for Pamela Jane’s new book: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic

NOTE: Kendra and I think Pamela’s three tips will help memoir writers dig more deeply into the emotions of scenes. We have devoted an entire chapter in our award-winning book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep to Writing About Emotions. For more information, Click Here.

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Writing and Healing: Coping with Emotions by Katherine Mayfield

by Matilda ButlerNovember 13, 2011
Writing and Healing: Coping with Emotions by Katherine Mayfield

Katherine Mayfield helps us understand the role of expressing emotions in our writing and how to cope with the full range of emotions that will surface during memoir writing.

Read the full article →
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