What a Memoir Writer Can Learn from the Movie Inside Out

by Matilda Butler on October 20, 2015

catnav-alchemy-activePost #83 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Matilda Butler

Memoir Writing Tip: Use Emotions to Connect with Readers

Have you ever read a book, even enjoyed it, but never identified with the protagonist? The book might be memoir or it might be fiction. All books, including those that are well written by award-winning authors, have the potential to leave the reader impressed but not connected. Oh you may intellectually appreciate what the author has done, but it takes one key element to actively involve the reader in the story. The element of emotions.

We need to know how the characters feel. How they change emotionally within a scene and across scenes. Their emotions need to touch your emotions.

Inside Out Just Might Help You Understand about the Importance of Emotions

Have you seen Disney/Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out? It’s all about emotions. Here’s a brief summary: Riley, an 11 year old girl, moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her emotions — fear, sadness, joy (happiness), disgust, and anger — are the major characters. The story, based on the important research by Paul Ekman (professor emeritus, UC, San Francisco) shows how emotions organize our thinking, influence our memories, and manage our actions.

Writing Alchemy and Use of Emotions

I was particularly taken with both the concept and the movie itself because I have long thought that too many memoir writers ignore emotions. Some memoirists are busy spelling out the facts, worried about ensuring they are writing the truth of situations. Other memoir writers want to reflect a happy childhood in which everything was just perfect — great parents, good friends, a lovely home the perfect marriage. I think of this as “Johnny One Note”, singing out with gusto but with no inflection.

In our book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, Kendra Bonnett and I show how to understand and incorporate five elements from the craft of writing — character, emotion, dialogue, sensory perception, and time/place. Emotion is our second element in story Deconstruction (a concept fully explained in the book), and every story and scene has some.

While it is possible to tell a story and ignore emotions, the result is a flat tale that rarely resonates with the reader. Throughout each day, we experience a legion of emotions from joy upon waking and seeing a sunny day out the window to anger when the car won’t start and we realize we’ll be late for work to sadness when a phone call tells us of a best friend’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. This range of emotions could be likened to a musical score. The same note does not repeat over and over again. There are high notes, mid-range notes and low notes that create their own compelling music. Even the length of the note varies from the longest whole note to the very brief 64th note.

So it is with our emotions. Our subjective reactions to events, situations, people, even thoughts and memories result in psychological and physical changes that in turn direct our behaviors. Some emotions stay with us all day while others are fleeting.

When Deconstructing the element of emotion, tell your story from the emotional point of view of each main character. Imagine a play in which you must portray each character. One person may go through 10 emotions in a scene while another may only have two. While there are no rules, it is reasonable to say that a person rarely stays in the same mood all the time. Even a single state such as happiness may vary in intensity from slightly upturned lips to jumping up with arms outstretched while laughing.

If you have not been considering the emotions of your characters, then you are ignoring one of the elements that lets readers understand, empathize with, even dislike the people in your story.

The Language of Emotions

To help you consider the large range of emotions, here are some of the words we use to describe emotional states of mind:

Vocabulary of Emotions: Adoration—Affection—Alarm—Alienation—Ambivalence— Anger—Annoyance—Anticipation—Anxiety—Apathy—Appreciation—Attraction—Awe—Bliss—Boldness—Boredom—Calmness—Caring—Caution—Cheerfulness—Closeness—Compassion—Confusion—Contempt—Contentment—Courage—Cruelty—Curiosity— Delight—Depression—Desire—Despair—Disappointment—Discovery—Dislike—Disgust—Doubt—Dread—Ecstasy—Elation—Embarrassment—Empathy—Emptiness—Enjoyment—Enthusiasm—Envy—Epiphany—Euphoria—Exasperation—Excitement—Familiarity—Fanaticism—Fear—Friendliness—Frustration—Generosity—Gladness—Gratification—Gratitude—Greed—Grief—Guilt—Happiness—Hatred—Homesickness—Hope—Hostility—Humiliation—Hurt—Hysteria—Inspiration—Interest—Irritation—Isolation—Jealousy—Joy—Kindness—Longing—Loneliness—Love—Lust—Melancholia—Modesty—Nostalgia—Obligation—Optimism—Panic—Patience—Pessimism—Pity—Pleasure—Pride—Rage— Regret—Rejection—Relief—Remorse—Repentance—Repulsion—Resentment—Righteous Indignation—Sadness—Satisfaction—Scorn—Self-pity—Serene—Shame—Shyness—Submission—Suffering—Surprise—Suspicion—Sympathy—Tension—Trust—Understand—Vengefulness—Wonder—Worry—Zest

It’s More Than Just Words

You may feel that the list of emotions is just the tip of the iceberg, and of course, you’re right. Emotions are much more than words; they are behaviors as well. For example, consider the difference between saying, “He was happy.” versus “He ran across the room, picked me up, twirled around with me while laughing all the time.” The first of these tells the emotion. The second shows the emotion. However, even if you only identify the emotions, you will be well on your way to incorporating emotional states into your writing.

Inside Out Movie Trailer

Watch this short trailer if you haven’t seen Inside Out. Visualizing the emotions and seeing how different emotions can be present at the same time is a valuable lesson for a memoir writer.

Intrigued by Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep?

If you want to improve your use of emotions in your writing (as well as the other four elements of character, dialogue, the five senses, and time/place), then you might consider our award-winning book Writing Alchemy by clicking on the following link. Click Here.

If you decide to purchase, be sure to use our special $5 off coupon for readers of this blog post. After you have added the book to your shopping cart, you will see where to enter a coupon code. Just type: GETWRITING. [Free shipping included.]

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy October 20, 2015 at

Thanks for the post. I took my daughter to see Inside Out and loved the movie. But I didn’t think to connect it to memoir writing. Such an interesting perspective.

Matilda Butler October 26, 2015 at

Hi Nancy:

Thanks for your comment. The movie it great and I loved seeing the links to memoir writing.

Lilith Rogers November 1, 2015 at

I liked your example of how to show happiness and your list of emotions–amazing.

Not so fond of INSIDE OUT–too over the top for me–too much anger and not enough joy.

But that’s just me. Lilith

Matilda Butler November 1, 2015 at

Hi Lilith: It’s so easy to know that we should “show” rather than “tell.” It’s much harder to do. That’s why I am always on the lookout for effective ways to do the showing.
Glad this made you think, even if you weren’t overly fond of the movie.

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