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Capturing Emotions

Updated on December 27, 2014

Writing on the Go

She leans across the table. The chattering of other diners is near deafening, but there is no mistaking the fierceness of her gaze toward the young man sitting across from her. Her lips, as if in slow motion, carefully construct her words and even though I can’t hear her icy voice, I have no trouble reading her lips. Her eyes narrow to thin lines and crystalline tears bead at the corners.

The young man sits like a fleshy statue; face void of emotion and lips clamped shut. The girl exhales, her breath flickers the flame of the squat candle sitting on the table between them. She tosses her napkin across the table at him, rises from her seat, and stomps from the restaurant. Like their relationship—the candle-glow dies, leaving a soft tendril of purple smoke; the only evidence a flame ever existed.

We’ve all seen scenarios such as this played out in movies and television, or read them between the pages of books. What’s amazing is when successfully conveyed; those emotions magically transfer to us. We leave that theater or close that book with an emotional high. In either medium, be it screen or page, those emotions begin with creative writing.

How does a writer convey those emotions onto the written page? Most of all, how do they do it successfully? In a word: practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

We’ve all heard that one before. Are you learning to play the piano? Practice makes perfect. How about the guitar? Yes, you guessed it; practice makes perfect. However, I believe there’s a problem with this logic. Let’s say you are learning to play the guitar. If all you learn to do is play chords and shun scales, then all you’ll ever be is a rhythm guitarist standing at the back of the stage while the other guitarist (the one that practices his or her scales) stands in the spotlight wailing out a solo to thousands of head-banging groupies.

Let’s take this another step forward. If practice makes perfect, then perfection can only be achieved by practicing perfectly; and who can do that? Are you perfect? I’m certainly not. So, with that logic, perfection is unobtainable. Still, we practice. We practice to better ourselves—to bring ourselves as close to perfection as possible—to be the best at what we do.

I bet you’re asking—what does practicing the guitar have to do with capturing emotions in creative writing? Don’t worry; I’m getting there. It’s not just about learning to play the guitar or learning to write well—there’s another factor—one that goes beyond learning the guitar or creating a literary masterpiece with only twenty-six letters and some punctuation. A professional guitar player can create emotion with music—we feel the music. It makes us sway on our feet, dance, clap our hands, or just close our eyes to our tears. Transferring emotion through that musical instrument is a skill that must be homed in much the same way as learning that single note or chord.

Show, Don't Tell

Capturing emotions in creative writing works the same way. As writers, we all have the same tools available to us—it’s how we use them, arrange them, and present them that strikes an emotional chord with our readers.

Here is an example—anybody can write:

“I hate you!” she said angrily.

Yes, we get the picture—the speaker is angry, but as a creative writer, we need to show her emotion, not just tell the reader about it. Let’s try this again by adding a little description, removing the exclamation point, as well as that annoying adverb.

Through clenched teeth and trembling lips, she whispers, “I. Hate. You.”

Personally, I like the second example. The speaker is no longer just angry—she is beyond angry, so much so that she can barely speak. By eliminating the adverb angrily, we bring the reader into the story, allowing them to use their own imagination and assign an emotion to the speaker.

During a first draft, I’ll often use the first example when I write. That way I can write the story down quickly, and come back later to tweak it during the rewrite. The great thing about today’s word processors is the find feature. I’ll use this tool to search through my manuscript without painstakingly combing through it a line at a time. For the example above, after my first draft, I’ll open the find tool and do a search for ly. The software then magically teleports me through the pages, stopping me at each ly occurrence.

Ellen hits the nail on the head

Be Prepared Anywhere

Look again at the first two paragraphs. I wrote those two paragraphs one day during lunch. As a part-time writer with dreams of moving to full-time, I have embraced mobile technology and the power of freedom it has provided me. I take notes and write stories on the go—my lunch-breaks are no exception. On this particular day, I was working on a novel (yes, I’m writing a novel on my phone). However, when I caught a glimpse of the couple sitting a few tables away, I could tell that something was up. I opened a new notepad on my phone and began jotting down what I saw.

Take advantage of mobile technology and write anywhere and everywhere. As with the couple at the restaurant, you never know when you will be witness to some form of emotion—and what better way to capture it in words than when it is happening right in front of you. Be prepared. Do you need to write a scene involving a bunch of people at a club? Then go to the club, find you a seat somewhere and start eavesdropping on the conversations around you. What jokes are they telling? Does everyone laugh, or does at least one person take offense to the joke and storm off?

In every situation, there are opportunities to witness emotional responses. As much as we dread getting that slip of paper in the mail ordering us to appear for jury duty, I can’t think of a better place to take note of human emotions. See that man fidgeting at the back of the room? Why is he so nervous? What about the woman constantly opening and closing her purse and checking her phone while loudly exhaling with each movement? There’s your annoyance. A perceptive writer will always be prepared to capture those emotions in words—and even if you can’t write them down immediately, do so as soon as possible—ideally before you turn in for the night.

Outline or Pantser?

When you write, do you outline your novel or story, or do you write by the seat of your pants (pantser)?

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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This is way more helpful than antnihyg else I've looked at.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Good tips, CJ. I'll be watching for more.


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