As writers we are natural observers. Last week we talked about mining your life for ideas. It’s not just events you need to be looking at, but emotions.
To be fair, the only emotions you can analyze with any hope of being accurate are your own. You can guess at someone else’s, but for that actual feel, you only have your own.
Last week we found out our sweet little dog had advanced diabetes. He’d lost a bunch of weight, and though he looked good, he felt awful. You never can tell with dogs. He never complained, he was just listless, couldn’t jump onto the couch anymore, but still, when the kids came home from school to say goodbye, he rallied and put as much energy into his welcome as he could. Emotions were high in our house. Denial, anger, blame… it was written all over everyone’s face. Yet their actual experience? I only knew mine. At the vet’s, every pet I had leaped around in my heart. This one, Thunder, was the sweetest dog we’d ever had. My hand was on his chest when his heart stopped beating and mine broke.
All that to say, first experience your emotions, later analyze them with a little distance. Don’t try to analyze your emotions as you’re feeling them in response to an event (there may be times you should, but we’re talking life’s ups and downs, not pathology). Just as in quantum physics, the observer changes the observed. Trying to overlay intellectual analysis over emotional reaction will rob you of the emotion. Be human and feel first. Analyze later.
What, exactly should you analyze? Actions that stem from emotions. A story suffers when the feeling is described, instead, show it. What are your emotional markers? Do your eyes tear up? Does a vein throb? How do you cry – in hitches? In wracking sobs? What does it look like when you hold back? (I absolutely know there is nothing wrong with crying; I will also do everything in my power not to. My jaw will hurt, and my face feels rubbery from the effort, but tears are for alone time. Yeah, it’s messed up, but it’s me.)
People who suffer from PTSD or anxiety have triggers. Touch a trigger and they’ll go off. They won’t make any sense until you understand what they came from. Want me to go off? Throw me into water that is dark beneath my feet. Dread steels over me. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my shorts would already be wet. While this isn’t truly a trigger, it’s close. I freak out because anything could be coming up from below. Yes, I’d almost drowned once when I couldn’t see the ocean floor, but it’s really knowing all the things down there.
If you’re writing a series, your character’s triggers don’t have to be explained in the book we first see it. If you aren’t writing a series, main character triggers do have to be explained. Imagine the tension is rising in the climax of your story and suddenly a trigger is sprung. CHAOS! Cool. Even better is when a trigger is sprung and the character doesn’t jump because it’s been dealt with in the course of the story.
Your emotions and the actions of others can be analyzed. Your job is to show the emotion, not describe it (resist the urge, even in first person narrative). Just remember to feel your emotions first. We aren’t breeding psychopaths here.
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I’m so sorry about Thunder. I know that was hard for all of you.