The due date for my novel was approaching, and I was feeling the pinch. My problem was a stalled subplot. The focus character served a purpose in driving the main plot, but she wasn't really alive on the page. At a loss for how to fix the problem, and already feeling my editor's breath on my neck, I was close to throwing the entire subplot out.
Then it hit me: What my character lacked was strong emotion, the kind that results in vibrant and often surprising behavior. So, using an old acting trick, I summoned some emotion of my own. I put myself in the character's place and imagined what she'd be feeling in the midst of the conflict.
Soon I was envisioning scenes that were engaging and unpredictable—scenes that hadn't occurred to me before. I sat down with those ideas, did some old-fashioned planning and, before long, was writing a hummer of a subplot with a lively character.
Taken together, the steps I used to make my subplot sing are a great method for injecting emotional intensity—perhaps the key ingredient in any great story—into your work. There's an old saying about the craft of fiction: "If there are no tears in the writer, there will be no tears in the reader." That's another way of saying that you must feel deeply as you write, and learn to communicate that feeling effectively. These five steps—feeling authentic emotions, playing with the possibilities those emotions create, planning and, of course, writing and editing—will help you get there. Let's look at each of them in detail.
1. FIND THE EMOTION
Every work of fiction should have an emotional feel, an overall tone you want readers to experience. The feel may be romantic, as in a Nicholas Sparks novel. Or creepy, as in Dean Koontz. You may want lyrical, or dark, or adventurous. These are all emotional tones.
Here's the first step to plugging into the emotions your story needs: Pick the tone you want, then find ways to tap into your own emotional reservoir. The acting trick I mentioned came from my theater training. It's a technique the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavsky called "emotion memory," and it's simple: Think back to a time when you felt the emotion you want to write about. Go to a quiet place and recreate the memory with all its sensory data. That means what you saw, smelled, touched, heard and tasted.
You'll discover that the emotion wells up within you. The sense memories cause you to experience the emotion as if it were happening now. With a little practice, you'll be able to internalize a huge range of emotions for your writing.
Another easy entry into emotions is music. I've created play lists of what I call "mood tunes." Culled from my collection of movie soundtracks, which can't be beat for covering the emotional gamut, my lists are divided into categories such as suspenseful, heroic, mournful, upbeat, romantic and energetic.
For example, I listen to works by Bernard Hermann, who scored many Alfred Hitchcock films, when I'm writing a suspenseful scene. Classical music and jazz also offer a universe of possibilities. Rock? Not for me (but it works for Stephen King). No matter what you're into, setting up lists of your own favorite tunes is a great way to create moods.
In the theater of the mind, we learn to let scenes and characters play around; we keep things hopping in new and interesting ways just by giving our imaginations free rein. That's what Step 2 is all about.
Close your eyes and conjure up a character. Set the scene—whatever pops into your head. Follow the character for a while. How does she move? What's she wearing? How does she react to the setting? Now, give her a reason for being in the scene. Where's she going? Why? Have her turn to the audience and say exactly what she's after. Then make that hugely important to her.
Now, with your character on her way toward a goal, introduce another character into your scene, someone who'll be the opposition. Watch the scene unfold. Don't try to control it. Let emotions run rampant. Have the characters struggle and fight. Find the passion.
You can undertake this exercise any time during your writing. Do it to generate preplotting material; use it also when you're getting ready to write a scene. But keep watching your imaginary movie until the emotions kick in and you start to feel excited about writing.
Stephen J. Cannell, author of the Shane Scully series, says: "I'm a visceral writer. I do improvs through my books. I become the characters. I'll say something as Shane, then I'll say something as his wife, Alexa. And it'll tick me off. And I'll react to that. I have to know what my characters want, and I have to feel things. That's part of the fun of it for me."
Stay attuned, also, to images that arise in your imagination at odd times. E.L. Doctorow says he was feeling a "heightened sense of emotion" while visiting the Adirondacks after many years. He saw a sign that read "Loon Lake." He liked the sound of the words together, and then a flood of images washed over him—a private train at night going through the Adirondacks; gangsters on board; a beautiful girl holding a white dress in front of a mirror. He had no idea what the images meant, but he started writing about them anyway. His bestselling Loon Lake was the result.
3. PLAN YOUR SCENES
Now it's time for some rational thought. Stand back and analyze the results of your brainstorm, then put them into a working order. Start by asking, again, what emotional tone you want to convey. Is the scene you're working on going to be mostly action or mostly reflection? Will it contain high stakes or lower ones? Will the characters involved be operating on all cylinders, or is this a bit of a lull for recovery after a major scene? Once you have the tone in mind, you can make the action in your scene consistent with it.
Pay special attention to your scene ending. This is where you want to leave the reader desperate to turn the page. How you do that is up to you, but here's one tip: Don't be in a hurry to resolve anything. Prolonging suspense is one of the best ways to keep your reader emotionally hooked.
4. WRITE YOUR HEART OUT
Ray Bradbury says: "I do a first draft as passionately and as quickly as I can. I believe a story is valid only when it's immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it ... . Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived."
To live this secret life, reconnect with the emotions you established in the first step. An easy way to do that is to play your mood tunes in the background as you write. Then write for all you're worth.
Forget about sounding literary or refined or cool or tough or any other way during the first draft. Just write. Allow your story to emerge from the crevices of your mind. Set a quota of words and stick to it, daily or weekly. Get those pages done.
5. FINISH THE JOB
If you follow these first four steps, you'll have a draft with great possibilities. Now you need to finish the job.
First, cut the big, obvious flaws. Sometimes you'll need to eliminate entire sections, sometimes just a word or two. But be ruthless. You've worked hard to get your story formed. Don't let hubris or self-infatuation trip you up.
Next, chip away at the details. Since you were concentrating on passion, not form, your writing may be over-the-top at times. That's OK. It's easier to edit emotional passages now than to try to stuff them in later. Just keep in mind that, when it comes to emotionally charged writing, it's best to underplay a little. Emotional overkill reads like manipulation. (See the sidebar at left for more advice on editing emotional writing.)
Great fiction is formed by heat. Feel your characters and plots intensely, write in the heat of passion, then cut judiciously.
What's the result of all this labor? You'll have a manuscript buzzing with passion, not just plot. Your readers will see real characters in pitched battle, not cardboard cutouts going through the motions.