When I was in high school, dreaming that one day I might write a novel, I studied books that I loved. I tried to see beneath the skin of the words, and into the musculature of the characters and the skeleton of the plot. I wanted to figure out how the writer turned spots on the page into real emotion.
In April Morning by Howard Fast, 15-year-old Adam Cooper stands on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a squirrel gun in his hands on the morning of April 19, 1775, shoulder-to-shoulder with his neighbors and his disapproving father. They face down the column of British regulars who were sent to seize their weapons, and the slaughter begins. Initially, the American lines scatter, but then they reorganize and the remainder of the novel is about the running gunfight that is now the stuff of American legend.
Then the story shifts. In the final scene, with the day won by the colonists, Adam returns home filled with adrenaline and fear and excitement, to find his father’s body laid out on a table in the parlor. He was one of the first to fall. In that moment, Adam realizes that everything has changed. At 15, he is now the man of the house. The earth’s axis has shifted, and will never be right again. It was a very emotional ending for me. I have not read that book in over 40 years, and that moment still resonates with me.
Even at the time, I understood that very little of the emotion was on the page. “He felt sad” or a similar phrase didn’t appear anywhere in the prose. The author had ripped my guts out, but the words that did it weren’t in the black part of the printing. The emotion resided in the white space, in the words that weren’t written. The emotions were in my head.
Other books that had that effect on me include Lord of the Flies, Charlotte’s Web, To Kill A Mockingbird and many others. How did the authors manipulate me that way?
I don’t think there’s a formula to follow, but there are some thoughts to keep in mind:
Earn it. Emotional release requires emotional investment. No reader weeps for the person killed in Chapter One of a murder mystery. We don’t know the identity of the decedent, and even if we get a name, we still don’t have an emotional bond.
In April Morning, the clash on Lexington Green occurs on page 100 of the edition I read in high school. In the lead-up, we establish that Adam Cooper is a lazy boy who shirks his chores and clashes frequently with his father. After the first volley from the British, Adam runs for cover, a coward. Over the course of the story, he is driven to fight by the sight of so many friends and townsfolk dying, and then by the end of the novel, he is positively valiant. Upon returning home, he realizes that no one wants to hear of his gallantry in battle. Father is dead. That is all that matters. He realizes that he is alone in many ways, and that he can no longer be the boy that he is.
The emotion of the ending was earned by the emotional journey of the character. Because I experienced his journey, I felt his pain.
Keep the emotions locked down. In fiction, emotional release is boring. Drama lives within a character’s efforts to keep his emotions in check–to plow forward despite the pain. We’ve seen it at funerals as sons and daughters struggle to get through their eulogy, and we’ve seen it on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum–the pure joy of those surprise reunions in classrooms as dads and moms return from military service.
We know it when we see it, but how do we reduce it to words on the page?
Remember the white space. Trust yourself and trust your reader. If you’ve built their character well the reader won’t need your words to understand.
Here’s a true story from my own life that had immense impact on my writing (and yes, sorry, it’s another fire service story).
Very early in my career–I was maybe 24 years old–I was the officer on the ambulance for a particularly awful pediatric fatality. It came in late in the evening, and I didn’t get back to the firehouse till the wee hours. Everyone else was asleep. I went to the bunkroom and tried, but sleep was not in the cards so I went downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee that could have doubled as ink. I wasn’t feeling particularly morose, but I’d seen things and done things that I needed to sort out.
Then Big Dave Millan walked into the kitchen, barely awake, his hair a swirled mess. Big Dave was a career guy–a paid firefighter–and he was probably in his 50s at the time. He was the grizzled no-shit fire dog who had done it all and was very good at everything. Early on, I was kind of terrified of him.
Big Dave poured himself a cup of rancid brew and sat on the opposite end of the long kitchen table. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, but he was there. He glanced at me a couple of times, but mostly he just stared down at his cup. After about ten minutes, he dumped the coffee, rinsed his cup and headed back to the bunk room. As he passed behind me, he gave my shoulder a squeeze and he patted my back. Just a quick tap. I took it as a silent, You’re okay, kid. We never spoke of that moment, but it was one of the most caring, special gestures I’ve ever experienced.
I tap that moment with Big Dave frequently as I’m writing what I hope are quietly emotional scenes. If there is a trick–if there’s a way to boil this down to words of advice–I guess it is to be honest with your reader. Tap that vein of memory and let the emotion flow into what you’re writing.
And, as with all things writing related, less is almost always more.
Okay, TKZ family, what are your thoughts? What scenes have gut-hooked you? How do you harness emotion as you write?