Write Diamonds

by James Scott Bell

We are, of course, flooded with books these days. The Forbidden City still puts out product. The indie output is a veritable tsunami that swells ever larger each day. While most of it is bad (per Sturgeon’s Law), there is also a sizable chunk that is competent, even good.

Which is not enough to make it in this game. You’ve got to strive for unforgettable. You’ve got to write diamonds that sparkle through the rock piles and gravel pits of content.

Emotional intensity is one ingredient that will help get you there.

There’s an axiom attributed to Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. That is another way of saying you must feel deeply as you write your story, and transfer that feeling to the readers.

Let me offer some tips.

1. Feel it

In my theater days I learned a technique handed down from legendary acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky. It’s called “emotion memory.” You think back to a time when you felt the emotion you want to convey in a scene. Get in a quiet place and recreate the memory with all its sensory data. That means what you saw, smelled, touched, heard and tasted.

As you recall these sensations you will discover that the emotion wells up afresh within you. The sense memories are causing you to experience the emotion as if it were happening in the present.

With a little practice you’ll be able to call up emotions as you need them when you’re about to write a scene.

2. Improvise

Invite your characters to play around. Take a seat in the movie theater of your mind and watch what happens.

Close your eyes and conjure up a character. Set the scene, whatever pops into your head.

Follow the character. How does she move? What is she wearing? How does she react to the setting?

Now give her a reason for being in the scene. Where is she going? Why? Have her turn to the “audience” and say exactly what she’s after. Make that hugely important to her.

[Note: this is not an actual scene for your novel (unless you choose to use it). This is a scene to get to know your character more deeply. Let it surprise you.]

With your character on the way toward a goal, introduce another character into your scene, someone who will be the opposition.

Watch the scene unfold. Don’t try to control it. Let emotions run rampant. Have the characters struggle and fight. Where’s the passion?

The late Stephen J. Cannell, author of the Shane Scully series, said, “I’m a visceral writer. I do improvs through the 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 will begin to arise in your imagination at odd times. E. L. Doctorow said he was feeing a “heightened sense of emotion” when 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 onboard; a beautiful girl holding a white dress in front of a mirror. He had no idea what the images meant, but started writing about them anyway.

Improvisational images will lead to story material pulsating with emotion.

3. Plan

Let your left brain pitch in and help. Ask some key questions before you write a scene:

– Who is the viewpoint character in this scene?

– What does he want?

– Why can’t he have it? Who or what is opposing him?

– What obstacles are placed in his way?

– What strategy will he use to get what he wants?

– What surprises can happen that will lead to emotional turmoil and the necessity for new plans?

4. Write

Write your scenes as fast as you comfortably can. This is not the time for editorial decisions. Get the words down and overwrite the emotional moments. Let yourself go! Get inside that character. Now, come back to this scene the next day and edit things down to where they feel right. You might only retain a line or two, but because you found them in the overwriting they’ll be choice.

5. Finish, Cut, and Polish

Write on. Keep the momentum. Finish the dang novel!

If you’ve written with emotion your draft will be a raw gem of great value. Now finish the job like an expert diamond cutter. This is the editing process, which I cover in some detail here. Another book I recommend is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

My final step is always a polish—I look one more time at scene openings and endings, and long dialogue exchanges (where a trim here and there makes a big difference).

Diamonds are formed by heat. So is great fiction. Feel your characters and plots intensely to produce a precious stone. Then cut and polish. That’s how your fiction will stand out from the pile of the merely competent.

What are some of the ways you bring emotion to your pages?

36 thoughts on “Write Diamonds

  1. Happy Sunday. I have trouble with emotional scenes, probably because I keep my emotions buried–except for some commercials. There was a Publix one that always made me cry.
    I rely on #3 for writing my scenes, then have to try to add the emotional responses later.
    I’ll have to try the rest of your tips.

    • Most of us were taught (or it used to be that way) to control our emotions (not an entirely bad thing as we witness the public sphere today, but I digress). It was in theater I got freed up, esp. doing improv.

      Speaking of commercials that bring a tear…and it being Super Bowl Sunday…this one is perhaps the most memorable:

  2. The act of tapping into one’s emotional memories is an important skill. One my favorite craft books on the subject is GETTING INTO CHARACTER: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins. Definite game-changer for me.

    Good luck today, Jim! I’ll be rooting for your team. 🙂

  3. Great post, Jim. Thanks for all the ways to find, cut, and polish that gem in our writing that we all crave, and we need to glue the reader to our book.

    I’m a cut and dried analytical thinker, so this doesn’t come easy for me. I recently rewrote the ending to my WIP. My wife is my “endings first reader.” I handed off the chapter to her, and an hour later she handed it back to me. “This thing is dead. There’s no emotion.” After about three more rewrites, she admitted that it no longer was dead on arrival.

    Things that have helped me get the emotions on the page: I write in the morning when I am more creative and less likely to be distracted by my “to do” list. I write with a lap top, semi-reclined in a recliner, as if this is my psychoanalyst’s couch. Somehow fiction flows better for me when I’m reclined. I find that 1st POV makes it easier for me to get the emotions out onto the page. And I love to “engineer” (I think that was Maass’ term) the set up for the payoff.

    Thanks for all your teaching! Have a great remainder of the weekend!

  4. Jim, just seeing the still photo of the Bud commercial instantly brought the lump back to my throat. That happens every time I see it, right before I start bawling. It really can’t be called a commercial but rather a tribute.

    Reliving moments of extreme emotion using the Stanislavsky method works for me. I haven’t necessarily experienced the traumas I put my unfortunate characters through but I can easily tap into an event from the past that caused a huge upheaval inside.

    Also, I use the feelings of other people who’ve undergone powerful emotional experiences, as they confided those traumas or joys to me. The fictional episode is completely different from their actual experience but similar feelings still come through.

    A friend recently related her husband’s reactions to PTSD following his service in Vietnam. I used those feelings to write a new scene for a character in my WIP who’s an Iraq and Afghanistan vet. I also added memories of a friend who was a WWII vet.

    After reading the revision, a beta reader said that gave her a completely different reaction to the same character whom she’d detested in a previous draft. Now she perceived him as a hero.

    • Well done, Debbie. While we obviously have not gone through the same trauma as others, we have (I believe) experienced the same feelings (to a lesser degree) and can tap into those and expand upon them. When it works (as in your example) it’s of incredible value for the reader. A diamond!

  5. I am also an emotionally-controlled, left brainer. Expressing emotion in person or on the page is hard for me. Therefore #3, 4, and 5 come easier to me than the others. I’m going to give the improvisation and emotion memory a try as I begin the next novel and see where it leads.

    Thanks and good luck to your team today.

  6. Connecting acting techniques to writing works.
    But could I share another clever diamond metaphor I read this week in The Lincoln HIghway. It connects a diamond to your photo, to writing and to life.

    The course of life is a diamond. When you’re young at the bottom lookinig up, life expands, the world ahead gets wider and wider. Eventually something happens. Something big. Some event that causes a reversal. Then your world narrows as you approach the top. (Not exact words because I listened to Audible.)

    • Interesting metaphor, Nancy. Perhaps the “narrowing” at the top is more like wisdom. We are (it is to be hoped) wiser as we get older, and our our path therefore more pointed and focused.

      Fun to think about, at least.

  7. Happy Sunday, Jim! This is a fantastic post. I’m another of those writers who have tended to be guarded around showing emotion in my fiction. Certainly when I first started writing fiction, many years ago, I tended to write numb. Things have changed, thanks to the path of fiction craft I began walking back in 2008, but I still need to revisit this on a regular basis. As one of my other writing mentors used to say in his classes, “there’s only one rule of fiction writing: you must affect the reader emotionally. The rest are only guidelines” 😀

    Ditto Donald Maass’s “Emotional Craft of Fiction.” Great book (and workshop!).

    • As one of my other writing mentors used to say in his classes, “there’s only one rule of fiction writing: you must affect the reader emotionally. The rest are only guidelines”

      I like that (unless the emotional effect is the reader screaming “This book is terrible!” and throwing it across the room).

      My own “rule” is: Don’t bore the reader. Virtually everything we do in the craft emanates from this.

      • Absolutely agree with your “rule.” I ask my beta readers to tell me where they were bored in the story, along with when something was confusing or didn’t make sense.

  8. An alternate version of “feel It” is “use it” which means funneling your own emotions about one thing into your character’s emotions of the moment. I have an acquaintance who was very well known as a soap opera villain, Emmys and everything. Anyway, I was lucky enough to sit in on an interview between him and a theater major. He was talking about a romance partner for one of his bad guys. The actress hated the job and him so she’d do things like eat raw onions before love scenes. He’d mutter to himself “use it” and fuel his character’s romantic feelings with his own dislike for this woman.

    I’m partial to “expand it.” I’m not a murderer, but I have had enough anger to expand that into an anger so deep I would kill someone. I imagine most of us here use that technique since we aren’t writing from prison cells.

    • There is something to be said for using the occasional “what I’m feeling” emotion. But not all the time! Indeed, one of the pleasures of fiction (for me at least) is to crawl into the skin of another. I’m often tired of my own!

  9. These are all useful tips, Jim.

    I like observing people in real life and figuring out motives for their behavior, whether it’s how they act or how they construct an email or comment to a blog post.

    To determine motives for my suspects and murderers, instead of asking: What is gained by murdering the victim? I ask: What would each of these suspects/murderers lose if they let the victim live? It may not be a real threat; it is the strength of a character’s perception of the threat that is the motivating factor.

    • What would the murder lose is a great question, Truant! In the case of a murder motivated by a desire for vengeance, the answer would be their own sense of justice. A great question to ask.

    • Good thoughts, Truant. In my workshops I ask the attendees to write out a closing argument for the villain. No “bad guy” thinks he’s bad; he thinks he’s justified. What would he say to a jury to try to convince them he was in the right? A chilling example of this is Goering’s testimony before the Nuremberg tribunal (you can find it online).

      Only Dr. Evil (as portrayed by Mike Meyers) thinks he’s evil. The rest think they have a case.

  10. Good tips all, Jim. Like Terry, I rely #3 plus #4. So glad you mentioned Stephen Cannell. I had a chance to hear him speak once, at Sleuthfest. Unforgettable.

    • He was very nice to me after a speech he gave, back when I was the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. I asked if I could quote him in an upcoming article, and he was gracious. What a career he had! I was a dedicated fan of The Rockford Files and Baretta.

  11. Some nightmares I laugh off. The ones that truly scare me, those are the ones I try to incorporate in a story. I figure if they make me emotional, then that’ll help make a reader emotional. (I write horror. Obs.:-))

  12. Congrats on your team’s win. 🙂 Since I’m a lot like Terry and Kay, 3 works best for me, but since I often write in the villain’s POV, I have to at some point, get myself into their head. Until I do, the villain is flat, two-dimensional. Wonderful post and a reminder to go through Brandilynn’s book again.

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