The sometimes brusque Flannery O’Connor is quoted as having said that you cannot create emotion by using emotion. More precisely, from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose:
The fiction writer has to realize that he can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension. [...] The reason is usually that the student is wholly interested in his thoughts and his emotions and not in his dramatic action.
For writers of all forms, this is a point not to be overlooked. Practically, it means that we may want to rethink a character–let’s call her Mia–uttering the words, “Gee, Larry, I’m just so terrifically sad” if we actually want the audience/reader to feel Mia’s sadness. The same goes for the narrator, I’d say, unless used very, very carefully. We’ve all read an intensely personal blog post or watched a film where this happens, haven’t we? Our most likely response was in opposition to the author’s intent; perhaps disbelief. Or perhaps we laughed. Ouch.
So how better to convey Mia’s state of woe? We can elicit true emotion through our stories by painting an accurate picture of circumstance to which our readers may relate. That means getting detailed with what is influencing the character at that moment of heightened emotion. Practically, it means getting selective about what they are they seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. It’s basic, I know, but it’s basic for a reason: it works. Selectivity is key. Get inside. Block out the extraneous. Convey the meaningful.
For example *spoiler ahead*, in the film Seven Pounds, Will Smith’s character, Ben Thomas is so woefully despondent over his role in his wife’s death that he embarks upon a mission to save as many lives as possible through the sacrifice of his own. The film opens with his 911 call moments before his suicide. The rest of the film unfolds the events of his self-sacrifice. The reasons for his actions are withheld from the audience, only doled out as needed to keep the intrigue rolling. By the end, we have lived his pain, fallen in love, and come to fully understand *and feel* the reasoning behind that call from the beginning of the film. Only through circumstance did we feel emotion. That call holds vastly different weight at the end of the story–after we have shared experience with Ben–that it does at the beginning–when he’s vocalizing his intent to take his own life.
As always, this is equally applicable to stories told on the screen as it is to those told on the page. If you’re writing memoir, you may have to step even further back from your own history to be able to draw your readers in. In short, I believe that our audiences need to be able to relate to our characters’ internal lives through shared emotional experience. A reader may never have rolled a car and as a result, seven people lost their lives, but they have given of themselves in some way, large or small, so that another person might benefit. The emotion translates even if the practical situation does not.
So that’s it. Check your writing for instances of characters blatantly declaring their emotional state and see if you can find a more powerful way to woo your audience to where you’d like them to be.
Good writing everyone!