by Lisa Hall-Wilson
Many people take my deep point of view master classes because they’re looking to create an emotional gut punch for readers. They want readers to feel like they’re IN the story, in real time, and digging deep emotionally is the powerhouse tool of deep point of view.
Many writers have heard of a story arc and a character arc (how a character changes over the course of the story), but I’ve found it helpful when writing in deep point of view to think in terms of an emotional arc. How does your character feel change (this can include thinking and decisions) not just over the whole novel but at a scene by scene level.
Emotion Stems From Doing
Emotions are reactions to things. It doesn’t always feel this way, I know. A thought, something someone says, something we see or hear or touch reaches a memory – it can all spark an emotional response. Emotions don’t spring up spontaneously, they’re caused by an action. Try to keep that in mind, because if the reader can connect what sparked that emotion they can often intuit WHY the character feels that emotion (show don’t tell).
Emotions aren’t a cerebral experience. We feel emotions physically, in a tangible way – it’s not just all in our heads. In deep point of view, the common rule is to avoid using emotion words (love, hate, angry, etc.) because it’s telling. Here’s why: emotions are felt in the body, reflected in how we think and talk to ourselves, how we react to outside stimuli. Emotions force us TO DO something.
When critiquing, I often write “I don’t understand why the character feels this way.” Emotion is the by-product of intention, not the goal. Back to my first point in this section, emotions are reactions – every reaction needed an action to set it off. Donald Maass, in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction, talks about how story is a spider’s web: a tug in one small part of the web should cause reverberations felt through the entire web. If an emotion can be felt in complete isolation from everything else going on in the story, maybe it needs to be cut.
Facts Don’t Equal Emotions
Ever felt a strong reaction to something but not been able to pinpoint why? We can’t settle for that as writers. Here’s why. We might not be able to articulate WHY we feel a certain way, but if we get curious and ask ourselves why we feel that way, what this emotion makes us think of, what it reminds us of – there’s always context for that emotion.
It’s that context for an emotion that we need to show readers even if the character isn’t consciously aware of why they feel that way. It means that the memory causing an emotional reaction might not be revealed in the same scene where the emotional reaction occurs.
Writers are concerned about making sure a character’s emotions make sense – and fair enough – that’s important – but emotions only have to make sense to that character in that moment. If written well, you shouldn’t need to explain or justify why the character feels that way.
In KL Armstrong’s novel Wherever She Goes the main character is crippled by self-doubt to such an extent that it’s really hard to connect with her initially. But those emotions were visceral to the character and, not very far into the book, small actions cause big emotions. Because of that initial foray into the character’s self-doubt I never questioned WHY the character felt the way she did or why those emotions fuelled her reactions. Because of those painful initial wince-worthy self condemning pages, the decisions the character makes later in the book make total sense (even if it’s something I would never choose to do myself).
Emotions are confusing, irrational, and non-linear. A good writer is able to harness that to her advantage to add tension and conflict to a character’s emotional arc. Emotions aren’t stable; they’re subtle, nuanced, and very individual. They are based on personal experiences, goals, morals, and because of that should be incredibly intimate and individualized.
Yes, readers need to connect with a character, but emotions are the best way to grab a reader. Even if the reader has never shared that experience, they will understand the power of emotions.
Emotional Development Is A Long Slope Not A Steep Climb
Characters should grow and change incrementally over the length of the story. The growing intensity and conflict in the story causes/creates opportunity for emotional change/transformation. Each story obstacle should force greater tension, greater internal conflict, etc.
Many writers get confused with this. They want to write an emotional story and that’s fine, but there still has to be a story arc that causes the emotional reactions. Characters still need a story problem they’re constantly working to resolve. Without that, your story becomes a collection of episodic emotional gut punches without purpose. It won’t feel like it’s going anywhere, it’s a constant train wreck for the character for no reason.
The emotional arc needs to be scalable. It’s fine to start with shock and awe if you want to with your inciting incident, but keep in mind that the mirror moment in the middle, the all is lost moment, still has to out-do whatever emotions were present in the inciting incident.
Emotions Affect The Body
Emotions are primarily felt in the body, and we each carry emotion a little differently. Do you carry tension in your neck, shoulders, or in your gut? When you are stifling back emotions, what hurts – your throat, your chest, sinuses? This is all very individual.
Challenge yourself. Instead of writing that your character is angry, in love, attracted to, envious – whatever, get curious about how that emotion FEELS. How does that emotion affect the character’s body, their posture, their tone of voice, even internally – their throat, shoulders, neck, scalp, feet, etc. Study the body language of people having a personal conversation – even in the movies – and see how most of the time a person’s body language gives away more information about how they feel than their words do. We’re often very careful to guard our words, but emotions practically seep through our pores.
Do you have issues with writing in deep point of view? Are there tips and ideas you've discovered in your own writing? Share them down in the comments!
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels. Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.
If you’re interested in learning more about deep point of view, make sure to check out my free 5 Day Deep Point Of View Challenge happening on Facebook starting October 14th. You can also learn more about my method acting for writers masterclass and membership from the Challenge group – both of those open up the week of October 14th as well.
Join Lisa’s deep point of view challenge group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/