The Emotion of the Story: 3 Tips for Success
Updated: May 28, 2020
In Ed Catmull's book, Creativity Inc., he tells the gripping story behind a short film called The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. The film was meant to be a two-minute movie demonstrating the animation advancements Pixar was making at the time. Instead, his team fell short of their deadline for the SIGGRAPH Conference. They had a choice: play the film unfinished, displaying the wireframe images that never made it to full animation, or pull the film from the conference. They decided of the former, cringing in embarrassment as the wireframe images dawned the big screen.
Then, something interesting happened. The film received rave reviews from the conference-goers. Perplexed by the success of the film, they asked their peers what they found so compelling. As it turns out, it wasn't the quality of the animation that captivated the audience; it was the emotion of the story.
So, how do you create intense emotions in your story?
Put yourself in your character's shoes. How would they behave in the situation you are putting them? How do they feel? Are they sad, or did the grief grip their heart and squeeze, draining them of any happiness they once felt? Did they cry, or did one cold tear escape the corner of their eyelid? Did they laugh, or did a boisterous chuckle roll through their abdomen until they were doubled over in joyous pain? The key here is to allow yourself a moment to see, feel, and think like your character to enable you to write an emotionally authentic scene.
Human emotion is more than sadness and happiness. Our emotions are complex. Sadness often includes anger, disappointment, grief, or helplessness. Happiness can include pride, awe, or gratitude. To make your character realistic and relatable, they need to experience and express complex human emotions. When they discover that their mistake led to the death of a loved one, they might cry out in crippling grief as they shatter their phone against the wall in an act of self-loathing. When they finally met their spouse at the altar, they might glow with pride while expressing a deep sense of gratitude for that person's love. More than just labeling an emotion, the ability to capture the entirety of your character's emotional experience allows your reader to relate.
Allow time for processing. Readers need time to digest and process scenes of extreme emotion. After an intense scene or deeply emotional chapter, give your reader a break. Allow your character to process their emotion internally, bring in another character to describe the scene, or direct the focus of the story towards another aspect of the plot.
Crafting emotion in a story is both a challenging and rewarding process. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was: If you don't cry at the emotional scenes in your story, no one will. The best litmus test for emotions in your work is to determine how deeply you feel the emotion you are trying to elicit from your characters and for your readers.
For the love of adventure,