Say it again with feeling

I remember having a short story flung back at me with the comments ‘this character is completely lifeless, I don’t know what she feels or why she makes the decisions she makes, and I don’t care about her.’ Harsh? Possibly. Fair? Definitely.

My character was living alone in an isolated house, and convinced she was being stalked by a stranger she had seen. The character was young and fanciful with an overactive imagination and I wanted to have her feeling instinctively that she was being watched but doubting her feelings as hysteria. It had the potential to be highly charged, full of fear, paranoia, panic, suspicion. Trouble was, I had no idea how to write those things, the only things that scared me were spiders and exams I’d not revised for.

Years later, that story since shelved, how can I get around the problem of writing about extreme emotions without seeming trite or overblown? How do I write about events I have never experienced, without getting it hopelessly wrong? I’m trapped, it seems, unable to write because I felt unable to write convincingly about the things I wanted to write about. I needed to be able to show my reader why my character didn’t just knock on a neighbours door, phone the police. I needed to show, not tell my reader about her sense for the dramatic, her almost willing the stranger outside to be something terrifying. I needed to show that my character felt she was partially to blame for her situation, to show that it was a silly game gone horribly wrong and got out of hand.

Years later, I read about an exercise in a writing book. The exercise was about writing freely and unconsciously, being able to write emotions by actually experiencing them in a (relatively) safe and controlled manner. I say ‘relatively’ because I think it can have a major impact on you, so tread carefully.

I was asked to pick a childhood memory, sit back and visualise it, using each of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. I made notes using short sentences in the present tense. I wrote for about fifteen minutes and at some point, I ceased to be in my house, sitting at my desk, I was actually inside the memory. I felt the heat of the sun on my face, drying the sea water, the sway of seaweed over my toes and the way the sea was colder on the bits of my flesh my swimsuit did not cover. Gradually, through focusing on each physical sensation, I started to also experience the emotions I had felt at the time- not as memories, or words or thoughts, distant and analysed and thought about, but as real as my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the dread of what was below the surface of the water, the sea creatures threatening my toes. I felt the embarrassment I experienced at being too scared to go deeper into the water, to where my father was standing.

After that experience, I found I could recreate it for my characters.

I’ve not re-read that initial story- that’s one for another time, but I was able to create the sadness, anger and loss a father might feel for his dead child. And when I re-read that section of a story, it finally rings true, without triteness or purple prose.

Try it, but take care: there be monsters…

(Originally published August 2015)

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