Category Archives: The Craft of Writing

Articles about writing craft, from plots to scenes.

Strong Emotions in Fiction Writing

Q: Which body part should you use to convey strong emotions in fiction writing?
A: Your reader’s brain.

If you build up properly toward that emotional strong point in your character’s life, once it hits, you can use very few descriptions to make a very strong scene.

I think one of the most common reactions to extremely emotional situations, like cancer diagnoses, is a need to remain in emotional control. I’ve even seen people apologize for shedding tears in a moment like this.

So you can’t have the character running in circles, screaming and shouting… instead you use a build-up to create all the emotion in the situation.

Cancer diagnoses are easy in that regard. No one wants to die, so all you really need to do is make the reader care enough for the character that we’re not in the situation of “reading about a car accident in the newspaper” — it happens to strangers we don’t know, so we don’t care.

Spoilers ahead!

You can take it one step further. What if your cancer patient isn’t so much afraid of dying, but more afraid of not having lived?

One of the strongest episodes of “New Amsterdam” (Season 1, Episode 18) contains one such moment.

In “New Amsterdam,” we follow Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) who is the new director of the hospital “New Amsterdam.” We find out early in the first season, he’s also struggling with cancer.

For most of season 1, he tries to balance the new job of directing the hospital with his cancer treatment, but in episode 17 his cancer doctor “quits” on him, for various reasons, and in episode 18 he ends up with a new doctor.

His new doctor is hardcore. She sits him down and tells him, he can’t miss his treatments.

And he tries to explain that there were a life and death emergency at the hospital he had to deal with and that’s the reason he missed today’s treatment.

She tells him. His cancer is the life and death emergency. All her patients that have treated their cancer as he has (missed or rescheduled appointments, focusing on other things than their cancer treatment, etc) have died.

Does he want to die?

This is the moment his plan to run the hospital, to save it, to revolutionize it’s management, at the same time that he beats cancer… this is the moment that plan dies.

And all we’re shown is his sad eyes. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t move.

And it is strong, not because of what any character says or does at that moment, but because of what happened before. Because of how hard he fought to change the hospital, to be strong, to be both successful at managing the hospital and beating cancer.

At that moment his new doctor beats it into him, and us, that he’s been in this fight for his life ever since he got the diagnose, and he’s almost missed it completely.

I’d urge you to watch that episode, but you pretty much have to watch the preceding 17 episodes as well, to get the full emotional impact.

Which is exactly what I mean to say with this post. Strong emotion takes a proper build-up. If you have a TV show, use a season for it!

Start with the Character Waking Up in the Morning

Start your story with the character waking up in the morning. Keep writing until something interesting happens. Then go back and remove everything before that point and keep writing.

Never allow any of your stories to escape the last round of editing with characters waking up in the morning. It’s a worn and tired cliché and it’s been done to death already!

Backwards Editing

Backwards Editing sounds interesting, even though misspellings should be handled by the word processor (and simple grammar errors by Grammarly). However, looking at sentences, one at a time, could never be wrong.

How is it done?

You start at the end of the text by reading the last word (aloud), then the second to last, etc. Or, you do the same for sentences.

The point is to prevent the brain from (unconsciously) filling in the blanks with what you already know about your text and make it more obvious what you’ve actually written (or not).

When you look at whole sentences, you check for problems with sentence structure and flow.

I.e. a promising tool for self-editing.

A Bear on the Beach

In literature, there is a concept called to place “a bear on the beach.”

The origin of the expression is said to come from a silent film where the director wanted a couple of lovers to kiss on a beach, but in order to keep the kiss scenes from being boring, the director cut in shots of a bear on the same beach. The audience waited breathlessly for the kissing couple to discover the bear.

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