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.
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!