Writing Excuses 7.33: Authentic Emotion

Writers, like actors, have to animate the inanimate, and evoke emotions that we may not have ever felt, and in this episode we talk about the things that we do in order to accomplish that. We talk about making faces, remembering analogous events, playing thematic music, and running around the kitchen with a knife.


Describe a setting. Then, without using any emotion-words, describe that same setting again three more times from a happy, sad, and angry point of view.

All Men of Genius, by Lev AC Rosen, narrated by Emily Gray

25 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.33: Authentic Emotion”

  1. This reminded me of the following exchange from (I think) the first episode of Angel.

    Angel: I don’t wanna share my feelings. I don’t wanna open up. I wanna find the guy that killed Tina, and I wanna look him in the eye.
    Doyle: Then what?
    Angel: Then I’m gonna share my feelings.

  2. In the interest of writing about an experience I had never had before, I asked my husband if he would please strangle me a little bit. He declined.

  3. Great episode guys! One of the ones that’s not only informative but also inspirational.

    It did bring up more questions for me though, which are to do with the establishment of emotions and character within a short story in particular. Seems to me that both have to be done quickly within a very short space, which is just another level of difficult.

    I’d be interested to hear your take on the issue if you’re ever short on topics.

  4. Great Episode – I’m a lunch-hour writer and when I read back through the scene I’ve been working on, I feel like its jumpy. You have just clairified for me what the problem is – my POV Character is getting a slightly different emotion drive every 250 words.

    I’ll be sure to add this to the list of things to keep in mind with sitting to write.


  5. I’m with Julien. I get only 15-30 min most mornings to write and often don’t even make it all the way through a scene. Sometimes the emotional shift in the scene is quite jarring. I can see the benefit of full time writing vs part time. The longer the stretch of time you have for writing in a single session, the more consistent the emotional flow can become.

    It reminds me of a much earlier episode of Writing Excuses where Dan and Brandon talked about taking about 45 minutes to “warm up” to the full steam in their writing and then the next couple hours are the real productive zones. I only get that kind of time to myself occasionally and I love those days.

    If I waited for the perfect time window, I’d seldom write. Novels can still be written 15 minutes at of time because we’re in a hurry and hopefully we’re that smart.

  6. Mary said she could do a whole episode on body language. Mary, please do it!! (Pretty please?)

    Love you guys. :)

  7. I would love an episode on body language, Mary’ experience as a puppeteer will definitely be helpful.

  8. Great episode, one I’ll probably go back to a few times.

    When I was working on a novel a couple of years ago, I listened to the Inception soundtrack a lot. I found the last track (the music from the end of the movie, “Time”) carried a lot of the emotion I was looking for in the final scene of my novel. When I rewrote the scene, I found myself developing it further, harvesting the emotion in the music, even though my scene was totally different than what was in the movie.

    So, the music thing, it works.

  9. Smell also creates emotion! Because of movies, people are used to sight and sound, but by far, smell has a strong emotional element. Movies haven’t invented real smell-o-vision yet. Books, however, with their meager words can conjure smells in a flash. The smell of Play-Doh. The strong perfume from a woman making someone cough.

    Movies can’t do taste, smell or touch. Books can. Utilize it.

    So taste, touch, smell, sight, sound

    Then to accent it with the tone of the story. Sometimes I write that at the top of the page when I want to give more of a sensory experience.

  10. @Robinton If they did the smell of Play-Doh Hasbro would sue. =P Mention it in a book with the proper capping and they won’t. They have a patent on the fragrance and it is secret.

  11. Great episode, but I have to disagree on a point…

    Howard offers a great way of writing a character who is has lost what he can’t get back but for someone who has just had his son abducted? Brandon said the character’s son had been kidnapped? To have him just busying himself would imply that he accepts the situation. I’d think the father would be frantically scouring every inch of the island looking for his son. Even if he has no leads, I’d think the better emotion would be desperation–the feeling that he has to TRY to bring his son back to him. Even if he has nothing, he gains nothing by not actively looking for him. The way is sounds, the Lost pen-holders fumbled that too by having him just whine about it. 

    Again, what Howard prescribes is great for characters who are truly
    powerless but so long as the character knows his son is alive, I’d think the better emotion would be to invest himself in actively trying to save him. 

  12. Curtis, how wonderfully wise you are to correctly figure out that all people react in exactly the same way to extreme circumstances.

  13. My apologies, Mister Ed: it was not my intention to imply that everyone would act this way–simply that I felt Howard’s suggestion was the wrong reaction for the situation. His implied a sense of surrender that I’d think would be missing from someone who still had any hope of finding his son again.

  14. The burning sand tore at my skin as I trudged down the beach.

    The fiery sand fled from my feet as I advanced down the beach.

    The warm sand caressed my ankles as I ambled across the beach.

    Felt like giving a shot at actually doing one of these writing prompts, and I got to say that it is very eye-opening. Personally I find writing a happy setting more difficult than an angry setting. There are probably reasons relating to anatomy and my personal life that would explain this, but I feel too lazy to type it all out.

    Does anybody find one particular emotion easier or more difficult to write than the others? Or is it just me?

  15. Question: An earlier podcast went over how one should follow Aristotle’s dramatic curves with very few exceptions working.

    What are the exceptions like Clockwork Orange, where breaking it worked and why did it work?

    Also, Kurt Vonnegut who argued that Cinderella and Hamlet didn’t fit those curves. He’d draw it on a chalkboard. Bottom was time and the vertical axis was character high or low.


    Any other examples?

  16. Thanks for another great podcast. As always, it’s a pleasure.

    Also, I wanted to comment on Lost’s Michael/Walt issue.

    My main gripe with Michael, after losing Walt, was that his reaction was melodramatic. I felt the writers imposed a set of feelings on to Michael because otherwise it would have been too controversial. Maybe, I don’t know. The point is, Michael didn’t want Walt. Michael didn’t have a relationship with Walt. They only had one season, whatever measurement of time that represents, to build what should have been a decade long bond. I wasn’t convinced, and the fact that Michael wanted to dump Walt on his Mother only serves to show that he’s a terrible father. That being said, his fatherly concern over his son being kidnapped, to me, seemed forced. As if he were putting on a show for the other survivors so as not to look like the bad father he was. When it was obvious the show was being serious, I lost all connection to that character.

    So I think that in order to build authentic emotion, you have to build authentic context. Also, a writer shouldn’t be afraid to make their characters bad people. Everyone has their demons, and a person only flourishes when they face them. Michael’s demon disappeared almost entirely and that’s why his arc failed.

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