Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Writing Emotional Truth—What Gets Us There?

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: For many writers, (but not all), we want to tap into the emotional truth of our stories, and our characters. Bonnie Randall is back this month to share tips on getting to the emotional truth in our stories. 

Emotional truth. It is an indistinct quality; nebulous, indirect, and implicit between the lines of our prose. It is also—in my opinion—the difference between good writing and great writing. The contrast between cardboard, out-of-sync characters, and living, breathing beings with whom your relationship continues long after you’ve read the last page.

Emotional truth can be difficult to capture, and impossible to master, but there are tricks that can help make it easier to weave into your fiction.

1. Be Trauma-Informed

Trauma-informed fiction won’t just know how the characters will react, it will also know why they are reacting that way. To be trauma informed means that you’re aware of how your war veteran character reacts poorly when he’s exposed to Fourth of July fireworks—but also you know why he struggles.

 You will understand that explosions of light and sound have cemented a neural pathway in his brain that cannot help but fight-flight-freeze when he experiences that traumatic stimuli—no matter what his conscious mind is telling him.

The internal conflict here is profound, for a traumatized person is not necessarily unaware that, from a logical point of view, they are reacting irrationally. Yet their brain, in kicking out the wholly reflexive response of fight-flight-freeze, thinks it is being completely rational.


Because every human brain’s # 1 priority is to keep the body safe. No. Matter. What.

As such, it is internal crazy-making; the sufferer knows he is at a Fourth of July picnic. He might even be looking forward to seeing the pyrotechnic displays. Yet his brain, forever wired to keep him safe, has married explosions with peril…and so will force him, like an automaton, to react. It is debilitating, confounding, and wholly unwanted by the sufferer.

The lack of control over this reaction can even lead to suicide as the person becomes a prisoner of his brain’s own obedience that drives him to fight-flight-freeze in the face of (perceived) danger. Logic will forever be relegated to the shadows when the sufferer is exposed to traumatic stimuli—unless he works to develop insight, and compassion, for his brain, and why it has come to do the things it does.

Additional emotional truths in crafting trauma-informed fiction include the awareness that traumatic stimuli is not always obvious like fireworks being like bombs. Traumatic stimuli can be anything.

Personal disclosure: I once received horrifying, life-altering news. I had just taken a bite of my lunch as the phone rang. For months afterward, my brain associated the taste of food with the explosion of fight-flight-freeze adrenaline in my mouth. It took months—and an alarming, illness-inducing weight loss—before my brain ‘unlearned’ this marriage of food with adrenaline, and I was able to eat again without having an aversion so strong I physically balked at the thought of food. Was it crazy? Yes. Did I know that? Yes. Could I control it? No. Neither can your characters.

(Here's more on Leveraging The Emotional Spectrum in Your Writing)

2. Dial Into Your Own Emotional Truths

This one I advise with a massive flag of caution. Two of the quickest ways to tap into a feeling are to either smell a scent you associate with that emotion, or to hear a piece of music that you associate with those times. These stimuli are sometimes called ‘emotional anchors’ for they are powerful heralds of feeling.

And that’s all well and good when you are trying to craft the emotional truth of your character’s belly-full-of-butterflies when she sees her crush. You might indeed dab on the perfume you once wore when you met the love of your life. Or you may reawaken those feelings by cuing the playlist that remind you of those heady times.

But if you are trying to capture the more difficult emotions—fear, rage, sorrow, despair—by tapping into your personal emotional anchors for these, then I highly, strongly, implore you to:
a. put a literal time limit on doing so (set a timer on your phone, etc),
b. let someone you know and trust be aware of what you are doing and why—then check in with them when the exercise is done and
c. plan for, and follow through on, a mindfulness activity directly afterward in order to cleanse your emotional palate, pull you back into the present, and remind you that your world holds peace and joy.
(Here's more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

3. Write Tired

Seriously. Exhaustion is not pleasant to experience, and your tired brain might not have access to the best words, but when you are fatigued, your mind relaxes inhibitions that normally act as gatekeepers to the base, or deeper emotions. So writing while tired can allow for you to ‘get to the underneath’ where the gritty stuff is, and you might be shocked at how emotionally eloquent your prose is—despite how tired you are.

(Here's more on )Once More, With Feeling: Writing Emotionally Strong Characters

Other suggestions? Comments? As always, I welcome your thoughts and discussion.



Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”

1 comment:

  1. Just yesterday I responded to someone about making playlists and my comment here is much the same. In fact, it's always the same. I use music a lot to stir a variety of emotions, but as someone who struggles with depression, finding the music from my childhood that takes me to the troubled place isn't difficult. What's difficult, is getting back.

    Your advice is sound and wise. I don't use music so I can write depressing comments, but because, in small doses, it induces my writing with a level of depth I can't summon otherwise. I'm an INFJ and empathetic, which means I'm an emotional sponge. If I can wring out what's within the reader will know the difference.

    I want to stress that I agree with the dangers and know them well. Too, I want to be clear that I use music to inspire wonder, awe, passion, and humor. Humor is an underutilized emotion in writing that isn't easy to write and is an exquisite contrast to the more trying emotions.