Raw Emotion – Good or Bad for Your Story?

By Hans D. (originally posted to Flickr as Hooded sorrow) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons" )

By Hans D. (originally posted to Flickr as Hooded sorrow) [CC-BY-2.0(http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons”)

I won the challenge of NaNoWriMo again this year and ended up with around 52,000 words of unfinished novel.   The thing is, I fell in love with it.  It is a departure from my usual fantasy writing (either urban fantasy or epic fantasy).  It’s one of those hybrids that they’re calling cross-overs between fantasy and science fiction.  I call it science fantasy.

Because of the Mayan prophecy, it sparked my imagination to wonder what would happen to my husband and me and our three little Shih Tzu dogs if there really were going to be some kind of apocalyptic phenomenon.  I took a look at my husband’s characteristics (practical, efficient, no-nonsense, American, get the job done) and mine (emotional, caring, passionate, impulsive, Canadian) and imagined a trek made necessary by the apocalyptic event.  This event is very much secondary to the story, except that it is the motivator for the fear and the drive to go north, where people initially imagine they will be safer.

I found myself delving deeper into character and relationships because the main characters were based on my husband, myself, and some other people I know.  Most of the rest of the characters are fictitious, made up, like in nearly all my stories.  So there is a big departure here.

It also seemed that I was diving deeper into some of the emotions that I would feel in certain of the events that happen in the story.  At least one of them made me cry enough that I had real trouble getting through that part of the story.  This led to my thinking about using raw emotion in a story.  Is it a good idea?  Can it be too raw, too much of a revelation of the author’s personality to the point of author intrusion?  Or can it be an enrichment of the story, allowing the reader to gain insights into the narrative that they wouldn’t otherwise?  Or can it even offer insights into the reader him/herself?

Cristian Mihai, self-published author and brilliant blogger, wrote a post entitled Write What You Know.  In it, he touches on writing about what you are passionate about, what engages your attention and draws you into its circle of charm.  He also states that many writers draw back from writing their raw emotions down, for fear of being judged.

JohnTate, a member of Linkedin’s TWO BITS group (writing advice to writers from writers), entitled his thoughts on the subject “Highly emotive story topics – Do you steer clear?”:

Many hacks parade poorly written stories of horrific events in front of the readers to capture their attention. Sure, we all glance at the accident as we pass by, but good writing has little to do with subject matter. If fact, the better writers can take experiencing a snowflake to stellar levels.

We often forget we use words to paint our “art”. If the words are not well executed, the art is crap, despite an important or horrific subject matter.

Of course, one can and should write whatever he chooses and let the market determine whether it’s worthwhile.

My favorite author as a child was AlbertPaysonTerhune, who wrote books on animals, domesticated or in the wild, mostly dogs.  The travails of these creatures brought me to tears and I succumbed to real sorrow at their unfortunate plights.  Yet Terhune wrote in a narrative way, not so much involving his own emotions as describing emotions of the animals, or even simply telling the story of what happened.  It was tremendously effective nevertheless.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt of the passage from my NaNoWriMo novel of 2012, entitled The Rocky Road to the End of the World.  This passage is the one that made me cry.  Let me set the scene.  Mark and Alex (the characters based on my husband and me) are fleeing northward to what they hope will be safety, along with a couple of people they have picked up along the way for various reasons.  They are also accompanied by their three little beloved Shih Tzu dogs (Oreo, Ling Ling and Tilly Tot).  It is important to note that one of Mark’s biggest concerns is looters.  Alex is not as aware of this danger.  Read the excerpt…decide if the emotion is too raw for you.

What woke me up was Oreo whimpering in his sleep.  I should have left him in his carrier then, but the sound was so pitiful that I just couldn’t.  In retrospect, it was a hard way to learn a lesson I’ll never forget.

I reached past Justin, who apparently slept like the dead, as we had already seen the previous day.  By twisting quietly and kneeling I could reach back and slip open the door of the carrier stacked sideways behind Justin’s seat; Oreo cautiously pushed it open with his nose.

Usually he bounded and/or wiggled his way to me, his tail waving with delight.  This time he crept…past the gap between Justin’s seat and the rear door.  I picked him up, just about breaking my puckering string in the process.  Oreo was a husky little bundle.  Tilly greeted him quietly and, trembling, Oreo pressed against me.  How terribly hard this was on him.  He hated the car, and twenty hours in one was almost too much for him.  I felt I should have let him out when we stopped for a little exercise and a potty break.  I have to admit I didn’t want to face Mark with such a request.

Tilly, Oreo, Ling Ling - picture (c) Sandra Bell Kirchman

Tilly, Oreo, Ling Ling – picture (c) Sandra Bell Kirchman

Oreo shivered and whimpered again, and I knew what the main problem was.  He had to go out, and not just pee this time.  I didn’t know what to do.  I looked over at Mark, who was sleeping as if he too were dead.  He must have been exhausted with the stress of it all.  He wasn’t a youngster anymore and dealing with people stressed him out.  I began to realize what I had done to him by inviting Justin and Patty to ride with us.

The little dog whimpered again, more urgently, and I made up my mind.  I quietly opened the door and let Oreo down on the ground.  Tilly thought that was a great idea and jumped down as well.  Her silvery coat glowed in the moonlight.  I look up and thought, Damn, it’s almost as bright as day.  This is not a good idea.  Oreo had run ahead to find the “perfect” spot for a poo.  I picked up Tilly and trotted after him.  I could see well enough to spot him in the underbrush and I let Tilly down to do her own little duty.  Just as I was picking her up, the sound of someone crunching through the brush made me spin around.

“All right, lady,” a man said, emerging into the full moonlight, “you’re gonna help me get that vehicle.”  He waved his gun at me.  “I will use this if I have to.  I want that Jeep.”

I gasped.  “You’re the man from our last rest stop.  How-how did you catch up to us on foot?  It’s not possible!”

He gave a low chuckle.  “You never saw me in my beat-up old Chevy.  I came to just as your tail lights winked around the bend and followed you.  I’m not stupid enough to attack a vehicle full of possibly armed individuals, so I was just waiting for my chance.  And you’re it.”

The man grabbed me roughly by the arm and thrust me ahead of him.  “You’re going to go back to the car and wake up the driver and tell him he has to come out.  Tell him anything…like, you twisted your ankle and can’t get back in the car by yourself with the dog.  That’s it.  Give him the dog.  That’ll distract him.

“Get moving, and limp like you mean it.”

I had almost blurted out about Oreo still in the brush, then thought better of it.  It would serve no useful purpose letting him know about the dog, and maybe Oreo might startle him at a good time.

He gave me a push to get me started.  I stumbled and started limping.  At the same time, a whirlwind of vicious growling flew at us…at the man, actually.  I had never seen Oreo in a killing rage, but he had only one thing in mind: to get this horrible human away from his beloved Mommy.

The man pivoted with a started exclamation just as Oreo grabbed his shin above his ankle.  From the sound of it, he had taken a chunk out of the shin.  The man was yelling, I was screaming…then there was a shot.

I stood still for a moment, staring at Oreo crumpled on the ground, a dark stain on his side oozing heavily and smearing his delicate, fawn-coloured fur.  I dropped to my knees, still holding Tilly, and set her carefully against me.  She was trembling and didn’t want to go anywhere.  She nuzzled Oreo.

I felt the pulse at his carotid artery, but there was nothing.  I held my hand to his little nose but felt not even a whisper of air.  The pain of his passing crushed my heart, and filled my eyes with tears that would not fall.  I thought I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t care.  My little baby was dead, and it was my fault.

The man jabbed cold steel against my neck.

“Get up, lady.  You are just lucky I don’t put bullets in you and the other little mutt here.”

I got to my feet and trembled, feeling sick to my stomach, and stood there.

“Now turn very—“

Another shot rang out and the man’s body slumped against me.  I convulsively pushed him away, and Tilly yipped as his hand swiped her on the way down.  He lay still at my feet, right beside Oreo.  I felt as though I was living in a nightmare, as though my life was running right out of me, as though I had to scream my sorrow until I had no voice.  I knelt on the ground and started to sob.

A hand gently closed on my shoulder.  “Are you hurt?” Mark asked.

I just shook my head, unable to speak, the sobs building up into something I didn’t think I could control.  Mark walked over to the man and pushed him over onto his back with his boot.  He knelt and felt for a pulse.  He stood up and shoved him again with his boot, showing disgust in his motions.

“Oreo?” Mark asked, kneeling to touch the still dog.

That’s when the dam burst.  I cried as I hadn’t since my mother died twenty years earlier.  My heart felt like it was burning up and was about three sizes too large for my chest; I had trouble catching my breath.  All I could think of was my beautiful little Oreo, such a gentle, sweet soul, and he was gone…and it was my fault.

Mark touched me on the shoulder again.  I looked up and saw the sorrow on his face.  I made a huge effort to get myself under control.  Oreo had been Mark’s little buddy.  He was always telling Oreo, “It’s hard looking after da wimmins all day.  Us men’s gotta stick together, right, Buddy?”  A shudder went through me, but I clamped down on it.

“Babe, we better get going.  We don’t know if that guy had any friends around, or if all this noise is bringing someone to investigate…or loot.”

I nodded my head vaguely.  “Sure, Mark, soon as we bury Oreo.”

Mark was silent, and I looked up at him again.  His stunned expression faded quickly to a look of hopelessness.

That look shocked me into a state of realization.  I was putting him into another corner.  Here I had not only gotten Oreo killed, but I was jeopardizing Mark, the other two people in the Jeep and the other two dogs with my sentimental notion that a burial was necessary.  I just couldn’t stand the thought of wild animals tearing apart Oreo’s little body.

Mark jumped up.  “Wait here, I have an idea.”  He ran back to the Jeep while I felt Oreo again to make sure he was dead.  From the placement of the entry wound, it looked like the man had got Oreo right in the heart.  He was definitely dead.  I tried to steel myself to the idea that nothing that happened to his body now was going to hurt him.

Mark returned, carrying Oreo’s carrier, still with the pee pad and the quilt and blanket.

“You’re worried about animals eating Oreo, right?  We don’t have time to bury him, but we can put him in here, bundle him up, and put the carrier, tightly closed and locked, up in a tree.  That will keep him safe.”

Tears streamed down my face.  “Thank you, Mark,” I said softly.

It didn’t take us long to wrap him lovingly in his blanket and for Mark to put the carrier up in the limbs of a burr oak that overlooked the little clearing.  It was silly, I know, but I liked the idea of the pretty place we’d found for him.  He had loved barking at strange noises and he loved sitting in the sunshine in our beautiful backyard.  He would feel somewhat at home here.  Oh, damn!  I shook my head and hurried back to the Jeep.

So, how about it?  How would you have written this?  Maybe you wouldn’t have written it at all.  Share your thoughts on the writing of raw emotion.

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14 responses to “Raw Emotion – Good or Bad for Your Story?

  1. Raw emotion is what pulls readers into your story. When you speak from your heart others feel it. This is definitely not a place in your story you’d want to gloss over. I think you captured the emotions here.

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    • Thanks, Suzi, I tend to agree (which is why I wrote it that way). However, as I say in my post, there are quite a few writers who disagree. As John Tate indicates, it has to be written well to work. I feel if it isn’t written well, it turns into melodrama.

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  2. Instapaper

    Nicole Galloway -Miller, writer

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  3. Congratulations on winning Nanowrimo again! I need raw emotion in order to connect with the characters. If it isn’t there I’m never satisfied. I try to get in touch with emotions whenever I write. I always know when I hit the mark because I’m feeling the emotion I’m trying to put on the page.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Haley. Nice to see you again. I agree that some form of emotion is necessary in order for me to relate to the characters. I think that’s why I like reading (and writing) in the first person…it’s a more intimate form of narration.

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  4. Oh, so sad, Sandra. you must have been crying as you wrote it. How about if they take Oreo with them and bury him later? In other words, I guess it was too sad for me, but looks like it will be a great novel.

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    • Not only was I crying when I wrote it, but I cry every time I reread it. Oreo is very precious to me. But it would also be in character, I think, for him to charge someone who was hurting me.

      I’m sorry this is too sad for you. Would it help to tell you that this is the saddest part to date? Also it’s amazing what running for your life can do to your perspective.

      And that’s the thing…Mark and Alex and the rest are running for their lives. It’s not so much the apocalyptic event. If that catches them, they are goners–nothing they can do about it. But the looters and criminals are another matter. I sort of like the idea of taking Oreo’s body with them, but I think it might be too hard on Alex.

      As for the novel, I am enjoying writing it…all except for the science part lol. Unfortunately, I need it to make the novel work.

      Thanks for your comment, HG. I can always count on your support.

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  5. I had to wait until I stopped crying to post…

    Raya, of coursea writer needs raw emotional connection. Without it, we might as well be reading a damn textbook! And that’s my take on that 🙂

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  6. Raw emotion definitely pulls a reader in.

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  7. It’s the humanity of the characters, the knowing they are people with flaws and faults and failings, and they can’t keep it together the whole time. It adds depth and a richness.

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    • Yup, I agree with you too, L. Palmer. It seems the vast majority of people welcome raw emotion, even if it does hit them in the gut. It’s also possible to learn from this kind of writing.

      A colleague once wrote about the death of her grandmother. I was crying by the time I finished it. She had poured out all her sorrow at this death, but ended it with how she finally incorporated what her grandmother had given her and moved on.

      I was so reminded of the death of my own grandmother who had been thousands of miles away. Because of poor communication systems, we didn’t learn about it until three days after the event. I think reading that bit about the death of someone else’s grandmother, written with the raw emotion it contained, helped me to finally say goodbye to my own grandmother. Someday, I’ll write about that too.

      Thanks for dropping by, L. 🙂

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