Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Write What You've Never Experienced

by Jill Williamson

In her book, Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins has a chapter on what she calls emotional memory. This concept will help you learn to write emotions for your character that you've never actually experienced by using a combination of acting techniques and comparisons from your own life.

Director Richard Boleslavsky suggests that "anyone who has lived a normal existence has experienced to some extent all the emotions of mankind."

That's a pretty bold statement. I decided to give it a try.

I've never been threatened at gunpoint. But as I search for a similar emotionfear for my lifeI've had a few moments on the road where I thought I'd crash. One time our tires hydroplaned on the freeway and we slid into the grassy median at 65 miles an hour. It was a good three seconds of horrifying fear. I recall the heat that flashed through me, how my breathing seemed to stop, how I screamed (I'm not a screamer), and how, once the tires got traction again, the amazing relief that this wasn't the end of my life.

Interesting. I could use that.

My husband has never cheated on me. But there was this woman at exercise class who flirted with him. And, I'm ashamed to say, I hated that woman. Every time she looked at my husband or made a joke with him or smiled at him, I wanted to break her face. (I am not a violent person.) I became an insecure creature when she was in the room, questioning everything, completely irrational, daydreaming the worst. I knew where she lived. I knew what kind of car she drove. Every time we drove into the parking lot at exercise class, I'd be on high alert for that car. If it wasn't there, I was happy. Content. Worry free. If it was, look out world.

Yeah... I could totally use that.

No one has ever broken into my home. But I heard a noise once. We all have. But this time I stopped moving, held my breath and listened. I was imagining it, of course, I always was. Until I heard the front screen door wheeze shut and slam.

I vaulted off my bed and sprinted to the kitchen, slowing just before the door to peek. No one. My heart felt like it was a pinball in my chest, desperate to get out of my body. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, figuring that someone was either in the house or they'd just left. Either way, I wasn't going to torture myself by waiting around to find out. I glided into the living room on noiseless feet, holding my breath the whole way, praying God was watching and would keep me safe.

Then the screen door banged again, I lifted the knife, staring at the entrance way...

And my son came running inside the house. At midnight! He's eleven!

"Daddy's home!" he said, smiling.

"You scared me half to death," I told him. "Look, I have a knife in my hand to kill you with."

He laughed, thinking that was pretty funny. Little punk, anyway. :-)

So, clearly I could use that.

But it can't work for everything, right? I mean, most of us have never committed murder.

Well, I have.

I entered the bathroom. I shut the door and revealed the most massive spider you've ever seen. (What is it about spiders, anyway? They're little. We're big. I just don't get why they freak me out so much.)

This beast attacked, I tell you. And I was barefoot. I was NOT going to step on it without a shoe. So I grabbed a bottle of shampoo, I think, because the creature was between me and the door. I went after it. And as I bludgeoned the creature to death, I let out the most horrifying, fearful scream I'd ever heard myself utter. I remember thinking, "What on earth was that noise? My husband is going to think I'm being murdered."

Sadly, no one heard me. I was on the other side of the house, and to them, it was a mere mumble. Good think no one was really trying to kill me... But I experienced it all. I saw the creature. The fear and revolt overwhelmed. I never once considered letting it live. No, it needed to die. It had to. And when I hit it, it was with the intent to get it hard enough so that I wouldn't have to hit it twice. Laugh, if you want, but there was a lot of emotion there. And whenever I see that shampoo bottle, I think if that creature.

I wanted it dead, and I can use that.


Need to portray first love? Think back to your first crush, or a time when a cute person spoke to you or got close enough for your stomach to flip. And if that's never happened, surely you've read a book or seen a movie that gave you such an emotion. Use it.

And from now on, when you experience life, remember. Take note of the feelings in your body, the smells, the sounds, what does it look like? What do you notice? When I came into the living room with the knife, it was dark out the front window and raining. The streetlamp made a glare on the road out front. I couldn't see anything.

The spider was big, its legs continually sprawling toward me faster than I wanted it to. I was defenseless, I tell you. It was him or me!

That woman. The smell of her perfume, the way she did her hair, that car. When I smell or see things that remind me of her, the emotion all comes back at once.

So put on an actor's hat when you come to a troublesome scene. Search your life for the closest thing you've got and remember. Write out what you felt, saw, smelled, tasted, heard. Then put yourself in your character's shoes and life through his situation and see what you come up with.

Think I've missed an important one? Let me know and I'll give it my best shot in finding a comparison.

47 comments:

  1. WOW. This was an AMAZING post!! Thank you so much, extremely helpful!

    Plus, those are some really awesome stories. I'll be cracking up all day thinking about you on the verge of lunging at your son with the knife...

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    1. Yeah, he still thinks that was pretty funny too. :-)

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    2. I was just talking to my mom about the experience I had today shooting .22 rifles, and I told her "I'm calling it research." I remembered this post, hunted it down, and read it to her...she's cracking up now. :) I've had a lot of experiences recently-ish that I've decided are research.

      Anyway, just thought that was funny. :)

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  2. Great post! I love that book. I've always had a passion for both acting and writing, so I love finding techniques that can help me with both crafts. This post is very helpful, and the story you gave about the spider and the knife are hilarious! =) Definitely bookmarking this one. God bless!

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Tessa. Acting is great for being a writer. It really helps you, as I'm sure you know. :-)

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  3. Wow! Thank you so much for writing this!! My MC recently had a death in her immediate family, and I have pretty much no experience with that.

    Piper♥

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    1. Hmmm. Ever had a dream where a loved one died? Or have you ever lost a pet? You could draw emotions from both. Even when a celebrity dies you can sometimes get emotions. Princess Diana was a big one for me. I thought about her for weeks. And Heath Ledger too. (Jill is showing her age here... LOL)

      Did you see the post on the five stages of grief? That might be helpful to consider as well. http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/05/five-stages-of-grief.html

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  4. Excellent post, Jill! It's so true. While you may not have experienced exactly what your character is going through, there are so many different things you have experienced that you can draw upon to write those emotions.

    Whenever I'm going through a difficult situation, there's a little tiny part of me - the writer part - that stands back, watching to take notes and analyze and put it to the greatest use in my writing. It can be just a little annoying sometimes, but it's useful too. ;)

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    1. That's good, Gillian. It can be annoying, sometimes. But that part of the job I guess. And our jobs affect our lives. I'm always texting my email when something hits me and I don't have any paper and don't want to forget it. :-)

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  5. I love this. So. Much. No words. Just...thank you. :) That was amazing.

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  6. This is such an amazing, fun, and useful post!!!
    Something my character goes through is being extremely sheltered. Though I can relate to her in some ways, my parents really aren't protective. It is sort of a case where as long as I am not doing the wrong things, all is good with them. (Unlike some people I know who have EXTREMELY protective parents.) After reading this, I thought of the time I felt the most stuck. And of when I most wanted to just be free. That time I would have to say was when I went skiing for the first time. Skiing to me came extremely naturally and I SO badly wanted to go flying down this bigger hill. The person teaching me wouldn't let me pass him though. I SO badly wanted to just go flying down the hill and was so annoyed in the guy. It was SO freeing when he finally let me pass him!

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    1. Good thinking, Leorah! You were able to find a comparable situation. And it didn't come from your parents. It's a great point. Sometimes you have to look where you least expect to find help.

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  7. This was such a big help!

    One of my characters was a young, recently widowed woman who just found out she's pregnant. She was completely alone and afraid and didn't know where to go.

    My life is FILLED with people. I have never known a day where somebody wasn't keeping me company. Any chance I get at quiet, I take it xD So it was hard for me to know this person's feelings.

    What I had to remember was being young and lost in the grocery store. I knew nobody's face and was frantically searching for my mom. I blindly twisted and turned and ran with nowhere to go. That feeling of panic that coursed through me, of unknown, of suffocating fear... it's not easily forgotten.

    And I've never lost someone or been pregnant! So it takes a lot of imagination and pulling from other experiences.

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    1. oh and I hate snakes and lizards and anything reptile. I don't know what it is but when I see one and it's slithering body and devil eyes ... my entire body tenses up, screams erupt from my body and before I know it, I'm flailing about like a mad woman looking for escape.

      Whenever I have to write a scene where somebody is running from a bad guy or there's a suspenseful game of cat and mouse... I imagine myself... and the snake -_- I imagine what it'd be like to be running from a snake hot on my tail.

      ICK ICK ICK! Just thinking about it now makes me afraid.

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    2. Great thinking, Random! I bet those emotions worked really well for your character.

      Thankfully, I've never had experiences with snakes. I like in the northwest, so, lucked out there. I think I'd react just like you. And if I ever have to write a snake scene, I'm using my spider memory. :-)

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  8. Take a bow, Jill. That was amazing.

    And I totally laughed out loud at: What is it about spiders, anyway? They're little. We're big. I just don't get why they freak me out so much.

    ME TOO. I will do just about anything to avoid the unfinished part of our basement because there MIGHT be spiders there.

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    1. LOL
      There are way too many spiders in my house, especially around the all when it starts getting cold out. They all come in!

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  9. Amazing post, Jill! I will totally have to think about this, and use it the next time that I'm writing!

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  10. That was an amazing post!
    I'll definitely keep that in mind for scenes I'm not sure about - usually for me, that mean romantic ones. Haven't got loads of experience to draw from xD

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    1. :-)
      You don't need loads of experience. Just a little is enough. Less is more with romance, anyway, unless you're wanting to write for Harlequin. LOL

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  11. My WIP is set in a place I've never been with situations I've never experienced. A lot of things that haven't (and probably won't ever) happen to me, happen to my characters. I do my best to draw from what I know and relate to experiences I've had. Thanks for the helpful post Jill! Your stories made me laugh.

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    1. You're welcome, Katie! :-)

      For the places, try and Google YouTube videos of the place or travel journals from students or missionaries who've been on trips. Sometimes you can find posts with lots of details you can use. And you can always post on the GTW group, looking for someone whose been to that place. You never know, you might get lucky.

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  12. Thank goodness I've never experienced half the things I put my characters through!! But it gets tricky sometimes. I wonder if I'm describing the scene acurately. Will a person who had a near-drowning-experience look at my book and laugh? But I LOVED your post. And it doesn't matter if spiders are small. They're vicious. One trapped me in the shower once. HUGE hunstman. Shampoo bottle and dead spider later, I still can't look at that bathroom the same way. (Shampoo bottles are obviously life savers.)

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    1. Yes, I torture my poor characters too. Poor things.
      They should sell shampoo bottles as weapons... :-)
      Once when I was in the shower at a campground, the spider came in on the ceiling over my head. I was horrified that it was going to jump on me. Evil beasty, anyway.

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  13. AMAZING post Jill!!
    I think especially with fantasy you don't experience a lot of things that your characters do!
    I liked how you did the murder part. I wasn't sure if you were going to cover that because I'm pretty sure none of us have committed murder (unless...) =P
    Thanks soooo much!!!

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    1. Thanks, Fire! :-)
      Most murders are committed in the heat of passion, which means... anger. And we've all experienced anger. It's the calm, psychopaths that would be more difficult to write, I'd think. For them, my guess is that you'd have to not see humans as, well, human. Have not value for humanity at all. Think of yourself as human but everyone else as ants. *shrugs*

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  14. I love this! I have a background in theatre and it helps me tons. I keep acting technique books handy and I people-watch with a vengeance. I haven't read Brandilyn's book, but I'll keep an eye out now. Thanks, Jill!

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    1. You're welcome, Shannon. People watching is fun. You should write us a guest post on people watching, share some of your techniques and what you look for. *grin*

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  15. This is so amazingly helpful! Thank you! So helpful for my WIP I'm starting. My MC's parents are on the brink of getting a divorce, and my parents have the perfect relationship. But my best friends have had fights before... just need to magnify that emotion )

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    1. That's a good idea, Anon. Think about how you would feel if they ceased being friends and how that would affect you. How could you still be friends with both of them? Would they each try and get you on their side? Things like that. Great thinking. :-)

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  16. Thank you for the great post, Mrs. Jill! I know what it's like drawing from other experiences to make up for not exactly knowing what a situation feels like. My MC is a very angry and insecure person, so often when I'm writing her I think of how I feel when one of my friends has been hurt by someone.

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    1. Good idea! I bet that's very helpful, Ophelia! :-)

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  17. Love this post! Spiders actually don't bother me, but I did have a mice experience a couple years ago where I may or may not have crossed the room via jumping on all of the furniture so I wouldn't risk it killing me. After reading this, I now have a good use for the variety of emotions I experienced that day ;)

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    1. LOL Good idea, Anna.
      There was a mouse in my daughter's room the other day, and we had a simpilar experience. I can see you now. :-)

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  18. Thanks so much! I just finished writing a whole dystopian world (which I had no idea about) with a main character with trust problems (and I've nver known anyone who had that), so I've gotten a lot of experience with this in the past month. Of course, I could always improve. This post was super funny, and it made my day. Of course, it was also very informational. Thanks again.

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    1. You're welcome, Katia! I'm glad it was helpful. :-)

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  19. Haha! This is awesome, Jill! I loved it. I'd never thought of manipulating similar emotions to become--in writing--stronger ones. That is so cool!

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    1. It works quite well, Rachel. Brandilyn is a clever gal. She also writes great suspense novels. :-)

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  20. Wow. I was just thinking yesterday, "No wonder it's so hard to write well. I don't know a lick about getting stabbed in a swordfight, tragically losing your parents, or having major insecurity issues ... why am I even trying this?" Then I see your post title! Thank you so much. Really helpful. :)

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  21. You're welcome, Allison! I'm glad it was helpful.
    And I'm also glad you were never stabbed or lost your parents. ;-)

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  22. Amazing post! You're right. It's all about relating it to something you *have* felt. I find it useful for life outside of the written world, too. I like being able to relate to people. I've noticed that I'll walk away from a conversation with a pretty good idea of what a person is feeling without having ever been in the same situation. I probably freak people out because I'll start saying how I understand. Sometimes I even give them examples of something I've been through that probably doesn't even compare. Wonderful advice for writing! Thank you!

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  23. Jill, loved it! Looking back, I suppose I could have used this technique to capture the emotion when my character tumbled out the open bomb bay of my Gunner's Run novel. But hey, I had always wanted to leap from an airplane in flight anyway, so this was a great excuse. I did. Twice! Better than Six Flags. :)

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  24. From Amo Libros:
    This was a great post!!
    And I totally agree about the spider...although I never thought of using those emotions that way before. They're goo for fear, too, and surprise. I remember going down to the basement one day to get my laundry, and there on the floor is a BIG brown SPIDER! It was maybe only and inch in diameter, but it was the biggest one I've ever seen, and the longer I looked at it the bigger it seemed to get, until it almost filled my vision. I believe I uttered something like "EEAUGH!" and the next thing I know, I'm halfway up the basement steps, and everyone is asking what's wrong.
    Ooh, another moment I could use: the time our house almost burned down! Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Ok, a lot of an exaggeration. But it was still terrifying. What happened was this: we happened to be babysitting a couple of kids for a friend of my Mom's and they had left Sesame street on. Being a bit OCD about such things, I went to turn it off, even though Mom had told me not to bother. And then, in front of me, between me and the tv, lay the humidifier, turned on its side, an orange flame poking greedily out of it. My eyes seemed to zoom in on it. I have always been terrified of our house burning down and there, there was flame. Heart hammering in my chest, I leaped over the humidifier and yanked the plug. Shaking all over I darted to the back door and slammed it, heart hammering and breath coming in gasps.
    "Are you alright?" Mom asked. I cracked the door. "Thehumidifier'sonfire!"
    "What?"
    "Thehumidifier'sonfireIunpluggedit."
    Yeah. Exciting day. It sounds better in my journal (boy, I'm glad I wrote that down)

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  25. There's not much I'm afraid of ... spiders have a wonderful place in nature and even in our homes, especially the wolf spiders; they will devour any other insect in our home & they will not bite humans.
    Tarantulas are a very interesting creature and fascinating to watch. I had neighbors who had a nest of tarantulas under their front porch who never bothered them. These eight-legged wonders procreated till there were almost ten of them.
    Snakes are beautiful creatures and despite their bad reputation, they are warm to the touch. Even rattlers won't strike unless they are startled or feel threatened.

    The only thing I have learned to fear is human violence, as I have been the victim of gang rape, stranger rape, and familial rape. Also, domestic abuse.
    Why human beings think it is alright to destroy one another through personal violence is something I have never understood.
    And, it seems to be escalating.
    Children as victims can either learn to be strong and survive or enter the world of violence as abusers or worse.
    Sometimes it's difficult to write about what I know when THIS is what I know. This is my world.

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