Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The 4 C's of Writing Emotion

I’ve recently been thinking about favorites. What makes a book one of my favorites? Why do I like a particular movie better than all others and what makes a song something I need to hear over and over. As I’ve created lists of favorite movies, books and songs lately I’ve realized that in each case, the book, the movie or song speaks to me and touches my emotions. It tells me a story and makes me feel something. Maybe it reminds me of a pain I’ve felt or makes me laugh at something stupid I’ve done. But ultimately, if I’m going to reread, re-watch or re-listen, I want to feel good at the end. This doesn’t mean everything needs to end perfectly in a utopian world with kittens and unicorns, but after being reminded of the sting of life I want to feel hope that things can be better and that even the most challenging struggles can be overcome. Some people prefer tragedies but I prefer hope.

In lending we determine an individual’s credit worthiness based on the 3 C’s: Capacity (ability to repay), Collateral (security), and Character (the likelihood that someone will repay- i.e. credit history). Today I’d like to refer the 4 C’s of writing with emotion. Perhaps we can evaluate the emotional worthiness of our work to make sure we pack the emotional punch we intend in connecting with our readers.

How do we convey the emotion that we want our reader to experience? Answer: the 4 C’s.

Content- This is the stimulus, or substance of what is meant to elicit the emotion. Maybe it’s the tragic death of family, or a child, or the pain of unrequited love. Maybe it’s the fear caused by physical danger or emotional distress. In Defensive Tactics, Jimmy faces each of these emotional situations as he overcomes the tragic loss of loved ones. He finds himself in physical danger when he is unwittingly drawn into the heat of an FBI investigation. The themes must be broad enough to appeal to a large audience but feel personal enough to help the reader empathize and relate.

Conflict- This is the turmoil and tension created by the emotional situation. This drives the story forward and grips the reader by the throat to let them know, “You’d better keep reading. You can’t stop now.” This prompts us to read on so we can find out what happens to Jimmy.

Context- The emotion must advance the story, not act as a distraction. The emotional situation has to fit into the action of the story and not serve only itself. It needs to mean something in the larger scheme of things. How does the fear of physical harm move the reader? How does the understanding of Jimmy’s tragic past make us care about his future? How do we allow a glimmer of hope to penetrate the gloom of Jimmy’s life?

Character- If we don’t care about the character, we don’t care about the story. If I don’t feel a connection or have an emotional investment in the individual, I won’t care about what happens to him. I won’t tear up when he sits alone in a chapel, staring comatose at an infant casket and I won’t cheer for him when he starts caring for others more than himself. I must be able to invest in the character enough that I will invest my emotion in his story.

These 4 C’s must weave together, binding the reader to the story. Hopefully at the end, the reader will think about the characters and maybe even apply a lesson or two to their own lives. Hopefully, we will leave the reader feeling an emotional connection to the story so that the next time someone asks them if they’ve read any good books lately, they’ll remember ours.

What books have you invested in emotionally?

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