In my newly revised workshop on writing emotion, which I taught for the first time to a small class in late January and early February I began by looking at the differences between describing an emotion and describing an emotional experience.
There really is quite a bit of difference. If I asked you to describe an emotion you might tell me that anger is a negative emotion which makes one feel heated or steamed. Anger often stems from not getting one’s way or from being maligned or being treated unfairly. People who feel anger often feel it as a tide of heat that rises in their chest. They often get red faced, their movements get stiff and jerky. Sometimes they kick things or hit them with their fists as a way to release the tension that stems from the emotion.
This is all fine…but it’s not the same as describing an emotional experience.
An emotional experience is the EXPERIENCE that a specific character feels in a specific situation when he or she is presented with specific stimuli.
An emotional experience might use the things that I mentioned in the description of anger as building blocks, but emotional experience is much more SPECIFIC than simply the description of an emotion. When we talk about emotional experiences we are talking about how a specific person (or fictional person) reacts physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually when they are presented with stimuli that cause an emotional reaction.
Yes, I did say that emotional experience incorporates physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components. This is because emotion, by its nature is abstract. When we feel an emotion what we typically feel is a set of physical sensations which we understand and label mentally. When the feelings are deep enough…like devotion…love…awe we sometimes experience them spiritually or in a spiritual sense as well.
If one feels their heart swell, they have heart palpitations or they feel as if their heart is skipping beats, if they feel slightly confused or feel as if they are suffused in a soft glow that is tinged with an ache or pressure that radiates outward from the heart we might need to call 911. They could be having a heart attack.
Or they could be falling in love. 🙂
How do we know when the sensations associated with falling in love are emotions rather than more serious physical symptoms which could be life threatening? How do we know whether to ring the preacher or 911?
We know because we instinctively recognize emotional sensations. They feel different because they are comprised of mental and spiritual components that are not present with the purely physical sensations that we might experience with a heart attack.
Given this, and the abstract nature of emotions in general, emotions lend themselves well to more abstract forms of description…which is what we spent four weeks talking about in my January/February workshop on intensifying emotion in the romance novel. (This workshop has been scheduled for July 2016 through OIRW be sure to check back for registration details.) In my March workshop Developing A Vocabulary for Writing Emotion we dug even deeper into the abstract associations that form the basis of our emotional experiences. We learned to decipher the aspects of emotional experience that makes the experience that my character has when falling in love different than the emotional experience that your character has when falling in love.
While it may be true that both your character and my character experience the sensation of their heart swelling, and both feel as if their hearts will burst with joy and both have a light-headed addle brained sensation the abstract associations that each of these characters might make in terms of how they experience (and describe) this highly emotional experience might be quite different. If your character is a surfer his abstract associations might have more to do with waves, the ocean, the high of riding a perfect wave, the warmth of the sun, and so on.
If my heroine is a gardener she might associate more earthy things with the sensation of falling in love. Falling in love might make my heroine feel connected to the richness and bounty of the earth. While it might make your surfer dude feel high and free like catching the perfect wave.
There are many factors which make describing emotional experiences difficult. Most of the problem stems from the fact that as writers we try to describe emotions themselves and we end up with every character’s heart pounding with excitement, galloping in fear, and clenching with sadness. If we broaden our description and we expand beyond describing an emotion and seek instead to describe an emotional experience that opens the whole world of abstract associations that we all make all the time when experiencing our emotions. It also makes the potential descriptions for our character’s emotional experiences as rich and varied as they are.
What this means is that the way my character experiences joy or anger or despair might be different than the way that your character experiences joy, anger, or despair. There will be some commonalities. I would be surprised to hear that your character thinks of the color gun-metal black when he thinks of joy…or that he thinks of yellow when he thinks of despair…but it IS possible the color yellow would act as a stimulus that reminds him of a time of despair…and it IS possible that he would think of yellow when he thinks of despair. To pull this off, you’d have to lay the groundwork with his backstory…. My point here isn’t that you should try this. It is to point out that emotional experience is unique to a given person or a given character. What a character associates psychologically, mentally, spiritually with a given emotion or emotional experience is as unique as the character is.
When describing a character’s emotional experience think about the abstract associations THAT CHARACTER would make. Use abstractions that relate to color, shape, tenor, sound, resonance, smell, taste, and so on. The potential combinations when you describe emotional experiences this way are nearly limitless.