“When you… want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly… The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” – Anton Chekov
Recently, I was reading a chapter of my memoir to my writing group. In one chapter, a character makes a startling confession, and my response in the book was something like, “I felt shattered.” Later, when I was reading the group’s comments on my story, I saw that Joyce, a highly perceptive critic, had written next to that passage, “I don’t feel the intensity here.” Others agreed.
I thought about this for a while. Why didn’t my writing convey to readers the intensity of my emotional response? After all, I had felt shattered – or had I? I frowned, trying to remember. Did “shattered” truly describe what I had felt? Or was that just a word that had popped conveniently into my head, an approximation of what I was experiencing at that moment in my story?
When I pondered this question, I realized I hadn’t really felt shattered as much as horrified.
Finding the right word, led to a realization. I had felt horrified not only because of what another person was confessing to me, but because I recognized the same feelings in myself. Now I could go back to my story and build up to that moment of horror by describing and developing events that led up to it. This gave my response emotional resonance, and allowed me to develop the scene within a richer context.
That’s one of the rewards of writing a memoir. You not only have to figure out the story. You have to figure out yourself. The more successfully you achieve this, the more real your story will be to your reader.
Following are three tips for writing intense, highly-charged scenes that will engross and engage your readers. Try them out, and see if they work for you!
1. Let the reader do the work
Below is a passage from A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean. In this scene, Norman has just told his father about the brutal murder of Norman’s younger brother, Paul.
“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again. He had to struggle to lift his feet, and when he did get them up, they came down slightly out of control. From time to time Paul’s right hand had to be reaffirmed; then my father would shuffle away again. He could not shuffle in a straight line from trying to lift his feet. Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.”
The author doesn’t say, “My father was in shock,” or even “my father was never the same.” He simply describes, in brief, chilling detail, his father’s inability to walk well again. From this, we realize that Norman’s father is a broken man. And because we come to this conclusion without being explicitly told, the scene has greater impact. Maclean lets the reader do the work.
A memoir is a dialogue between author and reader, and it’s the dialogue – what the reader brings to the work – that makes the story meaningful to her. In a sense, the reader is creating her own subtext.
2. Let the facts speak
I remember reading a scene of unimaginable horror in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove. Recently , I went back to see how he achieved such an unforgettable, haunting atmosphere of menace. I looked up the episode where Blue Duck, the very essence of evil, castrates another man. What I noticed when I read the passage was the matter-of-fact way McMurtry described the action. He simply and quietly stated what happened without trying to instill horror in the reader. The author was masterful in letting the facts speak for themselves.
3. Let the perspective shift
Last week, my friend Debbie, who teaches creative writing, asked me if I could suggest ways to make a character’s grief at a funeral more real to readers. One of her students had written a story in which a woman is sobbing at her mother’s funeral, but the readers didn’t feel her sadness.
Pondering this dilemma called to mind a funeral of a friend’s father I attended many years ago. My friend, who was very close to her dad, was grief-stricken, but as she walked out of the synagogue she turned and winked at me. This made a lasting impression, because it showed spunk and courage in the face of irremediable loss. In a story, a similar scene can be more moving than having a character break down in sobs, or become hysterical.
I hope these tips are helpful, and that they will lead you to develop more of your own. And remember, if someone doesn’t react or respond to an intensely emotional scene you’ve written, take heart! As with most things we write, this too will pass can be fixed.
Note: A version of this post was first published by womensmemoirs.com
Eliciting Emotion in Your Reader: 3 Tips on Writing Highly-Charged Scenes