Wednesday, December 19, 2007


A few weeks ago, I wrote a scene where the hero stands in a living room populated by pictures of a teenager he was forced to shoot a year before. He is talking to the boy's mother and the guilt and remorse he feels is overwhelming. He's responsible for the grief he sees in her eyes, for the droop of her shoulders. It's a painful scene.

Just before that came a scene where a house goes up in flames. The hero has to rescue his wife and infant son and isn't sure he can.

Then there's a scene where the hero comes across a room filled with pornographic pictures taken of youngsters and he is sickened by what he sees.

What these three scenes have in common is emotional impact. I remember being very bothered by the first one because it also occurred to me that the villain behind all this misery, who has touched all these life's, caused all this disruption and death and mayhem, is still out there causing trouble. I was really struck by the ripple effect of evil and it permeated my consciousness as I wrote.

As for the second scene, the fire, I wrote that scene very fast. When I went back to reread it, my typing was terrible. Half words and spaces and all sorts of mistakes I generally don't make. It was like that because I was so caught up in the terror and the need for haste that it moved into my hands and I raced, just like he raced, fingers flying, words falling to the side like dead soldiers.

The third scene is a nightmare for the hero. It's been rewritten so many times because it's pivotal. The first time through, it was very graphic. Since then it's been modified to get me where I need to go, but once again, it was my emotional response that shaped the scene and it stands out in my mind very clearly.

What I don't know, what I wonder about, is if that intensity I felt writing these scenes actually exists on paper so that the reader feels it, too. How can I know, because in rereading it a dozen or more times, the horror is diffused and domesticated to a certain extent, so that now I don't know if the scenes carry a punch or if the punch is in my memory bank from when I originally created the scene.

I've had writers tell me how touched they were when writing something and yet when I read what they wrote, I wasn't as touched. I thought maybe I was a bad reader. Now I wonder if the fantasy is so much more real for the writer. Afterall, only a portion of what a writer "sees" makes it into a scene, the rest of the picture is left in limbo.

Do you have tricks for handling this? Words of wisdom? Have you ever experienced what I'm talking about?


Paty Jager said...

The book you're working on sounds action packed! And emotionally packed!

I agree every person sees a scene through their eyes. What packs emotional power for one doesn't for another. But if the writer puts all the emotion they feel through that character onto the page it will strike some level of emotion in everyone.

Do you have tricks for handling this? Words of wisdom? Have you ever experienced what I'm talking about?

My only trick is to get as deep into character as I can. The book is through that character and that is who feels and conveys the emotions to the reader.

And yes, I can write a scene that has me sitting on the edge of my seat and the fingers flying- and go back through to tighten and make it more "readable". And the more I work on it/read it the scene has less impact- but the readers will get it with that first initial read.

My spirit book isn't published yet- but the people who have read it all had similar reactions to the black moment. I did what I set out to do. That is a good feeling.

Happy Writing all!

Karen Duvall said...

Hey, Alice, I've experienced exactly what you're talking about. And I think the best solution is to get feedback from a reader, and/or a critique buddy if you have one. Send the scene to a beta reader and see if they have the same emotional reaction as you did when you wrote it.

Regarding reading back over something to polish and fine tune, then have it lose its impact, I raise my hand on that one. What I thought was great when i wrote it might now sound trivial after rereading and retouching for the twentieth time. I think we need to trust our instincts the first time through, though it's true that we might not get all the details down in our emotional rush to get the scene written. That's where the beta reader comes in.

But here's another thing to consider. When your character is so well developed, and the reader has literally been living that character's life over several pages, it won't take much for those emotional scenes to come alive. I've read short, succinct scenes of few words that were so powerful, I find myself reaching for tissues or a glass of wine (depending on the emotion) after just a couple of paragraphs. And that's because the character was so real to me, which I attribute to the author's skill at characterization. I've read very few authors who can do that, but it can be done. And we should all aspire to reach that level.

On the flip side, I've read scenes where the author has second, third and fourth guessed herself by overdoing character emotions to the point of melodrama. Ick, ick, ick! Trying too hard. It's a major peeve of mine as a reader.

Know your characters, make them real, and the rest will fall into place, IMO.

Danita Cahill said...

I've had the same thing happen, Alice. Similar in that a reporter is interviewing the mother of a young woman who was murdered. As she looks around at the photographs of the young woman from childhood through adulthood on the walls of the grieving mother's living room, she is overwhelmed with the emotion the mother must be feeling.

I cried when I wrote the scene. I asked my aunt -- one of my first readers -- how the scene made her feel. "Motherly," she said. I'd hoped for more, but all in all, I guess motherly was what I was striving for.

In that same book, the bad guy is so heinious, I had a hard time writing the scenes in his POV. It hurt to be inside his sick and twisted mind. I need to go back and rewrite them. I didn't allow myself to get deep enough into his emotions and reasoning.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

No tricks or wisdom, Alice. But I think your scenes sound riveting.

Alice Sharpe said...

Well, thanks, everyone for the observations and suggestions. I don't have a reader so will have to depend on the editor to tell me if things work. And my own instincts.

Danita, that word "motherly" might have included a whole lot more emotion than you thought it did. Maybe for her she was saying that reading a scene where a child is dead evokes the fears of living through such a disaster.

And yeah, Paty, writing a scene that touches people does feel good. As for overwriting, Karen, I think I've been guilty of that. Ack!


Genene said...

Wow, Alice! Can't wait for this book to come out so I can read it!

Similar to Paty's comment, I think each reader will feel these scenes based on their own experiences. If a reader has been in a similar situation, what they felt in that situation will color how they read the scenes in your book.

Do you have time to let the scenes set a day or two, then go back and read them when they aren't so fresh in your mind? If they still give you the emotional punch you're feeling now, you've probably captured the scenes as you wanted to. (Just my opinion. :)

Alice Sharpe said...

excellent idea, Genene. Yes, I have the time. I don't know that it will help as I can see from the comments I haven't expressed myself very well. It's not a matter of rewriting the life out of it, I hope I know how not to do that. It's more a matter of wondering if what I felt when I wrote it ever made it onto the page. You know, my daughter -- who is also on occasion my reader, doesn't have time to read the whole book before the deadline, but she would have time just to read a scene or two so I suppose I could take Karen's idea of sending just the scene and asking her if it got to her and if it didn't, why not.

Thanks, everyone!