Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Quick take: Aim for Messy Emotions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 09•15

Storytelling must give readers an truck messemotional experience. To bring about emotions in your readers stir in thorny situations that bring up messy emotions. By messy I mean the ones your characters have difficulty managing, perhaps would prefer not to feel or even acknowledge. Messy can also means complex–the character is feeling a troublesome brew of emotions, possibly difficult to sort out.

This means you’ll be orchestrating scenes and scenarios that are difficult for your characters to survive on some level. Not every scene needs to be life or death because that would create an implausible melodrama.  Instead keep in mind that most scenes are based on change and humans are most off-kilter during change. Loss and leave taking are especially difficult–leaving home, leaving behind a lover or friend or homeland,  saying good-by to a dying person. Sometimes messy emotions happen amid disasters or chaos. At times they’re caused by moral ambiguity. In turn these scenes bring about tension….a crucial ingredient in storytelling. Since your story must appeal to a broad range of readers, a range of emotions should be brought to life.

Everyone has a different definition of difficult emotions but this brief  list will get you started: panic, fear, jealousy, anger, rage, guilt, disappointment, frustration.

Here’s the key technique to making them work in your stories: when the emotions occur in your character readers need to be able to identify the source. A wife who freaks out/overreacts when her husband lies to her is insecure because her former husband cheated on her. A child who feels bereft when left at boarding school has a cold and unfeeling parent.

The second trick to making it all work: No matter how ravaged or heartsick or worn your characters become in the course of the story, your readers still find them knowable and fascinating, and possibly want to meet them.

The third trick: Give your characters rich inner lives and strong interpersonal relationships, whether romantic, family relationships or friendships, or work partnerships. This means loyalty will be in the mix and loyalty can often become complicated.

The Homesman was adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s novel, The Homesman 2and stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank joined in a remarkable undertaking.  I’m mentioning it because it explores the ravages of heartbreak and mines deep and sometimes uncomfortable and stark truths about women’s lives. It’s a dark and darkly funny revisionist Western about a claim jumper (Jones) helping (out of desperation) a determined woman (Swank) transport three utterly broken women back East. The women have descended into psychosis after facing unbearable losses and will leave behind the barren prairie, bleak sod houses, and their mystified and frustrated husbands. It contains remarkable acting and a series of strange twists, and most of all, messy emotions. I recommend the novel also.



keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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  1. Thanks, Jessica. I hadn’t heard of The Homesman but am putting it on my TBR list.

    One aspect of writing about deep emotions that’s difficult for me is surviving the descent into them as I write. It’s painful to be dragged into re-experiencing them and I wonder who I’ll be when I emerge at ‘The End’. Then again, I guess authentic writing will always change us a little, won’t it? 🙂

    • jessicap says:

      I believe we need to risk when we write, don’t you? What is that saying? “No emotions in the writer, no emotions in the reader.”
      Best, Jessica

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