The Active Ingredient Emotion

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Suppose a committee went to Mother Teresa and said, "Mother, you've done so much for others. You've been so generous, so giving, so loving, so holy, and so self-sacrificing. No one can ever repay you. That's impossible, but there's an opening in Donald Trump's penthouse, and we've arranged for you to go and live there for the rest of your life. You'll have servants waiting on you hand and foot. You'll never have to lift a finger for another living soul as long as you live. It's high time you got some earthly reward for all your good deeds." Now, what do you think Mother Teresa would have said? "Praise God. It's about time"? No? What would she have said? Whatever it would've been, she wouldn't have gone for the idea.

Now suppose they went to Donald Trump and said, "Don, we've got a wonderful opportunity for you—a chance to do the most satisfying, most fulfilling, most gratifying thing anyone can do in this life. That is, devote yourself completely and totally and unselfishly to helping those less fortunate than you. There's an opening at Mother Teresa's place, and we've arranged for you to get the job." What would Donald have said? "That's it! That's what's been missing. Why didn't I think of it?" No, Donald wouldn't have gone for it either.

OK, they're not going to switch. Why not? And what if they did? What would it have been like? Mother Teresa lounging around in silk pajamas in a penthouse. Donald holding a cup of broth to the lips of a leper in India. What would have been their experience? Satisfying, fulfilling? Would they have enjoyed it? No, they wouldn't. They couldn't. Why not? Because they would've been miserable—they wouldn't have felt right. The way they felt, who they were, would have prevented them from enjoying it.

The reason they wouldn't have switched isn't reason or logic. It's passion—emotion. Emotion is the trickiest part of life and the trickiest part of fiction. Emotion is the payoff, the ultimate connection, where identification occurs, where the reader becomes the character and feels what the character feels. Emotion is our subject. First, we'll look at the nature of emotion, then how we can capture emotion on the page so it moves the character and the reader as one. If the emotion's not there, the character's not there. If the character's not there, the reader's not there—and neither is the author in any satisfying way. It's not just about giving the reader an experience. It's about having it yourself, as you create. Character, reader, author— they're all having the experience, the emotion. Without emotion, nobody's having anything.

The first thing to realize is that the world is emotionally determined. Passion, not reason, makes things happen. We love, help, hate, and destroy each other not because of logic, but because of passion. How many times have you done something because it felt wrong? Even if you did something that didn't feel right, it was because it was the lesser of two evils. You'd feel worse, you couldn't live with yourself, if you did anything else. Our actions are determined by how things balance out emotionally.

A very successful pop psychology book came out some years ago. Its premise was: Your thoughts control your feelings and you control your thoughts; therefore, if you think the right thoughts, you'll have the right feelings. Sound good? An easy solution to emotional problems? Well, if it were true and you came home and found your house burned to the ground and you had no fire insurance, all you'd have to do is think the right thoughts, and it would be fun. Right? Wrong.

If anything, your emotions control your thoughts. They descend upon you without warning and overpower you. You wish to God you could control, reduce, or relieve them. For example, you have a problem to be faced the next day—to confront your boss about a promotion he promised you, then gave to someone else. You've thought it through. You're prepared. It's not going to be easy, but you know what has to be done. You go to bed early to get plenty of sleep, so you'll be fresh and focused. What happens? It won't leave you alone. You obsess over it. You know it does absolutely no good to keep going over and over and over it in your mind. You will gain nothing. You will lose sleep and be less able to handle things. The logical, sensible, sane thing to do is to forget it, go to sleep, be ready in the morning. But your worry will not let you. Your emotion has a mind of its own. It's controlling you.

Now, this is not an altogether comforting idea. The words logical and reasonable have a much more trustworthy, dependable, comforting connotation than the words emotional and irrational. "It was a highly emotional discussion" implies that it was impulsive and excessive rather than levelheaded and sensible. "It was a highly logical discussion" has no such implication. "He's so irrational" suggests that he's not in his right mind and can't be trusted. "He's so reasonable" is the opposite. Emotion is often considered unpredictable. Logic is not.

We like to believe that the world runs on something more dependable and solid and concrete than insubstantial emotion. We like to believe that the institutions that protect us are objective and rational and evenhanded—the U.S. Supreme Court, for example. When a case goes before the Supreme Court, every justice hears the same facts, the exact same presentation of the case, and reads the exact same constitution. They have the identical experience. The only difference is that they're seated at different seats during the proceedings.

We like to think that we can depend on the highest justices in the land to render an enlightened ruling and that wisdom, not passion, prevails. If that were true, then how do we explain a five-to-four split in their opinion? Well, we say, the law is a matter of interpretation. All right. And what determines how we interpret something? Interpretation depends on life experience (childhood, education, personal taste, philosophy, religion, prejudice), which shapes how we feel about everything. At the bottom of that Supreme Court ruling are the emotional leanings of each justice. Emotion rules.

Struggling with your feelings is a major part of any serious problem you have to face—the kind of problems characters must face in fiction, always. You may be able to talk yourself out of lesser feelings to some degree, but big emotions (serious pain), the kind stories are made of (the loss of a job, a lover, your life savings, an arm), have a life, a power, of their own. You don't control them. They control you. Emotions are the most powerful force in and around us, for good and for evil, but they're important for reasons other than power.

Betty says to Louise: "My husband is impossible. He cleans the house, cooks the meals, does laundry, goes shopping, takes care of the yard. He won't let me lift a finger. He drives me nuts." And what's Louise thinking? Let me have him, please. What does this tell us? They each have different feelings about the same thing, as do we all. And why is that important? Because emotion defines us. More than anything else, what we feel and what we have feelings about—who we love, how we love, who we hate, how we hate, and all the things in between—define who we are. In the example, we have a woman who can't stand a helpful husband and one who would love to have one. That doesn't define who they are, by far (we need more of their emotions for that), but it's a beginning. The philosopher Rene Descartes, to prove he existed, said, "I think, therefore I am." He would have been just as well (or better) served to have said, "I feel, therefore I am."

There's an old movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I'm thinking of the original black-and-white version, not the remake) in which creatures from another planet come to Earth and begin taking us over. When they inhabit you, you stay the same person except that you have no feelings, no emotions. "Don't worry. Don't fight it," the ones who've been changed say to those who haven't. "It's better this way. You'll see." It's creepy and frightening. Emotions—we wouldn't be who we are without them. How do we know? Our emotions tell us.

All right, emotions are the most powerful and defining force in our lives, but how do we portray them on the page in a way that reaches the reader with the full effect that they have in the character? In order to do that, we need to look at what form emotions take in us. First, we need to realize that we're born with a full set of emotions, but with no words to express them. Learning to express your feelings (to yourself as well as others) is one of the jobs of becoming a person. But at the beginning emotions are visceral, visual, globalnonverbal images in the mind. They're nonverbal, but writing is verbal—100 percent.

So, we have a language barrier. How do we overcome it? In science, in order to study something, it must be measurable directly, or it must have measurable consequences. What we're dealing with, to a large degree, are the measurable consequences rather than emotion in its purest form, since no one (psychologists, biologists, neurologists) has pinned that down. But we must pin it down, enough for our (verbal) purposes at least. Powerful emotion is all over the place in literature. So it can be done. But how? Well, measurable consequences are where we have to look.

One of our best guides is reality. Even though a direct recording of reality won't make strong stories, it's our best guide, since our goal is to uncover, to reveal, the essence, the truth, of reality on the page. All fiction could be reality, but all reality can't be fiction. Fantasy and science fiction are exceptions, but even they must create their own world of believable reality.

OK, so what happens when you have an emotion? Had any lately? How did you know you were feeling one? What form did it take? How did it express itself inside you?

Let me give you a situation and see if you would experience an emotion. Here it is: You're going to your car, late at night, in a deserted parking lot. As you take out your keys, someone sticks a gun in your ribs and says, "Give me your money, or I'll blow your brains out." Would you have an emotion? How would you know you were having one? What form would it take? Now, we're talking about the emotional experience before you act (talk or move) outwardly.

The kinds of things you'd experience are a pounding heart, a knotted stomach, shaking hands, sweating, dizziness. These are all emotional responses. And they're all something else. Know what that something else is? They're all physical responses. Now, physical expressions of emotion are fine-up to a point. The problem is that all our hearts pound, all our stomachs knot, all our hands shake, we sweat, and we get dizzy pretty much in the same way. So, the physical expression will never individualize or define your character enough. If you try to portray your character's emotions by using physical expressions only, you will turn yourself inside out and never reach your character (or the reader) in the way you need to. You need something else to do that. Something else goes on that's much more expressive, more individual, and more personal. Know what it is? Think about it.

Your stomach doesn't knot, your heart doesn't pound, your hands don't shake in such a situation until something else happens first. Something happens between the time the robber says, "I'll blow your brains out," and your body reacts. I ended the previous paragraph by telling you to think about it. I'm going to ask you to think about it again. Your body doesn't react alone. Something else happens first. Oh, my God. He's got a gun. I'm going to die. You think. Not only do you think, but you think first. The mind leads the body. The only reason that your body is churning is the situation registered in your mind as dangerous and you had a thought about it—in fact, your mind takes off in the same way that your body does.

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