The thing most writers are afraid of, and the one thing we must learn to master in our writing, is emotional truth. According to John Vorhaus, contributor to WriterUnboxed:
. . . we’re still afraid.
In conveying emotional truth on the page, writers must take a certain leap of faith. Sooner or later we have to recognize that writing about emotional things will necessarily expose us to the very feelings we’re trying to express – feelings we might not be entirely comfortable with (“Emotional Truth Revisited,” September 24, 2016).
I’ve been through the exercises presented by both Tosca Lee and Donald Maass–exercises intended to force us to dig deep into our psyches and re-live some of our most intense emotions. It can be harrowing. I remember sitting in Tosca’s class, sniffing and dripping tears on my paper as I wrote about some of my more painful moments. I felt both vulnerable and self-conscious, but I did it. By the time Maass presented the same exercise in his course, I’d learned my lesson about going too deep into my emotions and restricted myself to a certain extent.
But exposing our own emotions on the page like that, presenting through our characters things we have felt ourselves, is what brings depth to our writing. Can I do it yet? Well, yes, I can and I have–which presents the conundrum. My stories are supposed to be light-hearted, but it seems they always have a darker turn as I reveal the heartaches and agonies my characters hide inside.
According to Vorhaus, you can discover for yourself how far down the road you are to “going deep; and having gone deep, going deeper still”:
If you want to see where you are on this road, just ask yourself the question, “What dark secret about myself, my beliefs, my understanding, or my experience would I not want anyone to know?” If you find that you can write about this secret, then you’re already writing within the realm of emotional truth.
See that? “Dark secret,” he says.
When I was taking Maass’s Early Bird course at the ACFW conference this year, I had a character and story plot in mind, and as I answered his questions, intended to take us “deeper still,” my story turned from being a light-hearted comedy to being more dramatic. Again. Just like all my stories so far.
So this is what I have to learn: How to maintain the light-hearted tone throughout a novel while still going deep.
This isn’t easy. Believe me, I’ve tried. Every time I reach the point when the MC must reveal or face the reason for her behavior, my novel starts getting darker and darker until she’s healed.
In a way, this is necessary because a well-rounded character is one whose backstory includes pain and fear, happiness and tears, love and loss. And each experience we imagine in their backstories color their behavior, attitudes, actions, and reactions in our stories.
For instance, in The Final Ride, Patricia discovers that Talon is lying to her–lying by omission, but lying just the same. And since her first/late husband lied to her on a regular basis, she applied that experience to her experience with Talon and blew the entire situation out of proportion. I personally am an expert at this, so I knew just how to write it.
But it was a turning point, and the novel got darker then. And I don’t know how to stop that from happening.
True comedy finds more amusing ways to solve problems and heal characters. Fortunately for me, comedy-drama is a real genre because that’s apparently what I write.
Once you learn to reach into yourself and present the “drama” part, it comes more naturally, even–dare I say it?–easily. You finally understand how to make your readers cry without telling them of the ocean of tears your character cried. You know how to make them feel what your character is feeling without naming an emotion.
Maintaining the light-hearted tone of my novel while presenting depth of character, depth of emotion, is far more challenging to me. I have so much to learn.
If you know of a novel that does precisely what I’m talking about, tell me what it is. I’d love to see how other authors do it.