Good Writing Lets the Characters Share in Your Misery

 “Best motivations for creating are the worst aspects of life: revenge, jealousy, loneliness, anger, pressure. Misery makes good inspiration.” — @JesseStern 

I’ve said before that the stories I’m telling now, I couldn’t have told 10 years ago when I first wrote a novel. I hadn’t been miserable enough. Fortunately, I’ve since been miserable in many ways and my stories are the richer for it.

Now, I’ve never had the mob after me, at least as far as I know. (Although my dad did make me park in the street for a week after I wrote one column for my hometown paper, just in case the person I’d skewered got somebody to plant a bomb under my car. I still think he was over-reacting.) But like everybody, I’ve been terrified, and I’ve felt helpless to do anything about a situation. When I’m writing certain scenes, I can use those feelings to bring the story to life.

Jesse once said that when he gets stuck for a scene, he grabs one from his own life, then adds a dead body. While I don’t necessarily advocate that unless you’re writing in the mystery/thriller/suspense arena, it’s another way of thinking about how we can better tell stories — reality, with a twist.

If we want to tell deep, rich stories, especially character-based stories, we need to tap into our own emotions, our own past, to truly understand what our characters are feeling, how they’re reacting. Sometimes, that means ripping off scabs from our past to relive those moments, those experiences. I’ve been doing a lot of that with All That Is Necessary, which spends much of the book back in the summer when Dan, Evan and Liz were 13. I always said you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to middle school, and yet I did. (Yes, I will pretty much do anything in order to tell a good story.) I even pulled one scene pretty directly from my own first day of school one year, though I changed the outcome because the character was coming from a different place than I was and reacted differently than I did. And no, I did not add a dead body. The book has a high enough body count as it is.

Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning has some great essays on harnessing the raw emotion we have stored within, ways to turn it into powerful writing. Some other tips I’ve picked up over the years, things to use as writing exercises or journal entries:

  • Think of a time when you felt scared, angry, hurt, lost, humiliated, frustrated, alone, pursued, depressed, jubilant, excited, hopeful, impatient, etc. What were you thinking? How did your body feel? What did you notice? What did you miss because you were caught up in  the emotion?
  • In this scene, what emotions is your character feeling? Think of a time you had the same emotion, even though the cause probably was different.
  • If you write with music, find a piece that captures the feeling you’re going for. How can you re-create that on paper?