Digging Deep as a Writer

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Raytracer by Emperor X)

This is going to be a little bit of an awkward one to write, because I know my girlfriend is reading my posts, but I think it should be said.

Before this, I’ve been sitting in lab waiting for an experiment to wrap up, and two hours of dead time in a quiet lab is a great recipe for writing. So I was working on a chapter in which one of the main characters is… well, in order to avoid spoilers, let’s say one of the main characters is wounded severely.

In this passage, one of the other characters finds this wounded character and – well, here’s the part where I got kind of stuck. See, I was trying to write that sense of panic when a person stumbles upon someone they love who’s in immediate physical harm, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. I couldn’t really access that emotion.

So I did something no sane, healthy person would do. I dug back into my memories and found something terrible.

My girlfriend is diabetic, and she’s great at managing it. In the entire time we’ve been together, there have only been two or three instances where her blood sugar has gotten too low too quickly – for those of you not familiar with the disease, that can result in hypoglycemic seizures.

I feel like I’ve told this story so many time before, but I haven’t fully learned to cope. I’m going to try now.

There was a moment a year or two ago when she spent the night at my place and, when I woke up in the morning, she was seizing next to me in bed.

(Wow, that brought tears back. Give me a second, I’m trying.)

It was one of the most uniquely frightening things that’s ever happened to me. Seeing someone you love in a place where you know nothing you can do can help them…. I can’t even begin to describe it.

All I remember from those first frenzied moments of waking was me saying, over and over, “Oh, shit. Lindsay? Oh, shit.”

Doesn’t exactly make for a great bit of dialogue, does it? But it’s real. And the panic is real.

So, back to my writing. I was trying to capture this feeling of mindless terror in one of my characters, and in order to do so, I closed my eyes and spent a few moments back a year or two ago. Then I wrote exactly what I saw, felt, and thought.

Here’s what came out :

Deira started to scream.

Sera whirled around, scanning the woods. She lay on the ground some several feet away, clawing at her chest, her eyes wide open and glaring at the night sky, sounds of inconceivable pain leaving her mouth.

DEIRA!

Heedless of all noise now, Sera tore through the trees to Deira’s side. He was barely aware of a series of sounds behind him as Lucent did some sort of Signature. He grabbed Di by both shoulders, then released her immediately, afraid of hurting her further but not knowing what else to do. Words were bubbling up from his throat, half-choked by sobs.

“Di… what is it? What’s wrong? Di? Di, what’s hurt?! Di!”

She would not speak, could not. She writhed on the ground, her fingers curled and contorted, her eyes rolling at sights he couldn’t see. The same high keening sound continued to come from her gaping mouth.

“Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.”

He held her, clutching her trembling form to his chest, tears streaming down his face. Words continued to come from him, but he could no longer hear his own voice. He could only perceive her, her screams, her anguish. It consumed him.

Um, so, yeah.

Look, I’m not telling anyone with a trigger to try to relive it for the sake of realism in their writing. What I will tell you is that digging deep, accessing that source of pain, can make your characters – and by extension, your readers – feel that same crushing emotion you felt. It can bring that sense of horror into their minds.

Can we take a minute to let go of this excess emotion? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a minute to listen to a happy song. I’ll put it on the playlist at the top when I’m done.

……..

Okay, I’m back. And I want to say that this doesn’t have to be a mechanism only for writing terrible scenes. For instance, let’s take the opposite – how did you feel when you lost your virginity? Got married? Got drunk for the first time? What was your mental state during the best memory you’ve ever had, and how can you translate that to a scene in which your character is feeling the same way?

To make your characters interesting, they have to be the right combination of real and unreal. They have to be real because people have to feel like they understand and know the characters, to identify with them; they have to be unreal so they’re engaging and different than the ‘characters’ we know in real life.

A large part of that realism is in the way characters respond to situations. No one on the face of the earth speaks like one of the leads in CSI unless they’re a total douchebag. On the other hand, the success of a character like Jim Halpert from the Office is due entirely to the (very realistic) way he reacts to situations.

So when you have a scene you need to nail that contains an overload of emotion, you need to make sure you nail it. And it’s really easy to go overboard with the cliches and the standard language and have that emotional scene feel flat and unrealistic. The way you can avoid that is to dig deep and find your own memories, frightening as they may be, to dredge that emotion up and into words.

Side benefit – it’s also very therapeutic to write some of that emotion out. You wouldn’t believe it, but I feel lighter right now. This was almost a confession in some way.

To reiterate, I am not telling you to relive your triggers if you can’t handle them. I’m only saying that, for an overemotional scene to be real and gripping, it has to come from something grounded in reality.

And one of the most wonderful things about nailing a scene – something I’ve only experienced once, as I am still a lowly unpublished novelist – is when someone comes up to you and says, “That’s exactly what it was like for me, and to hear someone else describe it made me feel like I’m not alone.”

Hopefully even just one person reading this will identify with what I’ve written, and then I’ll have done my job.

Whew, who knew I could get so emotional in lab, huh? Thank God for indie acoustic music to calm me down.

Yours, only slightly emotionally exhausted,

-R.R. Buck

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