Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the fourteenth chapter, “Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful
Revision Is the Process of Turning Fake Emotion Into Real Emotion
Every Pixar movie I’ve ever seen has made me cry like a molly-soaked debutante. I was lucky enough to visit Pixar HQ in Emeryville, where I bought a limited-edition T-shirt of Bing Bong from Inside Out. But I’ve hardly ever worn that shirt, because it still makes me shed enough tears to fill a jumbo popcorn bucket.
But the main thing I kept hearing at Pixar was how much every single moment of their films gets poked and prodded and questioned and reworked, to make sure it holds up. Because even the most apparently simple moment of heartbreak or squee requires a ton of second-guessing and careful thought.
The longer I’ve been making up random stories, the more I feel like I can never really get the emotions right on the first—or even second—pass. My first drafts are usually just a bunch of events, in the rough order that I think they happen in. I have to go back and keep digging deeper, and paying closer attention, to get the feels right. It’s just way too easy for me to fool myself into thinking that I’ve written a vivid emotional moment, when in fact I’ve written a weaksauce early-‘90s-video-game cut scene.
And the revision process, for me, is all about turning the fake emotion of the first draft into something real. Something that other people can (hopefully) get sucked into. This is one reason I share my work with a small army of beta readers and sensitivity readers and the bison in Golden Gate Park before I inflict it on my editors: to catch any fakery early. (Those bison are a super insightful audience, I read to them as often as I can.)
Why is it so hard to get real emotion on the page? There’s this layer of distance between you and the thing you’re writing that can only be bridged by a lot of concentration and self-awareness and daydreaming and zoning out and trying to get into character. (Because like I said, writing is acting.) You always have the ideal version of any story in your head, and it’s vivid and operatic and huge and colorful. And then you try to write it down, and it’s…a jumble of things happening and people talking, and where did that lush musical score go, anyway?
Gut-checking your big emotional moments can be an essential part of getting lost in your own story. Which is important, if you’re writing stories as a way of holding yourself together while you’re stuck in the eye of a landfill tornado.
As with everything else to do with writing, there could be any number of reasons why the emotions aren’t showing up the way you want them to. But there are a few major ways to catch undercooked moments: 1) Spending more time on the events leading up to them. 2) Concentrating on the little details. 3) Understanding what really pushes your characters’ buttons.
It’s all about the lead-up
I sometimes outline stories and novels before I start writing—but I will always make a very detailed outline after I’ve already written a complete draft. And sometimes again, after the second draft.
I do this for a bunch of reasons. Like, I want to make sure all of the big plot points hold water. (One fun trick: try outlining the whole thing backwards, from the end to the beginning, and stick the word “because” in between each big event. “This happens, because this happens, because…”) I’ll also outline from the point of view of the antagonist, or a supporting character, to see if these events make sense from their point of view.
But the main reason for outlining after I write is to figure out what the big emotional “beats” are. And then to make sure that the rest of the story actually supports them. I can look at those beats holistically and see them in the context of the rest of the story.
Even when I’ve outlined meticulously before I started writing, I might not know for sure what the most crucial moments are on the first go-round. I don’t always know the exact order things need to happen in, because little things always shift around. All too often, that little scene that I thought was just filler turns out to be the last time that two characters get a chance to talk to each other before something huge and terrible (or awesome) happens. Or even more often, I realize there’s a scene missing, and two people need to talk before they’re thrown into the deep end.
Meanwhile, I can’t always get the emotions down pat until I know how the characters are gonna end up—because part of the purpose of these heartfelt moments is to justify and set up the decisions they’re going to make. If I know that one person stabs (or kisses) another, then I need to give them some juicy interactions before that happens.
Another way of looking at it: these emotional beats are the heart of the story, and everything else is the connective tissue that makes them work. If your story is a piece of music, the most heartfelt or intense moments are the melodic hook, and all the other moments are the bassline, the drums, the keyboard and horn-fills. And possibly the strings, if you’re going old-school. All the parts of the story help to build a mood—and that mood, in turn, helps make the smooching or processing or fighting possible.
It’s really about tracking the relationships between these characters, so you can find the turning points and the defining moments between them.
Big emotions come from tiny things
The bigger the emotion you’re trying to evoke, the more attention you need to pay to the smallest details. This is true in two different ways: each moment needs to be grounded in real sensory details, and there need to be small clues and tiny barely-noticeable moments leading up to a huge emotional climax.
The texture of reality is made out of small, often random, details. It’s weird what tiny things you’ll notice when your emotions are working overtime: you might be in the middle of a relationship-ending fight with your partner, but your eye might land on a tiny candy wrapper on the sidewalk, being scooted forward by the wind. Or you might be intensely aware of the smell of sweat and craft beer from a nearby nightclub. Or you might find yourself remembering a broken shoelace from a pair of shoes you owned a dozen years ago.
Incidentally, smells are awesome. Nothing anchors you to a particular moment in time like a really powerful scent. There are smells that can instantly transport me back in time, or put me in a particular mindset, without any other sensory input.
And people are really prone to projecting huge emotions onto random tiny objects. Maybe it’s because you can’t wrap your mind around the vastness of what you’re feeling, but one way or another, little touchstones and cultural references gain emotional significance over time. These items might be connected to a particular person, like the song you used to listen to together, or they could just evoke a particular sentiment that then leads to someone else.
There’s one Earth, Wind & Fire song that I can still never listen to without thinking of someone I broke up with many years ago. And my home is littered with tiny objects that take me back to singing in a church choir as a kid, or living in Asia, or working for indie queer publications as an editorial grunt.
People also tend to deflect their emotions in other ways, too. Someone might be really pissed that their bae ditched them at a nightclub to go snort coke in a graveyard, but they might only get openly angry about the way their bae slurps their soup. Or a person might not be able to express the scope of their gratitude or love for another person, so they might just lavish way too much praise on that person’s shoes. You can offset a lot of the awkwardness of capturing emotion in fiction by using the awkwardness of expressing emotion in real life.
There’s also the common trick of showing someone’s emotions by describing the thing they’re looking at through their eyes. A character can stare at the exact same wall, and the bricks might look dirty and crumbling, or bright red and homey, depending on the emotions they bring to it.
You can also use tiny, barely noticeable moments to keep emotions simmering before they finally reach a full boil. They don’t even have to feel like a slow ratcheting up of tension. As I’ve said before, I like putting two characters together and just deepening the content, and the subtext, of their interactions, until I (and hopefully any eventual readers) want to see what’s going to happen with them. A random scene of two people debating grapefruits versus tangerines can deepen my investment in their dynamic, if their personalities are on display.
Don’t be afraid to push your characters’ buttons
When I’m revising, I won’t just outline over and over—I’ll also do a “feels” pass, in which I go through scene by scene, and really think about the emotion that I’m trying to convey. How do my characters feel at this point in the story? What’s actually going through their heads, and how is the emotion hitting them?
The most potent reactions are both psychological and physiological. Which is another way of saying that a really strong emotion hits you in both your head and your guts.
I dearly love characters who overthink things, and I’m always here for a ranting inner monologue. As a neurotic overthinker and secret introvert, I naturally identify with people who are in their own head a lot. And I love wry ironic asides, too. So when someone is feeling something, I don’t just want to get a sense of inchoate emotion—I bond with characters who are thinking through what they’re feeling in the moment, or immediately afterwards.
Like if a first-person narrator is like, “I thought falling in love would be like drinking ten milkshakes, but it’s actually more like drinking a gallon of expired cough syrup. I’m light-headed and nauseous and my insides are all pink.”
There’s an unspoken taboo against characters just coming out and saying what they’re feeling—because it’s often too flat, or too matter-of-fact, to say, “I was really angry.” That sounds like a robot describing human emotions. But when a character has had a strong internal monologue, or a lot of self-awareness, then hearing their inner voice saying, “this sucks,” or “this isn’t fair,” or “I didn’t think I could ever be this happy,” packs a lot of power. We’re privy to what they’re telling themself about this incredible feeling they’re having.
As for the physiological…I already mentioned feeling nauseous and light-headed. Strong emotions live in your body as much as your mind. When I’ve been really pissed, I’ve actually felt overheated and like my head was full of noise. When I get ashamed, my face actually feels hot.
When I was a kid, I found a book at a yard sale called Ann Landers Talks to Teenagers About Sex. And it contained an amazing letter in which a kid named Randy writes to Ann Landers about his insane crush on a girl named Dottie. When he looked at Dottie, he got weak in the knees and light-headed. He lost all appetite and sweated constantly. The punchline: “It wasn’t love at all. It was the flu.” I always think about Randy’s faux-mance when I write about people feeling romantic passions.
So when I go back and try to add more intensity to the emotions in a scene, during revisions, I’ll think about the psychological and physiological stuff. I’ll also try to see past my own hang-ups. I love my characters and want them to have a smooth ride, so I’ll invariably make them nicer to each other, and calmer in the face of extreme shit, than they actually would be. And I’ll frequently fail to think about what the characters know, what they believe, and what they’re hoping and fearing at this point in the story.
[Minor spoilers for The City in the Middle the Night follow…]
In The City in the Middle of the Night, Bianca thinks that Sophie is dead, until Sophie suddenly shows up to warn her of a betrayal. In the first few versions of that scene, I had Bianca understand the situation instantaneously. She knew right away that Sophie had faked her death and hidden the truth from Bianca. But when I thought more about it, I realized that Bianca, based on the information she had, would assume that Sophie had been imprisoned this whole time.
When I thought this through more clearly from Bianca’s perspective, her reaction was suddenly a lot more natural—and jumping to the wrong conclusion made the truth hit her harder.
Like I said last week, my characters are usually more selfish than the judgy part of my brain thinks they should be.
I was on a writing panel a few years ago with Curtis Chen, author of the Kangaroo series, and he offered a great tip: if you really want to get better at writing strong emotions, read a ton of romance novels. Not only are romance novels some of the best reads out there, they’re a masterclass in feels.
And don’t be afraid to show people being sappy and shmoopy and even cutesy. Otherwise, your writing is just plain unrealistic—because in real life, when people are under unbelievable pressure, they get gushy and demonstrative af. People who are in deep shit up to their armpits will just pour their hearts out to each other, and they usually don’t stop to think about whether some critic on the other side of the third wall is going to complain about too much sweetness.
Likewise, joy is an essential part of your emotional palette. People who feel rage and misery but not joy tend to be kind of a slog to deal with, and the worst emotions hit harder if we’ve seen characters being actually happy and delighted at other times. Especially if something good actually happens, or things are looking up, or we’re discovering something new and wonderful. Don’t forget: a roller-coaster has to go up as well as down, or it’s just a road with a sharp gradient.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.