Do you scare yourself?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I should add, do you upset, arouse, please or amuse yourself as you write a story?

A few years ago, I posted about Emotion and your WIP, but I just experienced another example of my writing unexpectedly affecting me.

I've been moved by my own writing only a few times, largely because I know what's coming next, of course. I've penned some revolting scenes in my crime novels, including finding corpses and autopsies. There are so many facts to get right, that I'm more focused on the minutiae of decomposition and post-mortem techniques than I am with the emotions of the participants—which are muted, as they're professionals who've seen it all before.

All the same, there was a scene in the first Cornish Detective story which always makes my heart beat faster. In it, a headstrong detective conceals information about a serial killer—a master of disguise—planning to arrest him alone to secure prestige and promotion. Visiting the killer's workplace at night, no one appears to be there. Thwarted he makes for the police station, stopping to examine a nearby skip/dumpster for evidence. He disturbs a homeless Asian woman, and going to offer her help with sheltered accommodation for the night, he realises at the last moment that it's the man they're hunting in disguise. The detective dies. Every time I read it, I'm gripped by the danger he's in.

Finding a way to write a sex scene for my Cornish Detective was tricky, as it had to fit into a crime story and the circumstances of the MC and his lover. I went for erotic rather than out-and-out-get-it-all-out-and-stick-it-in-there pornography! :rolleyes: Two of my three female beta readers loved it, while the other thought it too explicit—preferring the gory details of a body being dissected by the pathologist. Impossible for me to judge if it's sexy or not, but it's emotional and fitted in with how my protagonist finally permitted himself to become close to another person, after running scared from intimacy for nine years of widowhood.

I was more moved by the grief of a widower in a short story I wrote about assisted suicide at the Dignitas Clinic, shedding a few tears when he finds hidden messages from his dearly departed wife.

The ghost stories I've written slowly build an atmosphere of dread, so I'm more aware of technique than I am horrified. However, just this evening, my skin crawled as I thought of a way to conclude a Crime short story I'm writing in a ghostly way. :ghost:

I intend to give away a couple of tales to subscribers to my newsletter from the Cornish Detective website. I started a story in March, returning to it from time to time. The Sad House became gloomier and gloomier, possibly reflecting my own pessimism as I struggled to understand how to build a WordPress blog. :confused:

The abandoned cottage has been the scene of murder and suicide for 150 years, so much so, that it's the first place the police search when a vulnerable adult goes missing. I had vague intentions to add a supernatural element, but couldn't think how to do it. Out of the darkness of my subconscious, came the idea of my MC catching a glimpse of a woman watching him from an upstairs window of the deserted house. Rushing to find who it is, the detective sees a shadow disappearing into the wall followed by a plaintive wailing. I think it's the change of senses, from him examining a historic crime scene to hearing the distress of one of the victims that gives me goosebumps.

How have you been affected by your own writing?

I've creeped myself out a couple of times, with stories I'm writing for a Strange and Macabre collection. Once gone to bed with the light on, mid-ghost story.

And when I killed off my hero in my novel, I howled for two days. I edited it with tears running down my face. I was sneaking out to the supermarket with my sunglasses on, in February, terrified the neighbours would think there'd been a death in the family.
Basically I react to what my MC feels... if she's angry, I get worked up too, depressed, ditto... The feeling lingers on for a while after my butt has abandoned the chair, but not for long, as life catches up on me.

I'm going through an awful time with my present WIP because it's about demons and through my MC I'm bringing back to mind what has happened in real life... I end up thinking far, far too much about it- added to the heat, the nights of insomnia are frequent... I get edgy and seem quite steamed up all the time... awful.
I've been pondering this thread's subject for a couple of days, and it and that Frost quote have me...concerned. Perhaps the fact that I tend to be disappointed in finished projects and have so little engagement with them is a symptom/cause of my failure to get published.

That said, there are occasional moments when I feel I have done something right.

In "Unspoken", the MS I've been working with in one form or another for an entire generation and which every agent and editor on earth has snickered to themselves over sending a form rejection for, my team of monster hunters has spent weeks trying to find the victims of a rash of kidnappings. After half a novel's worth of false starts, dead ends, dangerous fights with no real gain for the protagonists and endless frustration, they have finaly tracked down a living relative of one of the missing folks they didn't know about yet. The relative, an elderly woman named Edith, is baffled by these people running around at night in a modern, developed city where the streets are abandoned at sundown because it's not safe outside.

The audience surrogate, Cynthia, who is auditioning (for lack of a better term) to join the team, asks:

“Did you call anyone when you realized Maria was missing?”

“Ha! I’d have to move up several tax brackets before the force would even answer the phone when I called,” Edith scoffed. “We don’t have any other family. No, I’m afraid…” Edith folded her hands on her lap and her voice hitched a little as she spoke. “I’m afraid, young miss, that when people like us go missing in this town, there’s no help coming for them.”

George folded his list, tucked it into his pocket and stood.

“Wrong,” he said.

I've always felt that's one of the stronger moments of the story, and I'm something approaching proud to have written it.
In a couple of my past manuscripts I will admit to having shed a few tears when writing a few of the scenes.
But you know it's good then. When you feel that lump in your throat that won't go away as you struggle to write the words in your head, you are in-tune with your MC's mind and emotions. Write it down, every painful word of it. It's all good stuff.
And if you feel that way again when you read it back sometime later, you know you are getting somewhere.
There's a technique you can borrow from method acting. I can't remember where I first came across the idea, but it's something I've been playing with for the last year or so. The idea is to go back through your memories and find a moment where you've experienced the same emotion as your character is currently feeling. The context in which you felt the emotion is largely irrelevant, only that you can recall, viscerally, the feeling of it. "But I've never murdered anyone!" I hear the crime writers among you say. No, but you've felt anger, betrayal, excitement, power – any emotion you care to name. The trick is to focus it through your character, amplified where necessary. Take time to recall the feeling as vividly as you can. Then write the scene on that emotional wave. Whatever else may be wrong with, it will at least be honest.

Our very own actor @Barbara knows more about these ideas than me. They're worth trying out if you haven't before, I reckon. (Though I'd warn it can be painful – only in therapy do you generally find a similar level of self reflection.)
Our very own actor @Barbara knows more about these ideas than me.
Aha, @Rich. (and anyone else who is interested) how much time do you have? I have been know to ramble about this subject. I'll keep it brief.
The idea is to go back through your memories and find a moment where you've experienced the same emotion as your character is currently feeling
Yep. Like you say, context is sort of irrelevant, but if you can find a similar situation then great, use it. It'll be a ton easier to recall the emotion if it's related to the same incident. Just let yourself drift back to the day; let yourself be in that day.

The Method which most people refer to is the Method by Stanislavsky. But there is a variant (and my favourite), devised by Sanford Meisner, called the Meisner Technique. The Meisner T is well worth studying. His basic idea is: Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances (the one stop solution for those of you who aren't serial killers but are writing about one ;)). This technique is about living in an imaginary moment; it's about being present in that moment and about letting oneself react if this happened to one (but not in an intellectual way - it is in a 'living it' or feeling it way.) If you are fully in that imaginary moment, it's a lot easier to feel how you would react in that scenario. You can do that with any scene you're writing. Imagine you're in it. Set yourself into this imaginary scenario, open up, then see what comes up.

The Meisner Technique is also about listening. Listening is obviously important to actors. By listening to other actors speak or act (not just to the actual words, but also to the subtext of what's truly going on), we get a stimulus that in turn triggers our next action. I think it applies to writing too, since in writing a lot is about cause and effect; action and reaction. One character does one thing, the next character reacts to it and acts accordingly. Writing is very similar to improvisation in acting. The only difference being that in acting you act it out as opposed to writing it down. But now I'm rambling.

The trick to any Method technique is to be completely open and receptive, to be free of judgement and to let yourself be in that imaginary circumstance, or that moment in the past. Again, I think that applies if you use the Method in writing. Let the moment / memory happen, don't push it, and don't question what comes up. Close your eyes, and drift back in time, then be in that moment. (It's similar in a sense to self-hypnosis or mediation.) You might surprise yourself at the emotions. It does take a bit of practice. You will probably feel a bit silly the first few times, so I recommend you try when alone.

So for writers, I'd like to tweak the Meisner Technique: Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, then go write it all down.

Oh, and, don't go all Method when the cat is present. I'm talking from experience. The furry stares ...
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Amateur dramatics has massively helped my writing. I like to immerse myself into a scene and really empathise with the characters, not only understanding how they feel, but trying to actually feel it. When you're really inside your characters head it makes everything feel more authentic.

I often act aloud my characters' dialogue as I write and really try to understand how they would say it and whether they would use those words.

It really helps to emotionally connect with your protag too. Although I am becoming a little concerned that I'm getting too emotionally attached to my protagonist's dead wife... o_O
And the three Vs - visual (see it happening), vicarious (feel the things around it, slightly separate but not distant), visceral (the body reactions).

I also use another set of three to 'get the right feel' for a character: their professional walk and talk -
the jargon they use which indicates the clique of the profession/lifestyle; the tradecraft they'd know about and how they'd use it in everyday life; and the syntax of the words they speak (from educational and community norms/extensions, and the body language - another form of communication).

And yes, I have scared myself to such an extent that I slept with a nightlight for a week or so after a particularly scary short story - based on a real event, but built up to much more than it appeared ...
I frequently laugh out loud when reading through something I've just written... I just hope that I'm a good critic (or does being a good critic imply an innate inability to write?)... very confusing.
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