Three weeks ago, I experienced one of the most exhilarating days of my entire life. As mentioned in the postscript of the last article, I got married and not just to anyone. I married a man I've known since high school, who I've been friends with for ten years, and who has wanted to tie the knot for seven. There was laughter, there was weeping, and ecstasy like neither of us had ever imagined. I mention this not to initiate a blog post, but rather as an example for the topic at hand: emotion memory.
During the months of preparation before the big day, I was asked to prioritize what was most important to me amongst the planning elements. The flowers? The dress? For me, the answer was hands down an artistic photographer and a videographer who knew how to tell a story. Why splurge on these? Because I wanted the best chronicle I could possibly get of that day. Seeing how fast the merry event went by, I am ever thankful that I made this choice. Through the photographs and wedding film, I now have a means to reference the minute details and revisit a whole sea of emotion-rich moments from that day.
I can think of any other number of occasions where I've found a means to record my emotional state, sometimes without realizing I did so. While sifting through notebooks and hard drives, I've found rants from times when I was so livid with rage, I had to express myself in writing to clear my head. I've found love songs and detailed accounts of the first week Dave and I started dating. I've found poetry where I'd let my soul bleed dry during a period of deep woe. Upon seeing the aforementioned wedding pictures, I suddenly had the epiphany that an emotional scrapbook of my highest highs and lowest lows existed in tangible form.
Emotion memory is a tool actors frequently use to produce realistic performances: crying on command, for example, isn't necessarily about focusing on the final scene from Old Yeller or rubbing menthol in your eyes. Many actors accomplish this by keeping a record, on page and in their heads, of incidents in their life where emotion was peaked. By focusing on the details recalled from these events (ex. a red handkerchief in their hand or a particular flower by the window when a loved one passed away), they can reproduce that emotion, transferring it to the character's situation. Uta Hagen has some excellent information in her books on this difficult technique.
Over the years, I've found that a great many actors' tools are quite useful for writers. Emotion memory is one of these golden eggs. By having a chronicle of emotional milestones in your life, you may very well have a window into a character's psyche. It is easy to say, "I'll never forget that day," but as time goes by, the details get fudged, and knowing the specific nuances of a joyful or traumatic moment can be crucial in relating to your characters and producing a believable scene. No, you may not have been trapped on a sinking ocean liner when a dear family member was lost, but you still may know the hopelessness and despair of losing a loved one. You may have never been tortured for information by Jack Bauer, but you may have had a root canal where the anesthetic failed. You may have never done heroin, but you might have been put on medical grade painkillers that time you got food poisoning for the third week in a row (true story!).
This rings back to a tried and true philosophy on story: a complex and believable character will get you far more mileage than an extraordinary setting or intricate plot. Why did Batman Begins and Dark Knight do so much better than Batman and Robin? Because in the new films, we are given reason to relate to Bruce Wayne as a person who struggles with far deeper issues than avoiding arsenic-tainted kisses from Uma Thurman. We allow ourselves to experience empathy for that character and have a reason to care about him beyond the epic struggle of good verses evil.
Make the word processor, the journal, or the tape recorder your confidant when you go through an emotional milestone. Pay attention to the details as that's the part you'll need the most if you want to relate the event to something your characters go through. You can also apply this technique to remember sensations like pain or being drunk, which is referred to as "sense memory" (Obvious Warning: Do not risk your health to accomplish this. Drinking yourself into a coma, purposefully catching the Swine Flu, or smoking oregano are still idiotic choices, whether done for the sake of art or otherwise. Keep it together, man!).
As with most techniques, emotion and sense memory can be used in any number of different ways. Experiment with it as a means to improve your (and your audience's) connection with your characters. Step into the protagonist's shoes for a bit instead of just following them around with a pen and paper. Consider what would happen if their tragic dilemma were your own, what emotions they must be going through, then compare that with your own emotion memory record. Your villain may react differently than you did, but you still can use your own experience as a map to compare and contrast with their paradigm.
Just like actors, writers must deal with a fair amount of vulnerability to make a technique like this work... It is worth it, however. Have you ever used emotion memory to aid you in writing? How did you go about it? Leave answers in the comment section.
In the next article we'll be returning to the Writer's Toolkit series with a look at software for authors, scriptwriters, and other storytellers.