Have you ever walked into a room and the smell of something immediately triggers a memory? Driven down the street you used to live on and suddenly you can see the inside of your childhood home? Listened to a song that brings tears to your eyes?
All I have to do is smell a whiff of pumpkin pie, and I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, watching her baste the turkey as I listen to my mom and her sister babble on about someone they knew in college. My childhood home looks so much smaller than I remember, and whenever I hear “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” I’m right back on stage playing the violin for the first time at my elementary school’s Christmas program.
Holidays are full of emotions, both good and bad. Family members you haven’t seen for a while, or ones that you wish you didn’t have to deal with. Traditions kept, others broken. You may feel the stress of the season enveloping you like thick fog. Or maybe you find great joy in composing your annual holiday newsletter. Whatever emotions you’ve experienced the past year seem to be magnified ten-fold during the holiday season.
Recently I met with my KidLit authors to talk about writing for children. The topic was on creating an emotional arc for your characters, which is what charts the journey of change and growth. Sure it would be nice to have your characters be happy all the time, with only good outcomes for any obstacles in their way. But that’s not realistic. It also makes for a boring story.
Just like real life, our characters need to experience joy, accomplishment, confidence, love, and peace. But the world is also full of anger, disappointment, worry, sadness, and regret. We express these emotions through the things we say, how we say them, our body language, and the inner sensations that we feel, but can’t always control.
So how do we write about the emotions our characters are experiencing? I purchased a book called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. In this extremely informative resource, you’ll find a list of 130 emotions. Not only that, but the behaviors exhibited, the internal sensations felt, mental responses, and power verbs associated with each emotion. It’s an amazing wealth of information for any writer.
For example, take the word Gratitude. Physical behaviors your characters might demonstrate include tearing up, placing hand on chest, hugging and showing affection, laying a hand on someone’s shoulder, and a smile that lights up the face. Internal sensations might be a tingling warmth and a heart that feels full. A mental response could be a desire to repay another’s kindness or a feeling of connection and love. Power verbs include appreciate, cherish, promise, share, thank, and touch. A writer’s goal is to offer the reader something unexpected in every scene—an emotional reaction or dialogue that sheds new light on something.
To be an effective writer, you must share your own personal experiences, and that includes the emotions that go along with them. This has been a rough year. I’ve lost three people who were very close to me. That’s three empty chairs at the dining tables of their families this year. A variety of emotions surged through me as I experienced each loss: regret, anger, emptiness, and a tremendous amount of sadness. But on the flip side, I’m thankful. Grateful to have had each of them in my life, happy they are now at peace, and thankful for the many happy memories we shared together.
So this year, if the discussion over politics gets heated, the kids suddenly decide they don’t like anything being served, and the teenagers refuse to detach themselves from their phones, be thankful. Through all the trials and challenges that come from being a part of the family, no one wants another empty chair at the table. Some emotions are better left unshared.
Or you can do what my family always did at Grandma’s house—turn on the football game!