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Lesson 3 of 11

Techniques to Bring Emotional Depth to Scenes

Joshua Mohr

Write a Story

Joshua Mohr

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Lesson Info

3. Techniques to Bring Emotional Depth to Scenes

Lesson Info

Techniques to Bring Emotional Depth to Scenes

I wanna make sure that we're also sort of building on one lesson to the next, so first we were talking about conflicts, and image, now we're gonna make sure that we're making sure that there's that requisite emotional depth, that things are really getting inside. And your exercise is the perfect segue to talk about this. It's almost, Drew, like we planted her. We didn't. We didn't. Right? We're following the rules, but it's totally simpatico, with where we're going next, so, thank you. So, techniques to bring emotional depth to our characters. I mentioned this earlier, now I sort of wanna unpack it a little bit further, this idea that our characters' consciousnesses, should be rendered as though they're settings. I want the brains, I want the hearts, to be inhabitable. Or maybe we can even make up a word, the inhabitization, for the reader, a total stranger, to be embedded in a character's mind, so she gets a chance to see and experience these things from the inside out, rather tha...

n the outside in. Cause everything that we've been talking about so far, and what we will continue to talk about, is trying to construct a real deal player. A flesh and blood protagonist. Somebody who is actually alive. I'm not a schizophrenic, I realize these people aren't actually alive, but I think it's important for us to say, this is where I stop as the writer, and I'm empowering this protagonist, to be in charge of the action, moving forward. She's doing this. Debbie bought the wine. Debbie went to the park. Debbie didn't move when the sprinklers went on. It's not me, it's not me as the writer, kind of artificially creating these things, what we're trying to do is have some embodied person. So an embodied thought process. So an embodied family of origin stuff, you know, the things from her life, who have taught her to interact with the world the way she's interacting with the current iteration, that the reader's seeing, in real time, on the page. So if you think about it, when you're rendering a kitchen, which is a very ubiquitous thing, I would imagine that each of you has a kitchen in your house. Drew, do you have a kitchen? I do have a kitchen. Good, I'm glad to hear that. I would have been really concerned if Drew was like, what's a kitchen, what do you mean? We all have seen refrigerators, we've seen stoves, we've seen cupboards, but what we've never seen, are those prosaic items from the point of view of your main character. We wanna start taking advantage of that unique way, that she has, of seeing things. There's this collision point, necessary kind of collision point between what's going on inside them, and what's going on outside them. And we talked in the first segment about trying to find a way to kind of create some map, from the emotional to the external. The way that we can sort of build on that now, is to start to think about how point of view, what I'm gonna call, POV, plays a role in all of these things moving forward. The point of view of a story, is when, let's say, a character, Debbie that we were talking about earlier, when she walks into the kitchen, and she's describing the refrigerator, when she's describing the stove, when she's describing the linoleum on the floor, what's going on in her life will sort of influence how she's conveying how these things look to us. So let's say someone who just won the lottery, walks into that same kitchen, she or he, might see something incredibly different than the person who walks into the kitchen right after them, who has just lost their job. We're using the particulars, of their status quo, to charge how they're going to render the details of their immediate vicinity. So, the props, or the background details in a scene, are actually opportunities for us to further characterization. Oftentimes we just think about characterization just being inside that body of the protagonist, and obviously that's true too. But we don't wanna limit ourselves to just thought process, to just actions and reactions, it's also how they're describing the world around them. Thinking about where they're coming from, where they're going, how you can use those adjacent moments, even if they're not rendered for your reader to experience, you have to know these things as the author. And if you know these things, if you're privy to the fact that Linda just won the lottery, so when she walks into the kitchen, she just sees opportunity, shelves full of food, anything she could possibly want, and the person who's just lost their job, when she walks into that same kitchen, she sees three cans of soup. There's three lunches. What the hell am I gonna do on the fourth day? Using those really juicy details from their life to inform how they're telling us about the world around them, right, so we're using the setting, the kitchen, the refrigerator, the cupboards, but we're also using the setting of the mind, making this this inhabitable place, for our reader to live, for the duration of the essay. To live for the duration of the novel. So she truly understands how the world around, that particular protagonist, looks. Does that make sense what I'm saying here? So every detail that you're deciding to include, is an opportunity to further characterization. Just a little bit, right. There are no Hail Marys of characterization. It's gonna be a dollop on page two, and a dollop on page four, and a dollop on page eight, and by the time the reader gets to page 20, or 100, or whatever, she can kind of stand back and see all of these things accruing more value, the deeper she gets into the experience. So this what I, this is always a dangerous question to ask somebody. What's it like in your mind? You ever say that on a blind date? I wouldn't ask that question. But it is important for us with our characters. To figure out their very unique way of seeing things, and understanding sort of the emotional context that's framing how they're interacting with the things that are going on around them. John Gardner, who's a very famous teacher and writer in the mid-twentieth century, used to do an exercise with his students, and I would like us to do the same exercise here, to really kind of drive this point home, before we move on, in this idea being that like, how can you take full advantage of the emotional and the literal context of a character's life, and the best way to do that is to have two people dealing with wildly different circumstances in their worlds, describe the exact same thing. And the idea being, if they're describing the exact same thing, what they're seeing is going to be charged, based on the specificity of their private life, of their emotional life, their occupational life, whatever's causing that duress. Whatever's causing that anguish, whether it's a tepid anguish or it's a full-boiled anguish is gonna depend on the narrative that you're putting together. We wanna make sure that we're taking advantage of those things for our reader to inhabit. On this creative exercise, what we're going to do, is you're going to describe the same setting twice. First, you're going to describe a river, from the point of view of somebody who's just committed a murder. We'll do that for about four minutes, and I'll kind of call time there, and then we'll work on the second end of the exercise, and the second one is gonna be, describe the same river for somebody who's just fallen in love. And how can you use the particulars from the murderer's story, and how can you use the particulars from the nascent lover's story, to imbue, to fuse that moment with the emotional details of their life. Does that make sense, what we're gonna do next? Yeah? So the first thing we're gonna do, we'll take about four minutes describing river from the point of view of somebody who has just committed a murder. That's all you're gonna do then, and then I'll call time then, and then you're gonna describe, for the next four minutes, the same river from the point of view of somebody who's just fallen in love, and we'll see what they're seeing when we contrast these things at the end of the exercise. Any other questions? All right, let's dive in, and we will start off with our murderer. Happy writing. And then, like we did before, if you would all take the time to email those prompts in. Did the second one feel a little easier? Kind of got the, got in the habit of getting used to scribbling in room full of strangers? Did that feel a little easier to do than the first one? For you it did, Drew? Yeah, I think 100% it did. I wanted to keep writing when we switched, I wanted to keep writing on the first one. You wanted to be the murderer! Yeah, the inner critic was right there, and I was like, let me just edit this real quick. But I was able to switch. But yeah, this exercise was a lot easier, it was a lot easier, and I think, for me, having a little bit of a context, like he river, helped a lot. I think oftentimes one of the traps that we fall in as creative writers is to say, a river is a river is a river. And we just render setting in this really static way. And we don't take advantage of the fact, that every single detail from your character's vicinity, is an opportunity to further characterization. If you take the time to take that river and make it from a killer's point of view, or make it from a young lover's point of view, it changes, it changes drastically. Anyone else? How was this one for you? Can I hear from the people who haven't spoken yet? Here you go. I thought the first one was actually easier. The first exercise or the new romance? No, writing about the murderer. Okay, why did that one feel easier? I don't know, a lot of the sentences I wrote in the first one were a lot more terse, a lot more analytical, and not so emotionally driven. Right. I feel like, at least for me, at a time when it's hard to write about something that's more emotionally driven as opposed to something just sort of empirical, analytical. Well, I would suspect too, that certain, we're in the trust right here. I've never killed anybody, but I would imagine that if there was some sort of post-traumatic stress or some sort of disassociation going on, that you could just be like, rapid fire, the facts, rapid fire, the facts, and then the lover might more, be more waxing poetic, seeing a lot of William Blake as she looks around. And, the other thing about the killer too, maybe, the killer sees the tree branches leering like the fingers of the accusers, so you kind of always try to tune our images, or our metaphors, or our similes, remember, metaphors and similes are just comparisons. We're comparing the tree branch to something else, and for the killer, maybe the tree branch is a maybe a finger pointing him out in a suspect lineup. The young lover would never see that. The young lover would look at those same set of branches and she would see something entirely different. A lot like on the, on the second one, the person who's in love, I felt like I was writing it, I was writing it more from the perspective of like, I was concerned about what I wanted the reader to feel, as opposed to the story I wanted to tell. Right. So. No, that's an interesting point. I'm glad that you brought that up. Because what we're trying to do is, how do I wanna say this. We certainly wanna think about the clues that we're hoping our reader's going to pick up on, but we don't wanna consider the reader too soon, or that can get in the way. That can be another voice in our head. So over here, is the mean editor, and over here is this implied reader, who we actually don't know anything about. Who may or may not even see what we're trying to put on the page. Anyways. You wanna grab the mic, please? I found this one harder at the beginning because for two reasons, one is I didn't have the jumping band aids, but secondly when the music came on, it's like, I kind of lost my muscle, if you will, that muscle of thought that comes through, and so it made me realize that, sort of like the gymnast in the Olympics, they have to perform even with all the noises around them, as opposed to the golfers who want everybody to be quiet, but if you're really gonna be in it, then you gotta flex that muscle of concentration and focus. I guess if you were trying to embody a killer, we should have had Metallica playing, or something like that. May be, but for or me it was like, from going to quiet, and then somehow when the music hit, it's like everything went away, and it's like, oh gosh, I've gotta hold that focus harder now, much harder than I was before, so that was, that was a revelation to me about how to do that. Do you typically write with music on at home? No. Yeah, it's interesting, cause I've got novelist buddies who swear that they can only work when it's really quiet, and then like, I can't work unless there's music, really loud. So it's so interesting that we're all trying to do the same exact thing, which is tell a compelling story. And we go about it so many wildly different ways. I think that's really cool. And I think it's also in growing, in taking the challenge on, like I didn't used to have music on when I'm doing art, but now, I am putting music on, and so that's sort of shifting the dynamic a bit. But it does change my focus levels, because of the inputs that come in, so I have to kind of maybe consider what's going to be most distracting, even, if I really wanna build that muscle. Because I think of it as a muscle that you train. Yeah, muscle memory, is a certain, I mean, I'll take work ethic over talent any day of the week. You can have the best idea in the world for a novel or an essay, but unless you put your butt in the chair, it's never gonna get done. Did you wanna say something? So I was worried about the reader, and I kept trying to say, because what I was worried about was, I'm not writing what he said to write. And I kept worrying about that, and I'm like, okay, stop doing that, stop doing that, just keep writing, just keep writing, and I kept trying to push out that I wasn't, maybe I wasn't fulfilling the exercise. But it's an exercise and it goes where it goes, so. Absolutely, and I think that, I'm a huge advocate of those deviations, so anytime, like use the prompts as jumping off points, but when you feel it's going to be more fruitful for your story to dislocate from the prompts, I'm all in favor of these sorts of dislocations, sure. Who wants to be our brave volunteer? You don't have to read both of them, I would just like to either hear, you've got the mic already? I would love too. The, were you gonna read the murder for us, or are you gonna read the lover for us. I'll read the murderer. You guys are a dark bunch, aren't you. She walked to the edge of the river, stepping on each of the flat rocks along the way. At the edge, she bent down and placed her hand in the cool water and watched it run over her hands. She felt the soft waves running over the tops of her hands and saw the red begin to thin. She didn't have to move her hands as she watched the red thinning, in fact, she stopped watching her hand altogether as she watched the red stretch out beyond her hands and become one with the river, washing it away with her, thinning and thinning until it became part of the bigger flow of water. It was like a strong ribbon that had been carried away by the wind until only a hint of the ribbon could be seen in the air. The cool water calmed the heat in her hands, the heat in her mind, and washed away the screams. It washed away the dirt, and it washed away the grime. It ran fast over her fingers, and the rush of water flowing in between her fingers and under her fingernails. She now began to move her fingers and turn them over to see the red ribbon run from the palms of her hands, too. I'm just astonished with the level of talent we have in this room! I mean, the fact the two of you were able to make these beautiful drafts, in what, that was four minutes? Maybe four and a half minutes? I love the image of the blood, running off into the river. I had never even thought about that as an option. I think that's really, really cool. And I think it speaks to the idea about tuning environment to POV, because the other 50 people that will see that river that day won't have blood on their hands. Right? So how do you use the nuances? So in a sense, what I'm getting at is the prop, in this case, is the bloody hand. So a prop doesn't necessarily have to be something that's independent of your character, right. It could just be, there's blood on my hands. And I should probably get rid of that, unless I wanna get caught right now. So kudos. I really dug that.

Class Description

Have you always wanted to write a story but do not know where to start? Are you a writer that would like to improve your writing skills? Join Josh Mohr, who has received accolades from O Magazine and had his books listed as an "Editor's Choice" by the New York Times. In this class, you'll learn tools, advice, and tips on how to get started with creative writing. Josh will walk you through 9 creative writing prompts, that you can share or keep for yourself, and be on your way to becoming an active writer. 

Class highlights include:

  • Specific techniques to help you develop your writing skills
  • Learn conflict, character, and scene building
  • Create a strategy that will help any writer build characters and plot
  • How to grow a scene to reach its full potential

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with RSVP

9 Creative Writing Exercises

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Plaracterization Essay

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Tania Gomez

I really enjoyed this class. It was inspiring and packed with very wise advise for upcoming writers. Josh was great in teaching us "how to fish", instead of just feeding it to us. Thank you for this amazing class, Josh!


this was a great class and I learned what I had never heard before from others teaching about writing. His approach fits my way of thinking and I felt totally comfortable in class and with sharing what I had written. Josh was great, encouraging, informative and a great wordsmith!


I am a filmmaker and as such I have read and gone through so many methodologies in my own chosen art form as well as in a lot of others. There is a huge common ground when it comes to communicating or telling stories. Writing in its broad sense, that is an essay, a novel, or even a screenplay is at its core essence, the same. Sure, you have techniques and tools specific to all of those different "containers", but generating ideas, connecting with audiences, telling truths and playing with one's own imagination is a common ground to every written art form. I must admit I haven't read any of Josh's books, but I can definitely tell that he is an incredible communicator and a well experienced writer, because Josh puts difficult and unclear concepts into simple definitions, and gives techniques in order to get your own cooking progressing. I am really happy I took this online class. I will definitely use a lot of Josh's teachings in my future screenplay writings. Thanks to Josh for sharing, thanks to Creative Live for making it available. Erik (Spain)