If you feel it and express it honestly, others will feel it. If your emotions deep, you will move people deeply.
Honest emotions - Try this. Put a smile on you face that feels like a real smile. Do this even if you don't feel happy at the moment. Hold onto that smile, close your eyes, and count to twenty.
Done? Chances are you're feeling happy. On one level, this is real, but I tend to side with the Greeks who believed feeling happy when the realities don't warrant it is like feeling healthy when we have undiagnosed cancer. To find your emotional truths in a world where external forces -- false communities (Vonnegut's Granfalloons), pharmaceuticals, and propaganda (including advertisements) -- shape how we feel, we need to look more closely.
Begin with your own stories, those that prompt emotions. In Susan Shapiro's article,
"Make Me Worry You're Not Okay," she suggests you write three pages on your most humiliating secret. Not a bad start. (Remember, this is to uncover emotion for your story, so you don't have to share these pages.) You also might take a look at the suggestions I provided to get to know your character better. Instead of exploring the character, you might explore yourself. Not enough? Here's another article with 650 prompts. Or consider this advice on writing the personal essay.
Prompts to elicit and reveal emotion don't need to be limited to asking questions or writing essays. Family pictures and videos, letters from lovers, and visits to places that were pivotal in your life can do the job, too. It may be possible to use art (music, movies, poetry) to reach inside, too, but be careful. Some of the emotions might qualify as external forces, with all their limits.
Deeper emotions -- As you work to stir up emotions, not all your feelings will be equal. Beware of irritation, amusement, annoyance, contentment, and any emotions that would not motivate action that involves real risk. If it gets you out of your chair and the stakes are high, it's good for fiction that reveals who you (and your characters) are. That's the work that will set you apart as an artist while getting readers to identify with your stories and characters. There is one strong emotion to treat with caution -- anger. Anger tends to be real, but not true. It is often a mask for other strong emotions like shame, grief, or fear.
Once you have identified and felt an authentic, deep emotion, the trick is expressing it well within a story. It may seem easiest if you are conveying, with a slight disguise, the actual situation in your story. But expecting success by reporting "what really happened" in your story runs into a tangle of problems from the truth being strange (and not easily believed) to lacking context (like a dream, with the resonance in your head being strong, but not available to others).
Most often, my approach is similar to a method actor's. I work with the (carefully selected) story at hand, where character, story structure, and situation are set up deliberately. Then I figure out the emotional essence of the scene, refresh my emotions with a chosen life experience, and draft the scene quickly, making the emotional journey as I do. For other ideas on emotions and storytelling, look at my post, Five Keys to Bigger Emotions.
Emotions propel readers and audiences. Getting to emotion can even work when you're writing something that is not your story. But what you write when you combine emotional truths with the tales you were meant to tell can reach the highest levels of art and entertainment. Which stories are the ones you were born to tell? It depends on what you care about. That's the subject of the next post in this series, which I'll make available in two weeks. Next week, I'll be celebrating the 300th How To Write Fast post. I hope you'll join me.