Okay, you’re writing a scene for your main character. He’s returning to his hometown – he hasn’t been back since he ran away at age sixteen.
“Mason drove down Main Street. It looked the same as it had the day he left town. The druggist had painted the front door to his narrow shop, but the stone façade was untouched. Wilshart’s Grocery still stood on the corner, the front door shaded by its green canvas awning.
From the corner of his eye he saw the grocer standing in the wide doorway, surveying his corner of Main Street.
Mason remembered old man Wilshart accusing him of taking money from the till. It still made him mad. Mason didn’t intend to spend any more time than he had to before kicking the dust from this town off his boots once more.”
This first pass at the scene is dry, lacking depth and feeling. How do you show the reader what your character experiences as he drives down Main Street? How do you make your reader care about Mason, and wonder why he’s returning to this town?
Call on all the experiences in your own life that created the darkest emotion. The events in your life holding the most lasting impression of shame, regret, or hurt – and you use to those to give life to your characters.
Did you ever steal a piece of bubblegum from the drugstore? Yes, you were only a child and you didn’t really understand what you had done until your mother found that bubblegum wrapper in your pocket. Recall how she sat you down and explained how disappointed she was. And your father marched you down to the store, made you apologize, and arranged for you to work off the price of that piece of bubblegum by sweeping out the drugstore every afternoon for a whole week. Yeah, those feelings – that’s what you want to capture and share with your readers.
Close your eyes and call up that memory. Let it loose from whatever dark, scary place you stuffed it away. And when you are really in those emotions, rewrite your scene.
“Mason drove down Main Street. It looked the same as it had the day he left town. The druggist had painted the front door to his narrow shop a brighter red, but the fake stone façade was untouched. The bank building looked as solid and gloomy as ever, and the blinds on the windows of the small library were lowered against the noon heat. Wilshart’s Grocery still stood on the fourth corner, its double doors shaded by a green canvas awning.
From the corner of his eye he saw the grocer standing in his wide doorway. Wilshart looked old, his hair white and thinning on top. But he still surveyed his corner of Main Street like some self-proclaimed king.
With one glimpse of the man, memories assaulted Mason, slamming him back to the day Wilshart accused him of taking money from the till. Damn, how many years would it take to lose that sudden plummeting of his heart into his feet, that instant heat of outrage and embarrassment he’d suffered? The old man had waited until Mason was helping his mother’s best friend and the Sunday school teacher pull cases of canned vegetables from the shelf before confronting him.
Mason’s initial shock at the unexpected and punishing grip on the back of his neck was nothing compared to what came next, as the man loudly and viciously accused him, cursing at him in front of the customers. Mason’s face burned, his stomach heaved. After the first few words he could barely hear over the strange buzzing in his ears. He would never forget the look of shock and disappointment on their faces as the two women turned and left the store. His protests of innocence were ignored as townspeople he’d known all his life shook their heads and turned away, going back to their shopping.
Fifteen years later, and Mason was still lightheaded with anger as he relived the way the sanctimonious old jerk had physically thrown him through the doorway, kicking Mason as he lay stunned on the sidewalk. Still furious over having been accused of a crime the man had known his own son committed.
Mason didn’t intend to spend a minute more than he had to before kicking the dust from this town off his boots once more. Just long enough to set the record straight and restore his pride.”
And now, we see and feel what the character has experienced in the past. This glimpse of his back story shows his present mood and allows a peek at his reason for returning to town, and perhaps what he intends to do while there. We see Mason’s perspective of the old grocer. He’s not just looking out over the corner where he operates his business. In Mason’s view the old man lords it over the neighborhood and protects his son from the consequences of his actions by accusing an innocent teenager.
Nearly all of us have been unjustly accused of something. We easily relate to those physical and emotional details aroused by Mason’s memory of the experience. And we understand his need to receive justice for the humiliation that drove him to run from the place of his birth. We can imagine the hurt and shame of being accused in front of the two women who probably knew him since he was born. And we can feel his pain when they turn and walk away. Because Mason relives the humiliation as he remembers, we understand it is still an immediate, vivid part of his present life.
Mason is a richer, deeper character because of these emotional responses, provoking the reader’s investment in discovering how Mason will serve up justice on this town.
What scene have you recently read that lacked emotional impact? How did that scene disappoint you or prevent you from relating to the character? What scene have you recently written to which you can add emotional impact? Leave a comment and share what makes you feel empathy for a character or what makes you care less about a character.