January 11, 2018

Tapping into Strong Emotions with Memories

String tied on a finger with text: Strengthen Memories for Deeper Emotion

The art of storytelling is often about creating connections between our readers and our stories. Readers want to care about our characters, root for them to succeed, and worry about the stakes hanging over their head. In other words, connections come down to emotions.

But sometimes as writers, we’re not sure how to find the deep emotions we want in our stories. Luckily, we all have access to a lifetime’s worth of memories—and many of those memories have stuck around throughout the years because the emotions accompanying the experience were so strong.

Ask virtually anyone above a certain age in the U.S., and they could tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of 9/11. The same applies to personal events, like a family tragedy or celebrating the birth of a child.

Obviously, those out-of-the-ordinary events will make the memories stand out no matter what. But what of a somewhat-normal situation?

Imagine that you met a bunch of people at a gathering last night. Who would you remember?

You’re probably more likely to remember those who evoked an emotion:

  • the person who made you laugh
  • the person who made you feel uncomfortable
  • the authority figure who made you nervous
  • the jerk who insulted you, etc.

Even in non-extraordinary circumstances, our memories tie in with our emotions, and our emotions drive our memories (good or bad). So memories are the perfect repository for digging deep into emotions.

Need an Emotion? Call Up a Memory

We’ve probably all heard the advice to mine our experiences when writing about emotion. For example, if we need to write a scene with a character grieving, we might think about a time when we grieved.

Emotions drive memories, so our memories help us tap into emotions. Click To TweetHowever, it’s easy for that thinking to remain shallow or perfunctory: “Hmm, I remember feeling sad, and now that I’m feeling sad again, I can write this scene with authentic emotion.”

No surprise that if we do that, we might be leaving a lot of potential emotional depth off our page. I’ve written plenty of posts here about using The Emotion Thesaurus, showing emotionsbalancing emotions, or layering intense emotions in our stories, but today I want to talk about how we can go deeper into our memories for that emotional inspiration.

How can we remember something with enough vividness to tap into the emotions for our writing?

6 Strategies for Making a Memory More Vivid

The deeper or more detailed we can remember an event, the more layers we can tap into for including in our writing. With those layers, we can add more:

  • emotion,
  • authenticity,
  • character vulnerability, etc.

So how can we remember more than the superficial details of our memory?

1: Match the Mood

The most obvious technique we touched on above. It’s easier to remember things when we’re in a similar mood to how we felt at the time. This is one reason why depression is so insidious—when we’re depressed, we’re more likely to remember other times we’ve been sad, upset, or depressed.

Here's 6 ways to add emotion in our writing with our memories... Click To TweetHowever, scientists have been exploring how our mood right before a strong event influences our memory as well. For example, we might remember a traumatic event differently if we were joyful just before the traumatic trigger.

Focus on the relevant emotion for easier memory recall, but also think of the other emotions around the event.

2: Follow the Chronological Events

Going along with #1, we might remember more if we think of what we were doing in the lead up to an event. We can also think of how we reacted at the time or what happened after the event. Those details might give us touchstones to creating authentic reactions in our characters.

(Note that we’re not worried about accuracy—this isn’t for a police eyewitness report—but about what we remember, right or wrong, for building a stronger memory for our writing purposes.)

By thinking of the chronological flow of events, we might be able to make our characters’ reactions more realistic.

3: Use Multiple Triggers

Memories are often triggered by the senses. When we see a photograph, we remember the circumstances of when it was taken, or when we experience a unique smell of a place, memories and emotions from that location flood our brain.

So we might remember more details of a memory and the emotions around it if we involve more senses. Beyond imagining the visual, we can:

  • think about the other senses: sounds, smells, etc. (Was a certain song playing? Were we cold? Etc.)
  • move to match our body position from the event (Were we sitting or standing? In a car or outside? Etc.)
  • talk about what we remember (rambling often helps my focus)
  • remember what we were thinking of at the time (even if unrelated to the event) (Were we distracted? Were we trying to suppress our emotions? Etc.)

Approaching a memory from different directions can help us remember more than usual.

4: Put Names to the Emotions

One way to make what we remember as strong as possible is to give our brain concrete anchors to build a remembrance around. Like focusing on the specific senses of #3 above, we can also strengthen memories by naming the emotions we experienced during the events.

Beyond the basics like happy or sad, we can try to be more specific with our descriptions. We weren’t just upset—we were angry, jealous, and disgusted. We weren’t just happy—we were proud, excited, and eager.

If you struggle to think of emotion words, try referencing The Emotion Thesaurus or websites like these:

Putting names to the emotions helps makes our memory more concrete and easier to recall.

5: Identify Why the Memory Stuck

Going along with #4, we can try to figure out what emotion (or emotions) were strong enough to create the memory to begin with. Why do we remember the event?

  • Was it significant to us and why?
  • Did we learn anything from it (and did the lesson stick)?
  • What did we take away from the event?
  • Why does that event stick out in our head as an example of X emotion or mood?

Learning why a memory stuck with us can help us identify what it means to us.

6: Review the Memory before Going to Sleep

Ever struggle to remember someone’s name and then have it pop into your head hours (or days) later? We’re usually surprised when the detail from our memory resurfaces, as we hadn’t been consciously thinking about it in the interim.

We can use that ability of our subconscious to keep working behind the scenes by focusing on our memory as we’re going to sleep. I’ve used this technique with thorny story problems to see if my subconscious can come up with a solution during the night (and it sometimes works!). We can do the same with our memories.

By telling our subconscious we want more, we might wake up with clearer details.

Other Ways to Use Memories in Our Writing

In addition to using our memories to write emotion with depth and authenticity, we can use our knowledge of memory to build more realistic characters. Understanding more about how memory works can help us write stories that feel more relatable to readers.

Just like us, our characters can sift through their memories:

  • They can struggle with a tip-of-the-tongue detail that they just can’t remember, or they can fail to remember someone’s name when they encounter them out of the normal environment.
  • They can be hit with a memory out of the blue when triggered by a smell, song, or other sense. Triggers are great ways to introduce backstory or flashbacks.
  • They can interact with memorabilia. We tend to keep items not so much for their intrinsic value but because they offer a concrete trigger to build our remembrances around. So characters keep items when they want to remember or discard items when they want to forget.
  • They can suffer from reliving a traumatic or embarrassing incident and work to forget the bad memory. Many internal or emotional arcs for characters involve them learning not to have false beliefs based on their memories of a past event.

Whether we’re adding depth to the emotions in our stories or creating more realistic and relatable characters, memories can be a powerful tool for writers. The more readers connect to our story or our characters, the more they’ll keep turning the page. *smile*

Do you struggle to capture deep, layered, or realistic emotions in your writing? Have you mined your experiences for emotions? Have you been able to dig into those memories or stuck with the superficial? Can you think of other memory-triggering techniques or other ways our characters can interact with their memories? Want to share any of your strongest memories?

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JC Martell
JC Martell

Great post – all sorts of new ways to work on emotions, and lots of great links. Thanks!

Speaking of emotions, I have to tell you every time I access your page and see the cover of Stone-Cold Heart I get goosey bumps. I don’t usually read the genre, but I’m going to finally give in and get it, just so I can see how he talks and moves… and maybe more. Congrats to you and your cover design folks.


Thanks for this post. It’s obvious in hindsight, but I’m glad you shoved this to the forefront since I was going ballistic on how to flashback. Usually, the ones I see in fics have a line divider and the flashback is in italics. Paragraphs of italics. It hurts my eyes, so I don’t like that method.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara



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