David Morrell and Your Dominant Emotion

CC image by Alana Noelle Renfro

I don’t usually read thrillers. And I don’t watch movies based on them. So when David Morrell was announced as the keynote speaker for the writer’s conference we attended last weekend, I had no preconceived notions of what to expect from him. In some ways that’s good. For those of you who don’t know, David Morrell wrote First Blood. You might better recognize the name Rambo, his character from that book, which was turned into a movie (or several).

That name I recognized at least, and though I knew I was listening to a man made famous by his writing, I was still largely unaffected by his presence. He stood on his audience’s level instead of at the podium, with the honest slouch of someone who is comfortable in his own skin.

CC image by Chris Drumm

CC image by Chris Drumm

I expected good writing advice, but I didn’t expect it to be original or necessarily engaging. But I had my notebook and pen ready anyway, figuring that I would probably write a blog post on what he had to say. To say that his advice was original might be misleading, because a lot of the concepts have been introduced by other people. His spin on it and his humor however was definitely engaging.

His talk centered on a writer’s motivation for writing in general and for any one particular work. He cautioned against those who approach writing with the desire to be rich and famous. The rich part is unlikely to come because of the competition. And if you achieved the fame, the phone will ring and distract you from what you should be doing: writing.

He wrote a book called The Successful Novelist in which he explains that for every new novel, you should sit down and write a letter to yourself. In this letter you answer the question “Why am I compelled to write this?” That gave me pause right away, because I thought of the idea that’s been bouncing around my head for at least eight years. I thought of all the changes it’s undergone and how it’s still just a frustrating idea that seems to fail every time I visit it. I will have to answer that question someday if I hope for it to go anywhere.

Later, he brought up the concept of everyone having a dominant emotion. Whether it is jealousy, hate, anger, fear, or something else, he believes that the best stories you will write will be from your own dominant emotion, because you can intrigue people through your honesty. His is fear (hence the thrillers), and listening to him, I could definitely tell he believes in approaching the blank page with honesty.

If you’re not sure what your dominant emotion is, he encourages you to pay attention to your daydreams. We have been told that they are bad things, distractions to reality. Instead, they are opportunities to be seized. To be aware of the daydream while letting it play out will tell you what your dominant emotion is. Wonder where the daydream came from. Discover the story that could be in it. And be willing to expose yourself to write honestly.

If you don’t approach honestly, you will likely never embrace your own voice. You will try to write what someone else has already written. And you may do okay temporarily, but your story won’t last.

I was intrigued by this idea of a dominant emotion, especially as a tool for creating depth for your characters. I also think that examining the books you love to read most could help you discover it too.

However, I don’t think that your job as a writer is done if you discover your dominant emotion and write it into your story. The danger with writing from one emotion is you might neglect the others. They might fall flat while you develop and explore the dominant one. It would also be easy to use the dominant emotion as an excuse for writing poorly or leaving unproductive or inappropriate scenes in.

I always will encourage intentionality and thoughtfulness over emotion. Use your dominant emotion as another tool for your writer’s toolbox. If it drives you to get words on the page, great, but don’t forget to go back and edit them intentionally.

I really did love listening to David Morrell. He was engaging and honest with a group of people he’s never met, and I hope that someday if I speak at conferences that I can be as honest and comfortable as he was. If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, do it.

By Tracy Buckler