Years after something happens, whether we were part of the event or not, we recall and react.
I sent out a questionnaire to friends and family asking them to recall dates that spark memories. The responses were surprising and predictable at the same time. Dates and events in the list below appeared multiple times.
- December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor
- November 25, 1963 Kennedy Assassination
- August 22, 1966 Charles Whitman shooting from University of Texas Tower
- April 04, 1968 MLK Assassination
- January 28, 1986 Challenger Explosion
- November 9, 1989 Fall of Berlin Wall
- August 31, 1997 Princess Di dies in car accident
- April 20, 1999 Columbine High School CO shootings
These two only appeared on one responder’s list and reading the dates jogged my memory.
- October 14, 1987 Baby Jessica falling down the well in TX
- February 1, 1991 Start of Iraq War and the protests
Another responder labeled their list: “Things not ingrained by exact date, but by what they were.”
The list included: Branch Davidian Complex Raid; Last Episode of MASH; Sandy Hook; Gabby Gifford’s’ shooting; the non-concession speech of Al Gore in 2000; the election of Obama (#1); the eventual concession of Gore in 2000; The Lewinski stuff with Clinton; The OJ Trial; The Ellen Show where her character ‘came out
A thought provoking list that brought back memories and some strong feelings for me.
Another responder offered strong memories triggered by thinking about certain dates.
“Nov 22 1963. Kennedy assassination. I was working in the music dept on UT campus. Someone had a radio on and we heard the news. I ran to student union to watch it on TV. Later I went home and worked on a theme (book report) that was due on the “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. Mournful weekend.”
“9-11-01. Home drinking coffee in our sun room with news on TV. Watched second plane hit towers. Didn’t turn off TV for days.”
“August 22 1966. Charles Whitman shooting from tower. I was in Dallas on job interview, but hadn’t moved from Austin yet. Heard on radio. Not sure if it was Aug. 22 or 26. I didn’t know my husband then but he was on campus and took shelter in the student union. I recalled that at that time of day I would have been walking right across the mall for lunch, but I had taken that day off to go to Dallas.”
I’ve coined a phrase to define times that linger in our memories and by simple recall produce an emotional reaction.
As fiction writers, we must use trigger dates in our writing a way that our readers experience our characters’ fear and feel joy and become angry or excited and know grief. Readers should laugh and cry, shiver and rage. All from reading our story.
Why do we need to write for emotional impact?
Two BIG reasons: So readers will remember our characters and come back again and again. So readers recommend our stories or write positive reviews for our novels.
How does a writer write for emotional impact? I offer five ways:
- Through Character action and response
No reporting a character is afraid or giddy or grieving. Show through the character’s actions.
- Create a sympathetic character
As a story evolves, the reader must know and relate to the characters. If you put the reader in the character’s place, the reader will experience a physical response—laughter or tears or shivers—as if whatever happened to your character has actually happened to them.
- Write conflict into every scene
Don’t be afraid of killing off someone close to your main characters or taking away something else dear to them. This is fiction; you’re not really hurting someone if you do mean things to your characters. When characters are agitated, readers will be too.
- Choose words to evoke emotion.
Words are our trigger dates. Use harsh or sharp words for the harsher emotions, soft-sounding and soft-meaning words for gentle emotions.
- Use sensory details to immerse readers in the reality of the scene.
What can your character hear and smell? What does a change in sight or sound mean? Using all the senses puts your reader there in the story.
YOUR TURN: Did reading the Trigger Date list stir emotions for you? If you’re a writer, how do you trigger your reader’s emotions?