Emotional context can help your readers connect to the story. Additionally, people who are emotionally invested in a story are more details. Which means it’s a win-win for readers and writers.
Unfortunately, those of us writing down memories, we sometimes forget that vital component. It either happens by happy accident or doesn’t.
How Emotional Context Can Change a Story
A few years ago, a friend gave several of us a tour of his childhood Detroit neighborhood. Listening to his memories of hijinks and mischief changed the way I digested the scene before me. The block, half-full of abandoned houses, revealed a few of its 1950s and 1960s secrets.
I no longer saw one more Detroit-hit-hard-times city block. I saw the place where Bob rode his bike, played with friends, climbed trees and fences. Where he got into scrapes and made friendships of a lifetime.
(He’d stop the car and snap a picture as we passed houses, taking a moment to text friend that he was thinking about them.)
I wasn’t just seeing Bob’s past. It was his foundation.
Share your own Emotions about the Story
Especially when your own emotional context changes the way you think of the past, share that with your readers.
For instance, in 2013, my sister and I went back to our mother’s childhood home in Meherrin County, Virginia. (Yep, this is the story behind the photo I promised in Why Context Matters in Storytelling.)
Standing in front of the house where Mom and her three siblings grew up, the past was palatable. I could almost feel the mantle of nostalgia woven from flickering childhood moments.
Eating watermelon under the big tree. Looking to see where the mama-cats hid their kittens in the crumbling foundation. Seeing Grandma throw back her head and laugh.
Despite my sister telling me not to (I’ve got decades of ignoring her good advice under my belt), I climbed up what was left the font steps and peeked into the house. The emotional context of my grandparents’ house hit me in vivid technicolor.
Scenes I hadn’t thought of in years, came tumbling back to mind as if they’d happened the day before. Cuddling on the maroon couch with its stiff velvet fibers, listening to stories. The warmth from the wood stove. Grandpa’s wicked grin as he teased me.
Though Mom always said her family was dirt poor, that wasn’t my context. I didn’t see the house as run-down as a child. I saw it as a place of joy, fun, and laughter.
As an adult, I realize that the old tree in the front yard witnessed some tough times. Eking a living out of a small tobacco farm in the 30s wasn’t easy. There wasn’t always enough food. Or shoes.
However, the story of finding joy adds a beautiful descant to the worn melody of economic depression. In changes the whole narrative—the key and the progressions.
Intentionally Adding Emotional Context to Your Family Stories
When those emotions are harder to put to paper, brainstorm about the social, cultural, and historical circumstances.
You can add emotional context by peeling back the layers of the story and reminiscing (or researching). What emotions did your family members or ancestors feel? Do you remember telltale gestures that gave away the emotions they were unwilling to express?
If you don’t know, your own speculation can still add emotional context to the story. What might it have been like?
If you experienced the event, how did you feel?
Why might your readers care?
In “7 Tips for Writing Emotion Into Your Story,” Hannah Heath suggests asking yourself why your reader should care about this story. It may be the same reason you’re invested in the story. It might connect into a universal experience. Perhaps it has gained relevance with recent events.
As you explore the events of the past, explore the emotional impact of the stories you uncover.
How have you revealed that to your readers? The comment field awaits you (hint, hint).