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How To Write With Emotional Truth

What Is ‘Emotional Truth’?

Industry pro or audience member, it seems everyone wants emotional truth in writing. But what is this? We hear a lot about the fabled writer’s voice, or the more vague notion of writers having ‘something to say’. But frequently this just is not enough to guide writers. So I sat down and gave it some thought.

In my book, Writing And Selling Drama Screenplays, I defined ’emotional truth’ as:

The part of the story that values the honesty and integrity of emotion, via authenticity, passion and pain. 

Let’s break this definition down some more.

Passion, Pain, Authenticity

Passion and pain are obvious choices when thinking about emotional truth. When it comes to passion, literally no writer sets out to tell a boring story, for starters. That would be absurd. We need passion to keep us going whilst writing; we also need that passion to hook a reader or viewer’s interest. If we don’t love our own stories and characters, we are hacks.

I think of pain as a kind of umbrella term. Pain may be literal, or metaphorical, or both. Drama is conflict. So the ‘pain’ in the story mean trouble, injustice, frustration, struggle. Every character and story comes from this place, even (especially?) comedy.

In contrast, ‘authenticity’ is the buzzword of the moment. It’s for this reason ‘Own Voices’ narratives are so popular, because they are about first-hand experiences. It stands to reason that a writer with more personal knowledge would have more credibility writing about the struggles they have faced.

Though this might seem common-sense, this has not always been the case … What’s more, for all the whinging online about diversity by aggrieved writers like Lionel Shriver, it is still not the standard now. Men still write women’s stories as standard. White people tell the stories of people of colour. Straight people of the LGBT community’s. Non-disabled people tell disabled people’s stories … And so on.

This is why the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ is part of the conversation. Effectively, we are talking about  highjacking others’ experiences and passing them off as our own. But by the same token, insisting diverse writers ONLY write ‘Own Voices’ narratives would also be an issue. We would be forcing them into a box, saying their experience is the only thing of value they offer. This, too, is absurd.

We can’t swing the pendulum from one end of the scale to the other. Like anything, there must be some balance. This is why Vinay Patel’s recent thoughts on what he calls ‘due diligence’ really rang home for me when I interviewed him recently for B2W. Whilst he said his heritage definitely helped the emotional truth of his storytelling in his episode of Doctor Who, he also said:

‘It would be naïve of me to assume I know what it’s like to be a rural farmer in India in 1947, because I don’t.’

So in other words, ‘Own Voices’ is a good step forward, but can’t be everything. As Vinay says, anyone can write whatever they want, provided they do their due diligence and achieve authenticity.


But HOW do we achieve authenticity? Lots of writers want to write diverse characters and stories, but worry a lot about recycling various stereotypes and stigma unthinkingly. It’s hard to know what we don’t know, after all. What if we accidentally end up perpetuating cheesy nonsense, BS messages and even harmful tropes?

But the key word there is ‘unthinkingly’. The fact is, the more we research, the more we realise what has been done too much. We start to notice the stigmas and stereotypes that adversely affect certain communities’ lives. We open our minds and stop centering ourselves 24/7. This means we start to see their lives through their eyes, instead of as outsiders.

It also means we are less likely to drop clangers like THESE mistakes, or THESE. In short, we start to empathise. This is good writing, which frankly all good writers should want.

Authenticity Vs. Accuracy

Of course, when we empathise, we may end up nitpicking our own stories and characters too much. We may worry that various story worlds, jobs, experiences etc are not ‘realistic enough’ or just plain ‘inaccurate’. The endless waves of people online whinging about so-called plotholes may make us even more anxious.

But notions of authenticity and emotional truth are  not about so-called accuracy. Narrative logic is about everything making sense within that story world and the characters within it. When it comes to storytelling, you sometimes need to sacrifice facts for drama. As writers, we must make our peace with this, plus the fact there will always be people who say our stories are ‘inaccurate’.

It comes down to this: NO story can please everyone. But as long as you have done your research properly,  truly listening and empathising with people from that community, you are fine.


To achieve emotional truth in your writing, you need to do the following:

  • Make sure you ‘break story’. Think about WHY you want to write this story. Why are you so passionate about it? What is the pain (aka struggle, problem, trouble, frustration, injustice etc)  you want to write about?
  • Reject cheesy overdone stuff, as well as stereotype, stigma, prejudice about your subject matter. (This may mean having to discover what these are first, in order to avoid them).
  • Do your due diligence. Empathise with the community behind your subject matter. Don’t just take one idea or one story and run with it; collect them. Do this sensitively, don’t randomly bombard people online and in real life with questions. Educate yourself.
  • Create your own story. Don’t hijack.

Good Luck!

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3 thoughts on “How To Write With Emotional Truth”

  1. You have highlighted the point of breakdown in writing. I write a piece aiming to say important things. The reader sees those things from their point of view and the difference can be very argument inspiring. That is one good reason to either be ready to argue or make it clear this is a work of fiction that has caused the reader to emote over. There you get to believe you wrote a useful piece of work because s/he is arguing over it.

  2. Lucy –

    Thank you for your insightful take on this issue.

    I am currently working on a novel that will draw the ire of certain people from a different cultural identity than myself. Even though I lived in and among that culture for several periods of time decades ago.

    Nevertheless, the culture itself is central to the story and themes that I am writing about. Particularly the protagonist – the very fact that he is from that culture makes the story more compelling. The underlying themes of the book wouldn’t work near as well without that culture. It’s hard to explain without giving away too much, but several people close to me have commented on what an interesting and novel idea the storyline is in the present day and age.

    I am prepared to “take shit” from the naysayers. The themes and plot of the book are so controversial on many other levels that cultural appropriation will be the least of my worries. Which in and of itself will only serve to promote the book even more.

    My goal is to make people ask questions and argue over these issues. Trolling me will only serve to sell more books, and give me the platform for talking about it. Maybe even make me wealthy (not that it’s my primary goal).

    Think Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”.

    A win/win for me is just that. Even if I have to retire to a different locale somewhere else in the world to escape the controversy. I have my spot picked out. The irony of all ironies? It immerses me right back in the very culture I am writing about. Except I will have a little more anonymity living as just another expat in that place.

    Suffice it to say, the vast majority of the people in that culture will likely embrace the story and themes. It celebrates and elevates their culture.

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