In Philip K.Dick’s excellent “Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep?”, there’s an absolutely fascinating gadget called the Penfield Mood Organ. It isn’t a major part of the story, the protagonist’s wife uses it a couple of times near the beginning of the book and that’s about it. But it’s a machine which can alter a person’s emotions. It isn’t really described in too much detail either – you just punch in a particular number and it changes your mood.
In typical Philip K.Dick fashion, the settings are truly strange – like “888” which is: ‘The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it’.
The Penfield Mood Organ is a truly amazing gadget. I want one!
The only problem is that it doesn’t exist.
Actually, I’m not telling the entire truth here. Which is basically a way of saying that I’m lying. Which, in this incredibly pointlessly circuitous fashion, is a way of saying that although we don’t have Penfield Mood Organs, we have got something very similar. In fact, throughout the history of humanity, we’ve had something similar.
No, I’m not talking about drugs, but about art and storytelling (and music too, but I’m not a musician – so I can’t really write that much about this subject…).
Emotions are one of the central driving forces behind creativty, for both the people who make things and the people who read/watch/play etc… things. I’m guessing that you probably fall into both of these groups, as any good writer/artist/musician/director/programmer/human being should do. The fact is that art and stories are about emotions.
This basic core of all forms of art is probably at it’s most obvious in horror, comedy and pornography. These three genres always find themseleves at the heart of pretty much every self-righteous moral panic in human history. These genres also exist purely to provoke strong emotions and, when they fail to do this, it’s usually extremely obvious. Plus, like fleeting emotions, they often have a very short shelf-life (I mean, does anyone actually find Shakespeare’s comedies laugh out loud funny these days?) and yet they are pretty much timeless too. In any time in human history, there will always be scary stories, funny stories and sexy stories.
Emotions are timeless, even if the way they are evoked isn’t.
Or, to give you some more mundane examples: When you go to see the latest multi-billion-dollar blockbuster superhero movie – you probably aren’t watching it to see what a film which cost millions per minute to make actually looks like, you’re probably watching it because you want to be thrilled and/or excited. When you pick up a Dan Brown novel, you probably aren’t carefully researching it to find out whether everything in it is historically/scientifically accurate (sorry to disappoint you, but it isn’t), but to enjoy the thrill of a good mystery. When you watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, you’re probably watching it to feel childhood nostalgia, to bask in a utopic future or because you are curious about what will happen in a particular episode – you probably aren’t watching it to look for continuity errors or to scruitinise the set design etc…
Art and stories are always about emotion.
So, how is any of this actually useful to me?
The best way to ensure that your audience and/or readers feels strong emotions when they look at your stuff is if it provokes these kinds of emotions in you when you’re creating it. This is one of several reasons why creating things can almost feel magical when it’s at it’s best. Likewise, I’ve always noticed that when I’ve written my worst stories or drawn a really crappy picture, it’s usually because I’m either not feeling emotional enough or I’m feeling the wrong emotion for whatever I’m creating.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all of your art/stories should be cathartic and/or melodramatic (although some of it can be), but that it should have feeling behind it. This works both ways, you can make art purely to change your own mood or you can make art to express a particular mood. But creating things should always be an emotional experience, even if it’s quite a subtle one.
The fact is, in order for your stories to evoke emotions in you – you either have to have a very vivid/strong imagination [which is both a blessing and a curse] or you have to write about topics you know will provoke emotions in you. Either way, when you put some emotion into your writing, it can work wonders. It can turn a mediocre story into a fantastic one. Just keep an open mind – regardless of whether you’re following your emotions or trying to point them in a particular direction, adding emotions to your story will take it in directions which you hadn’t previously thought of before and your stories/art will be much better as a result.
When you have an experience like writing a horror story and then stopping mid-sentence because you’re too terrified or disturbed to write any more of it – then you’re doing it properly!
Of course, this applies to other genres too and it’s probably slightly different for each genre – but, when you’re so immersed in your stories that they provoke very strong emotions, then the reader will be too.
Every other piece of advice about creativity basically comes down to the same thing – how to evoke emotions in the best possible way. For example, good characterisation is so important in stories because if the reader isn’t able to empathise with the characters, then the story will not provoke that many emotions (this is why quite a few horror movies and novels just aren’t that scary).
In the end, all art is about emotions. What kind of emotions are you trying to evoke in your art?