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Five Tips on Writing Emotions (Part One)

Updated: Aug 5, 2019

As you well know, there are many elements that make up a strong, engaging story. Plot, characterization, setting...even within those three, there's a lot to talk about.

Today I want to focus on my favorite element: EMOTIONS.

In my opinion, emotions are the MOST important detail, and if you're gonna obsess over anything in the writing should be this. Because emotions are universal. They're the great equalizer. Barring certain mental illnesses, we are all daily engaging with a wide spectrum of emotions.

But here's the kicker: we don't express them all outwardly. Generally, people internalize most of their day to day emotional responses.

Here's an example:

In 2018, I experienced the first earthquake of my life. It was a 6.0, and terrifying. Aftershocks continued for weeks. Now, a year later, I'll have these random surges of panic when a big truck rattles past the house or a door slams upstairs. It'll hit like a thousand needles in the back of my neck and arms. A twinge of pain might shoot through my chest. Then it's over. All the while, I won't have outwardly expressed that fear at all. It'll happen as I'm walking past my kids, but they'll see nothing. I won't gasp, grab the back of the chair and bend forward, pressing a palm to my pounding heart. It'll happen in a flash. I'll feel it...then continue on. Gradually relaxing again.

The strongest emotional writing will resonate as familiar and real. Like my random surges of fear, it won't always be melodramatic. Often the most powerful emotions are the ones hidden behind a mask of indifference. They're the ones we bury or suppress or simply have learned to endure quietly. And in writing, those will be the ones readers most deeply connect with.

So let's jump into this:


Disclaimer: I'll be using examples from my own work in this one.

(Please always remember that posts like this are never hard rules. Just advice from personal experience and preference. Finding a good balance between following advice and listening to your gut instinct is important.)


#1.) Consider keeping the drama to a minimal. Try to balance with some internalized emotions.

When appropriate, use internal reactions/physical responses without over the top displays. (Unless that's your character's M.O.) I'd submit this is especially important when writing in first person. You want your reader to a.) WANT to be in that character's head, and b.) feel intimately engaged with the character's experiences.

Here's an example of a huge emotion being completely internalized. The character (Hannah) has just witnessed something devestating to not only her own heart but the revolution at large. Instead of wailing and beating her fists and making a scene...she does this:

There are no private rooms left in this factory; bodies occupy every inch. But I swallowed a scream, and now it's traveling through my body, trying to tear through my skin. I keep marching the halls, thinking I'll find a corner, some small space to let out this pain. But even the closets have become sleeping quarters.

Outwardly, she wandering the halls. Internally...she's screaming. Now, to be fair, she does end up in a room alone screaming into her hand. But the example stands. ;)

#2.) When in doubt, ACT IT OUT.

(Rhyme not intended, but eh... )

If you aren't sure if a character's emotional reaction feels natural, give acting a try. Put yourself in the character's mental space and allow their feelings to come alive for a few minutes. I did this with an MC once (well more than once...), and what I found was her response to the traumatic experience I was putting her through wasn't the weeping/collapsing mess I first imagined. It was instead her sitting on the floor, head pressed to the wall, staring empty at nothing, mentally replaying a haunting memory. It was subdued and highly internal.

My style tends to include a lot of internalized emotions. But I hear you, that's not for every genre or writer. There will obviously be many moments when external reactions ARE called for. Acting it out will help tame those too, tailoring them to hit right on target instead of getting way out of context or out of control. If you read a lot of books, then you know what I mean. Inappropriate over-dramatization of small moments will only result in eye rolls.

You don't want eye rolls!

#3.) Engage the senses.

The senses help make a scene more visceral and engaging. And emotions can be felt simply by what the character is seeing/hearing/ etc. Be observant. Get in your characters head and engage with what's being felt, heard, seen, tasted...This works to draw your reader deeper into the story and therefore amplify their experience when you're introducing emotional scenes.

Also consider what our senses do to us psychologically. Does a fragrance draw up a painful memory? Do the notes of a song stir up old feelings? If you've built layers into your character's story, you can use the senses in strategic moments and give your readers a nice little jolt. Call back to a seed you planted early on in the story. If you're pantsing, go back and add that seed, so the sudden emotion makes sense and carries depth. Or refer back to a powerfully emotional scene, maximizing on the impact.

This reminds me of Tris in Veronica Roth's book Insurgent. She'd killed her friend in a moment of panic, and was haunted by the memory every time she felt a gun in her hand.

#4.) Speaking of calling back to her childhood,

Memories can be a great tool for engaging the reader emotionally.

The more we know about a character, the more we feel and experience with them. If your character has a weighty past, small excerpts of memory can help peel back layers and reveal history without long exposition. Like Katniss mentioning snippets of memory about her father and his death. Or how her mother withdrew after the tragedy. These pieces of information are backstory, but Suzanne Collins wove them into the story in a way that added to the overall emotional experience and endeared us to Katniss...thus strengthen our emotional attachment.

In my dystopian series, Slave, I begin the series with a scene in which Hannah is reliving the traumatic arrest and execution of her parents when she was a child. I then use short, relevant memory flashback throughout the series to deepen our connection with her parents and build on Hannah's character growth.

Here's a piece from the last book in my series, a memory planted right at the beginning of a chapter, as chaos is literally erupting on the mountain around the MC.

"You feel that breeze?" Father asked.

His hand raised, palm out, like he’d catch it for me.

He’d catch the breeze to make me smile.

"It’s cold, Jon," said my mother. "Time to close the window."

"Only a minute," he replied gently, his arms lifting my small frame into the air. Tremors of exhaustion ran through his muscles, spilling over into my belly, where his hands held me tight. "I want her to feel it."

I giggled when he moved me, gliding me through the air like a bird in flight.

"This breeze," Father said, blew in from the other side of the mountains. "Don’t you sense it?"

I’m flying, but his hands don’t hold me. I land hard, and a crushing pain bursts through my knee. Beneath it, a tree root juts from the ground.

I love the use of memory to evoke emotions. A favorite author of mine who does this well is Julianne Donaldson in her book Blackmore.

#5.) Lastly, Be Prepared to Trim.

I once participated in an event offering first chapter critiques for first time writers. One poor guy ended up saying: "If I trim that much, I'll only have half the word count..."

Please hear me on this: be careful about overwriting emotions (or anything, for that matter) in order to meet a word count goal. When it comes to expressing emotion, less is (usually) more. This goes for dialogue as well. People don't generally talk in long, expressive run on sentences, unless we're nervous or stressed. We tend to talk in clipped, short lines that are often best understood through context.

He winces when I touch the cloth to his temple.

“Sorry,” I murmur. Our eyes meet, and my hand stills, hovering.

“Are you hurt?” he asks quietly. I shake my head.

A smile tugs on his lips, but the eyes are sad. “You're lying.”

I focus on his injury again, reaching to dab blood from his skin.

“Maybe,” I whisper.

Perhaps this excerpt evokes emotions on its own, but in context, the reader knows there's something of an inside joke here. It's short, simple dialogue that carries history, grief, love, and a myriad of other feelings that, HOPEFULLY (I'm being very hopeful today ;) ) engage the reader.

I have a list of SEVERAL more suggestions, so I'll create a PART TWO post soon. I really do love emotional writing, and I can't stress enough the importance of focusing extra time on this element.

I still have a lot to learn in this and all areas, so I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions! Please feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts!


Laura Fran

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