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 process...it 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:
EMOTIONAL WRITING TIPS.
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.)
SO TO RECAP
#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... )