Quick-Tip Tuesday: Writing With Emotion


David B. Coe/ D.B. JacksonSometimes we writers overthink our work (and in that spirit, this will be a brief post). We try to create spectacular worlds and amazing magic systems and plots filled with surprises and twists. And all of that is great. When I read, I love narrative complexity, rich settings, and remarkable magic.

But I read for emotion. I read, as do so many, because I want to delve into the internal lives of compelling characters. Humans are natural voyeurs and eavesdroppers. We are curious about other people, sometimes to a disturbing degree. (See: Kardashian, Kim) One of the great allures of reading, I believe, is the chance not only to listen to and watch characters, but also to have access to their thoughts and emotions.

I bring this up because I have noticed in working with students and less experienced writers, a tendency to shy away from exploring the emotions of our characters. So let me be as blunt as I can be: Emotion is everything. If we do not connect with our readers on an emotional level, we can’t hope to keep them interested in our books. Plot, world building, and the rest are certainly important, but they are vehicles for the essentials of storytelling: character, tension, and emotion.

So how do we imbue our prose with emotion? Well, we DON’T do it with a sledge hammer. I am not telling you to bludgeon your readers with paragraphs-long explorations of your characters’ emotions. That would be no better than a data dump. Sometimes all we need is a gesture or moment’s expression — the twitch of a lip, a nervous gesture with the hands, the refusal to look someone in the eye. Delving into emotion doesn’t mean eschewing subtlety.

Emotions can trigger memories, or cause someone to change the subject in a conversation, or make a person throw a phone through a window. Sometimes emotional responses are huge and over the top, sometimes they’re barely perceptible, and sometimes the very act of suppressing emotion can be the perfect window into your character’s feelings and thoughts.

Emotional reactions are, by definition, going to be as individual and idiosyncratic as other elements of your character’s personality or physical traits. The important thing is to get into her or his mindset when you write, to make the character’s emotional triggers as much a part of your being as your own triggers are when you’re away from the computer or notepad. That level of empathy enables us to write realistically, emotionally, effectively.

Emotionless writing is flat writing. It really is as simple as that. Love, hate, anger, jealousy, joy, passion, grief, bewilderment, contentment — these are the things that make life interesting. And they are what make our stories and our characters come alive. Look for ways to inject emotion into your storytelling. Your readers will thank you.

Keep writing!


5 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Writing With Emotion

  • […] our writing with emotion. To my mind, few things are more important for effective story telling. Read more here. Enjoy, and keep […]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for the lovely, clear post, David.

    I’ve been slowly moving toward realizing the importance of emotion not just in my writing, but in my writing process. I’m starting to figure out that if I don’t know the emotional state of my POV character then I’ll end up really floundering around and will almost definitely have to do a big re-write on whatever I do manage to get.

    I don’t remember who should be credited with saying: Your character must *want* something, even if it’s just a cup of coffee.
    However, I think a more-useful-for-me corollary would be: Your character must *feel* something, even if it’s just boredom. Emotions mean that a character is vested in what’s going on, one way or another.

  • Razziecat

    This is one of the things I think carefully about when I’m writing. How is the character feeling? Angry, bewildered, happy? I try to suggest emotions by physical actions and words. I especially like being subtle about it, giving little hints; or using a sort of negative suggestion. “He wasn’t thinking about her at all. Nope. Never.”

  • Hep – that was Edmund. (And it was a glass of water. Yes, I remember random things like that.) And I agree with that corollary! Also, each scene must have a goal.

    I’ve been in the throes of very deep revisions to make sure my MC is the one driving the story, not her travelling companions. So I’m enjoying whenever I get the chance to do a lot of that at once. Like when they’re climbing a steep hill, and the guy she’s been forced to travel with offers her a hand up. She avoids his touch and does it on her own. Then he casually mentions an important fact she was unaware of, and she stumbles on a stone. Before she can fall, he catches her. Inferences are fun. 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thanks Laura! I must have changed it to ‘cup of coffee’ in my head because I associated it with the movie Hudson Hawk, where the search for an unspoiled cappachino is a long-running theme.