Writing Emotions Right

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’m always promoting emotion as the key to readers’ hearts. But how do you render these emotions on the page?

Writing Tip for Today: To keep readers engaged, emotions must hit readers at the right time with the right emotion. Here are some tips:

Your Character’s Temperature

Your character’s main goal should be one of passionate desperation. But if you portray the emotions at their maximum too early, your emotion thermometer won’t have room to increase by much. Instead, portray a character who tries to tell herself she never wanted the goal or is trying to rebuild after failure.

I think this is why many stories and novels begin with a kind of ambivalence—you feel the underlying ache of desire with the “I don’t care” face to the world. A character who has a deep desire for a goal yet who opens the story full of disappointment or pretending not to care gives the author more room to grow. With this attitude, the character’s emotions can build alongside the ups and downs of the obstacles.

One key to writing emotions in novels or memoir is to show the character at war with her own feelings. She does the opposite of what would help her get closer to the goal. This self-sabotage creates a learning environment for the character to change and grow. Find more on this technique in Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction.

Show the character at war with her own feelings.

Rings True

As your character’s emotions build alongside the tension, avoid swinging too far into melodramatic responses. Readers feel uncomfortable “being” a character who is sociopathic or whose anger has no moral basis. They also know that emotions are nuanced and logical. Readers respond best to basic universal needs: to be loved, to belong, to be accepted.

If your character’s reaction to an event feels too angry, too self-pitying or too joyous, readers will have a difficult time relating. There are exceptions, of course (I always reference Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal Lecter). But most of us don’t have the high skills necessary to keep readers in their seats for such a character.

When you write emotions, always look at the logic of the reaction. A huge reaction that comes out of nowhere will seem shallow. A reaction that builds over time, is fraught with contradiction or is complicated by the character’s motivations reads more authentically. Avoid off-the-shelf emotions that don’t help readers understand and relate the story.

Emotional Crescendo

Emotions in your fiction or memoir must also reflect the story’s full arc. The slow-burning desire at the opening gives way to hopeful pursuit. The arc then progresses through discouragement, then hope. The lowest point is the “all hope is lost” moment just before the climax.

This “Lost Hope” moment gives the character’s last-ditch effort at the climax a bigger range to climb. If the character almost gives up but then marches into the last battle, the emotional range is maximized. Readers seem to like the thrill of going from the depths of despair to a satisfying climactic attempt for the goal.

Writing emotions well almost always involves leading readers through this emotional range. Even if readers know that in the end, he gets the girl or that the world is saved, one of the purposes of good fiction or memoir is a satisfying roller coaster emotional ride. Help your readers strap in for a wild ride by giving them the emotional thrills they seek.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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