Emotions in Writing: Fall Back, Spring Forward

As a writing coach, I talk a lot about emotion, but I believe it’s true—if your readers aren’t feeling something, they aren’t reading. In ways, writing emotions can be like the way we change our clocks for Daylight Savings Time: emotions in stories must fall back, then spring forward.

Writing Tip for Today: How do emotions fall back and then spring forward?

Gaining that Hour

We gain an extra hour each autumn when we set our clocks back. In fiction, falling back is a natural reaction to the emotion you write into the character and story. By “fall back,” I mean that readers experience an emotion from reading your work, they’re surprised and they REACT.

Emotions in fiction or memoir don’t work unless your readers react to them. Our goal in writing is to get readers to connect with our story, to relate to it in a visceral way, to care so much they’re compelled to read on.

Your character has a thought, makes an action, utters dialogue or reacts to a stimulus from the setting or another character. All these things help readers make sense of the story. Yet if your scenes lack honest emotion, readers will have a harder time reacting to the events in the scene. To write emotion that elicits deep emotion from your readers, study human nature. Eavesdrop on conversations. Be willing to make characters vulnerable. Most of all, write actions/reactions your readers didn’t quite expect.

The Steep Hill of Change

Of course, you can’t write intense emotion in every line. Just as your scenes should contain rising action, they should also build emotional tension. When we change our clocks (not much longer if Congress changes the rule), it takes awhile for us to get up to speed again. Write building emotions with the changes in the story as it unfolds.

Write emotions that build as the story unfolds.

Your character starts out wanting something very badly, right? Then she/he runs into complications, also known as obstacles. How does he/she react? Readers hope the reaction is one of renewed determination, a better emotional understanding of what’s at stake and a willingness to adapt to a new way of seeing things.

As the character tries and (mostly) fails, you lead readers through the emotional ups and downs, leading to a moment of lost hope. The climax comes next, with your character giving her all. Readers want to be similarly inspired as they react to your character’s intensified emotions.

Springing Forward

As characters and readers react to the emotion you write, how can you tell if the emotional resonance is working? The answer lies in the way both your character and your readers are willing to act NEXT. Emotions which don’t result in your story’s forward movement probably miss the mark. Without springing forward, readers feel grumpy—the way we all feel on the first daylight savings morning.

Write emotions that ring true, that build in intensity and that lead to the next scene. Readers come for curiosity (how will this story turn out?) but they stay because the story emotions connect with their own feelings in some way. By tapping into authentic emotion and allowing readers to experience them, your story is far more likely to keep readers reading. Writing honest emotions will have your readers saying, “Where did the time go?”

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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