The Mechanics of Writing Emotion

Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net
Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

In order for readers to care about your story, they need to care about your characters. Even if your writing is more story-driven than character-driven, readers need to understand your characters, and to feel the emotions that your characters feel.

As a copy editor, I sometimes work with new or indie authors who write emotion instinctively, without really understanding the mechanics of it. Some authors can write “by heart,” and do a pretty good job of it, even if they have no clue why some scenes work and others don’t. (Hint: Those people are usually avid readers.) Understanding the mechanics of writing emotions can help you write more consistently and effectively, and give you the confidence to try new things.

Let’s look at two ways to write the following scenario:

INSTEAD OF: Harry was afraid, worried about what the masked man might do. Would the man hurt Paulina?

TRY: The masked man took a step toward Paulina, and Harry jerked at his restraints. “Leave her alone!” he cried. The sound of his own heartbeat filled his ears, and with it, the faint sound of dripping nearby.

  • Emotion reacts to provocation. Instead of telling the reader that Harry feels afraid and worried, Harry does something (jerks at his restraints and cries out), because something provokes him to do it (bad guy takes a step toward Paulina).
  •  Action expresses complexity. Without specifying exactly how Harry feels, the reader is not limited to “afraid” and “worried,” but, through his actions, can imagine a full range of emotions, including fear, anger, regret, sorrow, frustration, desperation, and hope.
  • Emotion expresses in physical sensations. Harry’s physical sensations, what he feels in his body–a heightened sense of hearing and lack of pain–conveys the extreme level of his emotion. (The reader will know by now that Harry has been injured. Harry doesn’t notice his injuries because of his extreme emotional state, so his injuries aren’t mentioned now within his point of view.)
  • Emotions reveal character motivation. What Harry most fears in this moment (that the masked man will harm Paulina) is revealed with dialogue (“Leave her alone!”).

I recommend picking up or downloading a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expressions and its companion book, Emotion Amplifiers. Both books are by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, and both are handy, little reference books, packed with ideas for expressing all sorts of emotions, with writing tips interspersed throughout.

As of the date of this blog post, Emotion Amplifiers is free for Kindle on Amazon. I don’t know how long that will last, so snatch it up now.

So are you great at writing emotion, or do you need some work? What books have really pulled at your heartstrings?

Read more at Writing Emotions, Part 2: When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Goes Bad


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