As a writer, you’ve probably learned that a story isn’t about what happens. Rather, it is about how things happen to influence the main character. The plot may appeal to the reader’s intellect, but you want to go deeper, reach and stir the coals of the reader’s emotions. This kind of emotional writing is when you create a real connection by establishing something meaningful between the writer and the reader.
But how is it done? How to go beyond the plot and offer something more to the reader? There are several ways to do this, but I’m going to focus on one technique for writing emotional scenes that might surprise you.
Emotion is complex. We never feel a single emotion in isolation. In contrast, the emotions that engulf us are an ever-changing, multi-layered swirl of complex and often conflicting thoughts and feelings. Each of us carries deep emotions and a range of emotions, often simultaneously.
When you’re writing a scene in which something happens that evokes emotion in your character, you’re probably making your character feel and express the most obvious emotion so your reader can feel it too. This is completely logical.
And since it is very logical, it hardly needs to be emphasized. Go ahead and let that predictable emotion come out, but consider deflecting it with something unexpected, tainting it with something shameful, or adding something seemingly random to it.
Dig a little deeper
Instead of focusing solely on the emotions that logically follow a plot event, allow your character to experience some of the deeper layers of emotion associated with that event.
Is there something in her past that colors this incident? Is she trying to hide something? Something she can’t even admit to herself? What are the subtleties behind this event? What uninvited thoughts enter her mind?
This is often a good time for a mini-retrospect, or even a full one. Memory is a very powerful tool for emoting and is an effective way to bring out weird emotions that go beyond your character should be a feeling to delve into the deeper layers of her psyche.
Another argument in favor of retrospection
Another good reason to use flashback when introducing strong emotions is that it gives the reader time to process. Running out of memory slows down the pace and gives your reader a chance to process what’s happening on the page and come to your own emotional response. This is the key to emotional writing.
Telling the reader what to feel is a sure way to ensure that they won’t actually feel it. It is much better to approach it from the side with unexpected or conflicting emotions. When the reader processes and creates their own emotional response, the story becomes more meaningful and more memorable.
Let’s look at an example
Imagine your character witnesses a child being hit by a car. This will evoke some emotions, the most obvious of which is horror and concern for the poor child.
What other emotions will float in your character? There may be pity for parents, empathy or reproaches for the driver, impatience for the arrival of an ambulance, and so on. Emotions that would logically follow such an event.
This is all normal and expected, but what happens when we peel back some of the layers and delve deeper into the emotional experience?
Can we meet with relief when the child hit is not her own? Guilt for such feelings?
A hint of disgusting voyeurism, the desire to get closer and get into the drama of the moment? A random, minor thought that keeps popping into your head like “Do my socks fit?” It can be a manifestation of shock or denial, the mind trying to deny what it just saw, or to avoid the emotional pain of the experience.
Using this emotional writing technique deepens and widens the range of emotions, allowing your reader to take their own emotional journey.
The importance of distance
Readers are people. Each reader comes to your book with their own unique perspective and package of past experiences. The use of distance in fiction is similar to how Christ used parables in his teaching. It allows each person to accept and accept as much as they are ready and willing.
As a flashback, distancing methodssuch as humor and objective presentation give your reader the space they need to determine how close they will let the story get to their heart.
For example, if a character’s life is too dark or painful for readers to deal with directly, give them a chance to step back. I recently heard from a fan of my work who said she couldn’t read my latest book because it got too close to me. She knew it would cause painful emotions for her.
Tower deals with a difficult domestic situation, and I have not always allowed my readers to distance themselves from my main character, using techniques to bring them closer instead. A decision that could clearly cost me some readers.
Readers read on emotions
Readers come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone is looking for something a little different in their ideal reading experience. But at the most basic level, every reader reads for emotion. He wants to feel something. He wants an emotional connection.
If you are a fiction writer and want to learn more about writing emotions and working on emotional craft, I suggest reading Donald Mass’s excellent book, The Emotional Mastery of Fiction: How to Write a Story Beneath the Surface.
The book includes an in-depth look at several useful techniques to evoke emotion in your readers, and makes a compelling case for why you would. Here’s one of my favorites:
And that’s a worthy goal — to send readers on a journey through their own emotional landscape. By creating a reading experience that reveals, surprises, and provides space for growth and exploration, we can connect with readers through our characters and the emotions they convey to the reader.
What about you? What techniques did you use to engage readers’ emotions? Would you like to develop more emotion tools for your writer’s toolbox? Share your thoughts with us comments.
Using the following prompt, explore the range of emotions that a point of view or POV character might feel and express. Go ahead and start with obvious emotions, but don’t stop there. Dig deeper and think about possible, unexpected emotions your character might have.
HINT: Jewel intercepts a message from her husband intended for another woman and discovers that he is having an affair.
List the emotions that come to mind. Then think more and write down some more. Pick one or two surprising emotions and use them to write a scene, layering them on top of and around the obvious emotions to create a richer reading experience.
Enter your practice here: