Writing with Emotion
By Erin Beth Liles
As a kid, I was pretty emotional. Although I was quiet, shy, and introverted, in the privacy of my own home, I could lay down a crying spell to rival the loudest kid in my class—much to the chagrin of my parents, I’m sure. And as a Goth make up-wearing teenager, I filled notebooks full of depressive poetry.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I think those emotions, which at times felt too big for my young body, now serve my writing well. In fact, an agent recently told me she that she could really feel the emotion in my novel.
So, should you write with more emotion? Yes! Why? Because writing with emotion is one way to really connect with readers.
Human beings are emotional creatures. It’s part of what makes us human. Some of us are good at burying those feelings, which admittedly can be uncomfortable, even painful at times. Others are better at expressing them. But however you choose to deal with emotions in real life, as a writer, getting them down on the page will serve you well.
So, just how do you do that? Well, I’ve got three techniques that can help.
Feelings—Oh whoa, whoa, feelings…
Add your character’s feelings to his or her actions. It isn’t enough to say, “She picked up the bowl.” Like the stereotypical psychiatrist’s question, How did that make you feel? Ask yourself, how did that make my character feel?
So let’s see how that would look. First, we have, “She picked up the bowl.”
We can add emotion by writing something like this:
“She picked up the bowl and was flooded by the memories of her mother finding it at the antique store. Her throat tightened.”
Now we have context, we have a flavor to the action. And if you’ve previously written that the character’s mother recently died, we get an even stronger emotion.
It’s not enough to simply tell the reader that your character feels something. You wouldn’t want to just say, “She picked up the bowl and felt sad.” We need the context, the specific thought that leads to the emotion. We need to be show, not told. Otherwise, it falls flat. As writers, we need to bring the reader into the heart and mind of our character, take them by the hand and lead them to the emotion, not just shove it in their face by telling them.
Additionally, it’s even stronger when you layer it in. The example I gave above is made stronger by knowing that the character’s mother is dead—again, information that was previously mentioned in the story.
Internal Monologue—That Voice in Your Head
Another technique is using internal monologue. Of course, this works best if you’re writing in the first person point of view (although you can also use italics to convey internal thoughts for a third person POV, or just close third person).
“She picked up the bowl” could become:
“She picked up the bowl. Why did those memories have to assault her? Her throat tightened.”
Or, “She picked up the bowl. Why do these memories always assault me? Her throat tightened.”
And, certainly, memories don’t always have to be painful or sad:
“She picked up the bowl. That day at the antique shop with her mom was the most fun they’d had as mother in daughter in a long time. She smiled.”
I’m sure you know that setting can create mood. A dark cloud can convey menace. A colorful garden can create a carefree environment. Well, setting can convey or add emotion too.
The trick to it is pairing setting details with inner monologue and/or emotional words. For an example, let’s look again at our sample sentence:
“She picked up the bowl.”
Adding setting to create more emotion might look something like this:
“She picked up the bowl. Thunder cracked in the distance and the clouds outside the window hung low and heavy.”
Even without adding feelings or inner monologue, we get a sense of how our character feels.
Using all three techniques makes the point even more strongly. Combining all three might look like this:
“She picked up the bowl. Thunder crackled outside and she saw the flash of lightning in the heavy clouds outside the store’s window. God, the bowl looked so much like that one her mom found at the antique store all those years ago. She shuddered. When would the memories of her mother stop assaulting her?”
Of course, you wouldn’t want to use all three techniques all the time. We don’t want to overwhelm our readers! But used judiciously, either alone or in combination, they can help ramp up the emotion (and often the tension) in a scene.
So, if you don’t write with much emotion, give it a try. It will make your characters come alive. After all, Goth make up-wearing teenager or not, most of us want to feel the books we read—we want to experience what the character experiences. For most of us, reading is an escape, but to truly experience the story, we need to connect with the characters. In this way, literature helps us not only enjoy a good book, it helps us realize that having emotions—especially the complex ones—is part of being human.
Erin Liles is a YA author and freelance editor at In a Perfect Word Editing. Most of the time, you can find her on the couch with a cat asleep beside her and laptop in front of her—writing, of course, with emotion. But you can also find her here: http://www.perfectwordedit.com/