When I think of emotion my mind immediately goes to visual cues. Recreating visual cues into words can be hard for new and experienced writers and like any writing it takes practice. I wanted to see how different writers tackle emotion in their writing so I asked Book-in-a-Week’s four contributors to share their perspective on emotion and putting emotion into their writing.
I love writing about emotion because characters come to life so much more when we see how they feel about the events of the story. A character’s emotions are what make a story matter to me as a reader, because when I share their feelings, I start to care about what happens to them.
The challenge as a writer is to make the reader feel the hero or heroine’s pain, rather than just saying, “he/she was sad”. The best advice I have had about putting across emotion came from Leanne Morgena, who edited my short romance The Santa Next Door for The Wild Rose Press. She suggested using body movements, rather than statements or dialogue tags, to convey emotion. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out what action a person takes when they are happy/sad/scared, but once you see them bouncing with joy, brushing away tears, or cowering in a corner, their emotions feel so much more real.
I first learned the importance of infusing emotions into characters when I took acting classes at the New Jersey School of Performing Arts. Our initial courses did not focus on plays or manuscripts, they focused on tapping into a moment in our lives when we felt a true emotion (happiness, sadness, depression, pain, ecstasy, etc.). Once we learned how to embody those moments, we learned how to transfer that emotion into a character.
The lessons I learned from acting transferred into my writing. In acting, if you are pretending to feel an emotion, your audience can tell and they see you as pretending. It is the same with writing. In order for my reader to believe in my characters, in my story, I must first infuse my characters with real emotions. If my character is depressed, I take myself back to the time when I felt utterly alone in the world and explore that moment. How did I feel? How did my body react? Once I feel that emotion within myself, I transfer it to the character I am working on. I allow myself to become swept in the moment, overwhelmed in the moment and when the moment becomes real for my character, I write.
I believe Robert Frost when he said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
When writing an emotional scene my number one rule is limit the reader’s emotional information. Using location, voice, facial expression, the emotional context of the scene is easily portrayed, but there is no need for melodrama or an over the top “telling” or “showing” of what the character is experiencing.
Going back to the idea of a disconnect between the writer and reader, there is a space between what the writer wants to impart and what the reader actually picks up. There is a lot going on in that space; different experiences, different belief systems, different attitudes towards specific emotions. My thought, then, is to allow the reader to color in the depth of emotion.
The writer depicts a specific emotion — happiness, sadness, grief, joy — but on a surface level, giving the reader the ability to expand the emotional resonance, essentially “filling” up the emotional well. Step back during those heavy, angsty scenes, and detach from the character’s thoughts. Readers are smart, so trust them. It only takes the gentlest of nudges for them to experience the full spectrum of what you are trying to portray.
By my very nature, I am a highly emotional person. I laugh a lot and loudly and the same goes for crying. When I read I want to connect to the story and the characters in an intimate way: namely feelings and emotions. Emotions that evoke strong feelings in me serve as a sort of glue to connect me to the story. The best books I have read are the books that had me laughing out loud, raising my fist in anger or have reduced me to tears. Or all of the above.
I do not think you can write about emotions unless you have felt them. All people have emotions but not all people feel them. They need to be felt and experienced, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel. As a writer, this serves me well. When I need to draw from the well to illustrate my character, emotion is what makes a 2D character into a multi-dimensional person. Sometimes it is difficult. But when I reread a section and I laugh out loud or cry, then I know that I have nailed it.
And there you have four different insights on dealing with emotion in writing. How do you put the emotions you want into your writing?