I’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.
Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.
Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.
So how do we communicate these emotions?
Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.
I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.
But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.
Emotion in descriptions
Let’s examine a common maxim – write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.
Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.
To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.
How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)
This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.
But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’
Stronger doses – handle with care
A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.
Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.
So … to sum up
1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’
2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’
3 Use internal dialogue
4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile
Woody’s scream pic by Aldoaldoz. Neon scream pic by Cathy Cole.
There’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.
I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.
21 thoughts on “How to write emotions and feelings”
I think emotions as most powerful when they’re not overly named. I think it’s best to approach them indirectly if possible. If a character is in love, don’t say “he felt intense love” but describe how he felt when she was near him or how his eyes always seemed to find her on their own, even in a crowd…etc.
I agree with you about not specifically naming the emotion. I feel that it is the writers responsibility to bring out the characters internalized results of the emotions. Fear is more convincingly described with physical attrubutes: sweaty palms, a dry mouth, a chill running down the spine, or a mental image like a dreadful past memory, than simply writing that the character was fearful.
Hi guys! Showing the reaction is good, but in prose you usually need more. I’ve seen a lot of attempts to convey emotions purely through physical sensations. Depending on the circumstances that can be confusing. The sensations can be a part of the experience, but we might also need to add some of the mind’s processes too.
I agree, but a lot can also be communicated indirectly through the narration itself by voice and simile/metaphor. Sometimes, I admit, you’ve got to name some sort of emotion for clarity’s sake. But I often find that is the weaker part of the passage.
I find a character’s emotions through how they move within the scene. So, ‘She swept down the garden path and tore the poster..’ When it comes to the ‘quiet’ emotions, which can be more difficult to handle without becoming sentimental, it is then in the stillness that the writer can move seamlessly into that internal world.
Pulling the reader into the internal world… yes, it’s tricky. And as you say, we don’t want to be too obvious or crass. Or even cliched.
Rockin’ post Roz. Love the way your explain your definitions. 🙂 Sharing of course!
Thanks, Debby – much appreciated!
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
More or less said, but just as in real life, emotions are not thoughts so much as movement and actions. That means you must use verbs. ‘Emotion,’ originally defined in the OED 1603 – A moving out, migration, transference from one place to another. There is a great technique Ken Follett uses in his writing of building up an internal dialog in a character who faces a situation which then explodes into dialog and action. You can really feel, understand, and relate to the character’s expressing their acts.
Hi Mark! ‘Feeling, understanding and relating to..’ yes, that’s what we’re aiming for. Thanks for stopping by.
Yes! This. The old “show don’t tell” maxim is certainly true in this regard. My greatest challenge is trying to inject this sort of telling action in otherwise static scenes without falling into repetition or cliche.
Sometimes it helps to write the crap version, cliche and all, then step back and think ‘how can I make this more original’?
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Another very welcome re-blog from Roz Morris 🙂