Emotions.  Some people have them, some people don’t.  Some people weep at weddings, some people sit like rocks at funerals.  However you, or your character, decides to portray emotions, you both need to realize that they are a necessary part of a story.

Emotions make the narrative live and breathe.  You can have a stellar story, charismatic characters, and pretty prose, but if you don’t have emotions flowing along underneath, the story is dead.  Unless you can convey more through your words than they actually say, your story is worthless.  This is what people talk about with correct word choice.  You can choose strong verb after strong verb for your story, but if it doesn’t convey emotions, then what?  I made that mistake earlier this year when I redrafted the same short story, but with “stronger” language.  It doesn’t work unless you have the emotions.

How?  I don’t know.  No certain word will suddenly make your writing emotional.  There is no formulaic paragraph.  It’s personal taste, really, and making sure you aren’t so bogged down with rules that you can’t write freely.  There is no perfect number of sentences for a paragraph.  Your speech tags shouldn’t always be “said”, nor should they always be different from “said”.  The only thing that can kill emotion is logic, and since writing is emotional, logic has no place.  There’s a reason recipes say “Add salt to taste.”  Some people like salt, some people don’t.  It’s a matter of taste.  If there was a formula for everything, we wouldn’t have free will; the world would be on a default pleasure setting that everyone likes.  Not even dystopian societies have that much control.  Humans are creatures of emotion.  If there was none, we wouldn’t be human anymore.

There is a technique I recently heard about, in which you take your story apart and attach a specific emotion to every scene, making sure you don’t have two identical emotions next to each other.  Then you weave those emotion into the narrative.  Happy, stubborn, greedy, sad, tense, whatever you choose– but that’s what you have to stick to.

Let’s assume all that is true.  Again, how do you stick all that in your writing?  Robert Frost has a famous quote:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Sadness and surprise are emotions.  If there are none on the writer’s end, there will be none on the reader’s end.  Thus, we must get ourselves to feel the emotions in order to give them to the readers.  It’s understandable if you’re writing the death of a favorite character; after the death of one of his characters, Alexandre Dumas includes an exclamation of grief whenever the character is mentioned.  It wasn’t overkill– it was sad.  The author is still trying to say goodbye, and the reader can feel his grief.

But how does that work if you know the next plot twist?  How do you surprise yourself when you know something’s going to jump out of that corner?  How do you get yourself worked up if you’ve been planning this death in detail for months?

When something is unexpected, emotion always comes with it.  Humor only works if it’s unexpected, in my opinion, and humor is an emotion.  (More or less.  I should say, the result of humor is laughter, which is an emotion.  More or less.)  So, when humor pops unexpectedly to add emotion where there was none, should we just add humor to every emotional scene?

No.  Not all emotion is the same.  Happiness and sadness are, quite obviously, different.  Why add a happy moment to a scene you want to be sad?  But how to add the unexpected to a scene you’ve been planning for months?

I’m not at all sure yet.  It might be that you have to put your writerly status behind you and write like a reader for a while.  You still know what’s coming, but you live in the moment of the story instead of dwelling on it.  And I suppose that’s what happens.  You write as if you, as well as the reader, as well as the character, are living this as it happens.  You focus on something completely unrelated to that emotion, then spring it on them unexpectedly.  But still, that sounds an awful lot like a formula.

As you can see, I have no idea how this works yet.  I think it’s just to taste, as I said before.  Emotion is everywhere within a good story, just as it is within life.  Your word choices, metaphors, paragraph structure… it all conspires together to create a feeling inside the reader.  There is no right or wrong way to do this, and it irks me.  I confess, I like formulas a little too much, even though I profess to dislike them.  It’s going to be different for everybody, but the one thing that is always true is this: a lack of emotion kills.


91 thoughts on “Emotions

  1. Indeed, I agree about the formulas, too. As much as I say I hate them…they do make it so much easier. But, easier is not always better.

    This is something I find difficult sometimes, and easy the others. But nevertheless, I agree that it’s very important, like it or not. Actually…you’d better like it, if you’re a writer. Anyway.

  2. I always have that problem of surprising myself when I’ve been planning out a specific scene for days. What I find works best for myself is having a really lose outline of what I want that scene to be (such as: man leaves work early and finds lost kitten on the streets), and then I build off of that, writing whatever feels natural.

  3. What do you have to say about over-dramatics? At the moment the book I’m editing contains constant monologues and sighs of despair (maybe I’m exaggerating). I think they are taking away from the action. I guess the obvious answer is, “fix it”, but any additional thoughts?

    1. Well, you don’t want too many thought scenes as opposed to action scenes. You want a ratio of less than one to one on those, so for that, I’d say weave the emotion into the action instead of introspective scenes. Emotion doesn’t necessarily means monologues.

      1. Agreed.
        On an unimportant note, I liked your food reference.
        … Obviously I still like it now (as in “like” in the present tense), I was just saying that no matter how I feel about the reference now, as I was reading the post I liked the food reference. I thought I’d clear that up, if you were wondering.

      2. I assume that you aren’t spending every moment of the present thinking about, reading about, and liking my food reference, so I think the past tense is justified.

  4. Ah! You found the quote! I hadn’t heard the surprise bit before.

    One thing to add. Don’t focus on your emotion so much that you take away from the quality of the story. For example, I have heard a couple of people say that Twilight drags you in emotionally, regardless of the books’ quality.

    No tears in the writer… I have to make myself cry soon.

    1. I knew the quote before, of course, but yes, it’s on some quote website somewhere.

      If anything, emotion adds to the quality of the story. It can’t take away, unless it’s put in the wrong places.

      1. But emotion can also be cheesy. Let’s avoid too much emotion and cheese, shall we?

      2. Quick question that’s not really relevant– do you ever have trouble writing a scene, so you just skip over it and write the next thing, planning to come back to it later?

      3. Robyn, I do that all the time! (another intrusion if you don’t mind). I’ll insert something like this in the text where the missing scene would be…
        {write a scene in which Serena gets a stereotypical teenager’s job}

      4. I get it, Robyn.
        You probably could start out in the middle of the storyline. In fact, you may like starting there in the first place. If you feel like the beginning has too little information, I bet you could write a preface later.
        Anyway, I can’t wait to read this previously mentioned book when it becomes a New York Times bestseller.

      5. The problem with this sort of thing (starting from the middle, I mean) is that you don’t get a sense of the characters as they were at the beginning of the story, but only after they’ve begun to change under the force of character development. Be careful.

      6. I think so (if we’re thinking the same thing). I need to show my characters how they were before the… inciting incident (that may not be what it’s called). And I don’t really like the idea of skipping ahead. I don’t think I can number my notebook pages properly if I do that.
        I just restarted it yet again. Maybe I have the beginning right this time.

  5. Good post. Your posts make me think.

    Emotions are tricky. Sometimes they flow, and sometimes they don’t. And I agree with Robyn; too much emotion is tiring. Having a cast of drama queens is likely to get your book thrown across the room. And so is having a cast of characters with the emotional range of a teaspoon.

    I like that Frost quote, and I do agree, though the times I’ve made myself cry and surprised myself are few. And I may have to try out that one-emotion-per-scene technique, though I do think it has some drawbacks.

    And on a completely unrelated note, I finished Partials this afternoon. Dude. That was probably one of the best books I’ve read all year. Talk about a roller coaster.

      1. The one about the serial killer? I saw that in his author bio on the cover of Partials.

        Have you watched the book trailer for Partials? I just found it on his website, and it’s a ParaGen advertisement for the Partials. Creeeeeeepy. And the trailer for Fragments (which I can’t wait to get my hands on) is a campaign ad for an anti-Partial politician. Also creeeeepy.

      2. I need to watch those. The thing that really drew me in about Partials was the quote on the back– I love world leaders committing suicide. For some very odd reason.

        Yes, that one. It was very well written. It’s a psychological horror– it doesn’t really hit you until you finish it, and then you realize that you go through the exact same things this kid has, mentally. It’s creepy.

      3. The campaign ad is for that politician, which I didn’t realize until after I’d watched it.

        Ooh, that does sound creepy. I don’t think I’ve ever read any psychological horror. Any horror, for that fact, but I’ve seen a few murder mysteries that come close.

      4. I just watched both of them. I didn’t find them that creepy, but I can understand why. I like that sort of stuff. The Paragen ad looks so real.

        Horror isn’t just gory stuff– it’s stuff that makes horror palpable. You might be disgusted by the bloodshed in a book, but it probably isn’t horror.

      5. The realness is what I thought was creepy. So well done.

        True. In one murder mystery I saw the main suspect had multiple personalities… and there was this one where the murderer was five… Okay, maybe those aren’t horror, but I see your point. Horror has more to do with scaring the reader, I think, than gore.

      6. Indeed, indeed. And somehow, the prose just sucks you straight in and ties you to the operating table, even while you notice the scalpel coming at your head.

        Bad analogy.

      7. Ooh! I think they should just give a time when anyone, on any day, could come in and hope to find someone else. It would be better than these scheduled chats, but they’re fine too.

      8. Yeah, that is kind of a bad analogy.

        That would be fun. Suggest that to John. I know at least once someone in the Facebook group said “hey, anyone want to chat on Chatzy?” but that leaves out the cool people not on Facebook.

  6. Hmm, I’ve never heard that humour has to be unexpected. That’s an interest thought! I expect humour in a lot of books I read…and it doesn’t have to surprise me to make me fall off my chair laughing.

    Yep. Writing needs emotion! The books that sit on my “meh” pile are totally the books that didn’t evoke emotion in my while I read them.

    1. My favorite humor is unexpected, but I don’t think all of it has to be. You can have humor in an obvious place, but if the joke itself has an unexpected punch line or something, that’s unexpected, and that’s what I was talking about. I think. Any joke is corny if you see it coming.

      I’m glad you liked it!

  7. Ack! I agree completely and I’ve been wrestling recently with the whole ‘writing rules’ and applying them to my writing when appropriate. I have been thinking of late some of us do some of the rules instinctively and often one loses the power of real writing when they force the writing rules.

    Brilliant post, as always!

  8. I’ve noticed that when ever I’m writing a scene, I don’t really have to try to feel the emotion. Maybe it’s just because I’m an emotional person and I love my characters so much, but when they’re feeling it, I feel it too. There have been countless times that my mother has found me glaring at the computer screen because two characters are arguing. As soon as I come out of the story, I’m not actually angry, but I feel their anger. It’s kinda funny how it works…

    I also discovery write, so I really do surprise myself most times with plot twists. And even if I knew about it before hand, often it doesn’t come out how it was in my head, so I’m still surprised.

  9. Ah, trying to pin down how to get emotion into writing. Otherwise known as “trying to nail jelly to a tree with a wet noodle”.

    I think the fundamentals are, just as you said, that the writer has to feel what they write. Possibly not to the fullest extent – we knew it was coming, for the most part, if we’re the planning type – but we need to pay attention to the words we use. Drawing on personal experience can help, sometimes, because emotions can crop up just about everywhere even if not in the same situation. For the most part, though, I think it’s just empathetic awareness.

    Humans being empathetic creatures, it’s pretty easy to know what sort of things will and will not ellicit emotional responses. Play on those, pick your words write, and remember to FEEL, and I think one is well on one’s way to working it out.

    The rest, though, is all trial and error. And testing it on unsuspecting beta-readers.

    1. I adore Death. (That sounded wrong.) His entire character of world-weary immortal is amazing. And though the story skips around a lot, it’s very emotional by the end. I hope you enjoy it.

      1. I had a very strange dream last night in which The Book Thief turned into a rather different story with you, Robyn, and me in it. 😛 It was very very very strange…

      2. How did that work, Amanda? You have no idea what I look like and I’m guessing no idea what Liam looks like, either except for a few hints for both of us.

      3. Amanda, don’t drag me into it. I don’t mind crediting Liam for influencing me there.

  10. If only there was a logical way to create emotion….

    As you said, I think the author has to feel the emotion himself for it to carry. Roald Dahl said that “It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage.” It is not my intent to be one of these writers, but I think it illustrates that writers of fiction — or at least good writers of fiction — strongly experience the emotions carried in their novels.

  11. It irks me too. Formulas are how I do things, and without them, I’m somewhat lost. You’re a genius I think. I love this blog. 🙂

    1. One thing that’s helped me, which I may write a post on in the future, is to write what I presently know– yesterday, I had a weird pain in my neck, and I gave my character a weird pain in his side. Now he’s bleeding to death in the middle of a palace. (I’m going somewhere with that.)

  12. I think this is the third or fourth post I’ve seen on your blog so far (today) that has “emotions” in the title. *muses* *wonders if she’ll find some more* *should probably read them, and not just glance over them*

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