Being a Better Writer: Real Emotion

This post was originally written and posted June 21st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

This is a topic I’ve received numerous questions and requests about: How do you write with real emotion? How do you make a scene actually have that emotional impact? How do you keep your readers from glossing over the emotional scenes? How do you keep from getting too emotional? Variations on this question have peppered several comment threads as well as my inbox for quite some time now, and today … Well, today I’m finally going to give all those patient readers an answer.

Well, not just an answer, more of a guiding approach, really. Because emotions aren’t like other aspects in a story. While emotions are indeed a tool of a writer, they aren’t like other tools. Some tools, like setting, skills, and props can be adjusted as we need them. Need a character to make a daring swinging escape from a building? Sit and think for a minute, then write in a single line describing the guide-wires attached to one of the buildings antenna arrays that lead to the ground. Or … something of that nature. You get the idea. Basically, in order to advance our plot, a writer does have certain amount of freedom and flexibility with their tools to write themselves towards the next scene or event.

Emotion, however, isn’t like that. Emotion isn’t a set piece. Emotion is a character trait, defined by your characters and not by you. Harder still, this means that a character’s emotions are a living, fluid thing that evolve from scene to scene, from word to word, from event to event.

Think of it like this. Your scene, your setting, and events in the story? These things are like stone blocks and ramps. You can drop them into the story and carve them into whatever shape you desire, and as long as they fit together, you’ve got a cohesive work.

Emotions, however, are not solid things. Emotions are fluid, like water, flowing through the solid elements of your work. They can hit with enough force to shift things, erode the stones of setting and events, but they cannot be simply “grasped” and moved to a new location in the story. It’s like trying to change the course of a creek by grabbing the water with your hands and moving it elsewhere.

This makes writing character’s emotions incredibly difficult, and a frequent stumbling block for young writers. Because for most young writers, you usually start a scene with a goal in mind. But quite often, when a young writer wants to have a character’s emotions in a scene, they think of these emotions as fixed, unmovable, just as solid as the other elements of the scene. So they set out to write a short work in which the main characters end up angry at one another by the end of the scene only to reach the end and realize that—uh-oh—the characters aren’t angry.

Here’s where things break apart, because the novice writer often won’t understand the why or what, nor the idea that emotions aren’t malleable at the author’s whim, and so they force it. They want the chapter to end with the characters angry, and so the characters get angry. Without any real reason, or if the author has slightly more exp than zero, they might include a faint, sudden reason.

But to the reader, the break is obvious. The immersion is broken. The characters were angry for no real reason or cause. The emotion was forced.

So how can we avoid being that writer? Well, first of all we must understand that the emotions in our story are not ours to play with. This is another aspect of that water-like trait I was talking about earlier. You, as the writer, do not have direct control over a character’s emotions. Why? Because they are the character’s. You only have secondary control. The character will determine where their emotions are taken, the only control you have over that is in what events you give the character to manipulate those emotions. Like water, you’ll need to shape your story so that if a character needs to be feeling a certain way at a certain time, you’ll need to make certain that the solid elements you’ve placed in front of them will guide their emotions in that direction.

Of course, there are two additional caveats that we must consider here. The first is a common mistake that can mark a somewhat experienced writer, the other, a writer who doesn’t understand his characters. The first caveat is that when setting up your “solids” you don’t want it to appear as if you’re doing so. Certainly there are books I can remember reading (even as a child) where the “events” that drove a characters emotions to a certain mood were clearly written into the book simply to cause those emotions. Freaky Friday (the book, not the films), in particular, even when I was eight might as well have had signs posted throughout the story that declared “this scene/event is only here to set up the protagonist’s emotions for the next scene.”*

The other caveat that you’ll often see also happens to be one of the areas where my “water” analogy breaks down. Because unlike water, which doesn’t care where it’s been, your characters do. If you make a character angry via application of specific reasons, you need to remember what drove the reaction, how angry they got, and how they felt about it afterwards. Characters progress, which means that the second time you try to pull the same sequence of “solids” with a character, they may react in an entirely new way based upon their other actions and events in the story so far. It’s a cumulative affect. When this happens in a story, you have a writer who doesn’t understand their characters as they should (or perhaps believes that characters are as solid as their set pieces).

While that first caveat is fairly straightforward, this second one can be a lot trickier, and ties back into other ways to make our emotions more real. If we want our emotions to be real, we need our characters to be real. And for our characters to be real, we need to understand our characters on a deeper level than simply a list of bullet points.

Now, I’ve directly addressed this before, in several different blog posts, so I don’t feel a great need to repeat myself today on the specifics of understanding and creating a real character or developing them, but understand that you will need to understand them on a close, deep level if you’re going to be able to tap into their emotional state. I want you to think of your best friend. Can you tell when they’re upset? Happy? Worried? Fearful? How? Why? What made them feel that? You can probably reasonably answer each of those questions, can’t you?

Well, you need to be able to do the same with your characters if you want their emotion to be real. You need to understand their wants, needs and thoughts in a way that’s almost real in order to be able to write them as if they are real. For instance, Sabra is not real. Sad, I know. But when I write him, I treat him as if he is real. He was wants, needs, desires, and thoughts. His relationship with Sky, his place on the team? Those concerns become real, and when I write his character,  his emotions become real things that influence how he acts and thinks.

All right, I think I’ve just about covered it as far as that goes. But that doesn’t mean we’re done. We’ve covered some of the basics, but there’s still some other things to consider. For example, now that you understand your character’s emotions and have everything set up to achieve those emotions, what about when it comes to writing the scene itself? What about those other questions I asked, like how you get the scene to have the emotional impact?

Well, having the characters emotions and events be true to the character helps, but you also have to think about how you’re going to write it. And here is where I get to reference another blog I wrote recently. Remember how the post on “Show Versus Tell” and how you need a balance? Well, emotions are one of those areas where you want the scale to flip more towards “show” than “tell.”

Alexi was sad. It was hard to breathe. “No, you told me … you told me he’d be okay. You told me …” She began to cry. “No!”

Well, this is all true, and yes, you might have had all the requisite elements to get there, but dang, that doesn’t really make you as a reader react does it?

Alexi stumbled back, shaking her head from side to side as a a fist seemed to tighten around her chest. “No,” she said, fighting for breath. “No, you told me … you told me he’d be okay. You told me …” Her vision began to blur, hot tears welling up in her eyes and burning stray paths down her cheeks. “No!”

Whoa, that hits a bit harder, doesn’t it? See the difference that playing with the balance of show and tell made? Emotion is something that you’ll definitely want to show, not tell about. Again, as I repeated in the blog post on show versus tell, this isn’t an “always” option. There will be times you tell emotions for various reasons. Judge for yourself. But know that showing emotion is much more impactful than simply telling.

But, even if you’ve done all of this to a T, there’s still the question of how to get readers to keep from glossing over the emotion. You’ve written a scene and you’ve done all the above, but you’re worried that readers will simply blitz past it, or skip over the scene. What do you do in this case?

Well, this is where you need to think about how impactful this emotion is to the overall story and characters. Do you need to have a scene of intense emotion at this point? Are the emotions you’re conveying to the reader important to the characters involved? Emotion is all well and good, but is it accomplishing anything for the story? Or is just an emotional scene that has little impact or importance later? Or is it that is is important later, but the readers don’t understand that now? You may need to make sure that you’ve correctly hinted at the reader that this scene is important, or check that it is. And if it isn’t, well, I’m afraid you may have some editing to do.

The other side of the coin might be that you’ve made things a little too emotional. In one of the character discussions I linked above, I warned of the dangers of melodrama. Showing emotion is a good thing. Changing Alexi’s “she was sad” tell to the more showy lines of giving us what happened to her was good, but if that went on for a page or more? Well, we’d have Twilight.

I kid! I kid! But really, who wants to read several pages of that? Not many, I would argue. If you’re finding that while your readers like your scenes of emotion they’re starting to tire of them, perhaps you’re doing too well and giving them too much to work with. A lot of writing is balance, and finding the right balance of emotion for your work will be a skill you’ll pick up.

So, things to remember:

—Emotion is not a solid set piece that you can drop into a story. Emotion is a fluid thing, influenced heavily by character and the events of the story so far.

—With that, emotion is something that also holds and carries over as a character grows. The same scenario will not always yield the same emotions.

—You control the character, not their emotions.

—You must understand a character in order to give them real emotion.

—Let the character be true to themselves, even if that means perhaps changing elements of the story.

—Showing emotion, rather than telling, will help give your emotional scenes impact that resonates with a reader.

—As will making the emotions important to the characters and the story itself.

—As with all good things, too much can be just as bad as not enough. Learn the balance for your work.

Writing real emotion isn’t easy. Crud, it’s downright hard. One of the fan-favorite chapters from Rise, an emotional scene between Nova and Luna? That took me twice as long to write as most chapters in the book. There were headaches and a lot of slow, careful thought. Writing a scene with real emotion is difficult.

But when I look at the comments, at the number of tropes pages that reference it, I can see the impact taking the time to do it right had for the story. And you know what? It also got a little easier to write the next emotion scene, because the practice paid off.

I’ll see you all next week!

*Sometimes you must remember that it’s often best to let characters write their own stories. Even if that involves a change to what we had planned, don’t be afraid to let your characters be themselves and run away with the story.

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