Friday, June 10, 2016

7 Tips for Writing Emotion Into Your Story

Have you ever finished reading a book and walked away feeling nothing? No attachment to the characters, no joy in their success or sadness in their failings.

As a writer, this is one of my biggest fears. What if somebody reads my book and feels no emotion towards it? That’s about as large of a failure as most writers can imagine.

So how do we avoid this pitfall? How do we write emotions into our story? A difficult question, since “emotion” is a rather slippery word that is hard to define and even harder to teach people. But I think it's a question worth exploring. Ready? Okay, here we go:
1. Ask yourself why your reader should care. Before you start trying to write an emotionally engaging story, you have to know why it’s important that your readers are engaged. While the answer “Because if they aren’t engaged they won’t like my book and then I’ll never sell my stories” is a very profound and noble response, you’ll want to dig a bit deeper. Why should they care? What will they take from it? We didn’t feel sympathy for Faramir because he was in an unfair position. We were touched by his story because we witnessed that somebody can stay kind and brave through bad situations. We cheer on Black Widow, not because her past was hard, but because we like seeing that people can correct and rise above their mistakes. Do you see where I’m going with this? Give your story a few core themes that anyone can identify with. If people can’t identify with or learn from it in even a small way, they won’t care. People are just selfish like that. Sorry.

2. Be ready to be emotional yourself. If you aren’t emotionally engaged in your story, then there is no way that your readers will be. This is something that storytellers of all forms have come to recognize. I think it was best explained through the Stanislavski's system back in the early 1900’s: this actor and director taught his students to reach realism in their movies by bringing their own experiences and emotions to their roles. They were told to connect to their character and make it “alive” through their own thoughts and emotions. The same exact technique can be used for writing. Put yourself into the story and imagine what it would feel like to be this character or that character. Then write.

3. Come up with an anchor. If you are trying to write feelings into a scene, you’ll need a center emotion. All actions will come out of this center emotion. If there is more than one character in the room, then you’ll have more than one “center emotion.” Pick a word, a memory, an image, or a color that makes you feel that emotion. It will keep you focused and help prevent you from bleeding millions of emotions all over your page. When I wrote Skies of Dripping Gold, the anchor I picked for Gabriel was the picture of a man with a shattered black cloud sitting in his chest and oozing everywhere. For whatever reason, my brain connected that image with great amounts of confusion and anger and fear and determination, the very emotions I wanted Gabriel to come across as having. So whenever I wrote a scene focusing on him, that’s what I thought about. Not only did this help me accurately write his feelings, but it made the emotions so powerful that it ended up bleeding through into my readers. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, right? Okay, everyone pretend that I didn’t just use Bud Light commercial logic to support my writing techniques.

4. Avoid being melodramatic. Say your character has just had a great triumph.We’re supposed to feel triumphant, too. But maybe you’re concerned that we won’t. So what should you do? Start talking about how the sun is pouring through the clouds and seems to pierce into his very heart, illuminating him and filling him with immeasurable triumphant-ness. Bad idea. If you feel the need to be overly enthusiastic about your emotion-painting, then you should probably look back at your story and see what went wrong. That being said, I know many writers who have made melodrama their style. That’s fine. But if you’re not a melodramatic writer and then randomly switch into melodrama, well, you have a problem.

5. Show rather than tell. As much as I hate writing rules, I think this one is pretty good as far as emotional writing goes. Don’t tell us your character is angry: Show her twitching right hand and the jutting out of her chin. Don’t mention the peacefulness of sitting under that tree: show us the way it’s leaves sway in the cool breeze. Don’t tell your readers about the feeling in the story, let them experience it for themselves.

6. Be concise. While you want to show your readers emotions, don’t show them too much. If a detail or emotion isn’t relevant to the scene or isn’t elemental in you moving your reader in a specific way, then cut it out.

7. Dialogue is key. In moments of heavy emotion, less dialogue is more. It’s not likely that your characters are going to sit down in a little circle and discuss their feelings. So make sure that whatever dialogue exists matters. It doesn’t have to be intelligent or even make sense: Emotions rarely do. It just has to make us feel. For example: [Warning: spoilers for Captain America: Civil War below] When Iron Man is tearing into Bucky after discovering that he killed his mother, he asks Bucky: “Do you even remember them?” Bucky could have responded in a lot of ways: “Yes, of course I do,” “Yes, and I feel so horrible and ashamed,” or “I’m so sorry, forgive me.” All of these would have been true statements, but they wouldn’t have felt right. What was his real response? “I remember all of them.” Add that to his tormented, confused, angered expression, and everybody in the audience feels like they’ve had their hearts ripped out. That, my friends, is how it’s done. 
Just in case you didn't already feel sad...
Writing emotions into a story is difficult work. Remember that the above are tips to help guide you: they aren’t hard and fast rules. Emotional writing is not entirely technical. Try not to overthink things. Just dive deep into your story and be ready to write hard.

And, if that doesn't work, you can always make both of your characters have mothers named Martha. Then they can scream the word "Martha" and it will be very emotional. Actually, no. Under no circumstances should you do this. Sorry Snyder.

How do you write emotions into your story? Do you find it difficult, or does it come naturally? Who are some writers that do it admirably? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Related articles: 
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29 comments:

  1. Awesome tips! You write informatively with good examples. My favorite tip is #3: finding an anchor to describe emotion and to keep the writer focused--bring on Pinterest! (Unless, of course, it turns into a procrastination thing...) Musical theatre songs are are a favorite anchor of mine because melody and lyrics often work together brilliantly to convey emotion.

    I would add something to tip #2: be emotionally invested in your character's struggles--but also objective. Especially if your character is suffering something you've dealt with in the past, or perhaps still struggle with. It's easy to fall into guilt, or a pity party, or to excuse the character's actions because of his struggling with chronic fatigue, or whatever. Balance is key. Otherwise, the scene will probably veer off into melodrama. :-)

    I love examining the work of the masters to learn how they pack such emotional punch. One thing Tolkien did to great effect is to contrast emotions. Sam and Frodo get a brief rest in Ithilien with Faramir; this gives them and the readers a respite from the heaviness danger--but it makes the Dawnless Day grimmer by contrast. And Faramir's nobility contrasts Smeagol's treachery.

    Your remark about mothers named Martha made me laugh. :-)

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    1. Thank you, Christine! I'm glad you enjoyed it...and that my Martha reference made you laugh. =)

      I completely agree with your addition to tip #2. You don't want to get so attached to your character that you become their completely biased fan rather than a thoughtful writer.

      I also loved how Tolkien compared and contrasted characters. We have Frodo and Smeagol who are kind of similar, and then Sam and Faramir who are just so loyal and nobel. It really was brilliant writing. =)

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

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  2. The first thing I thought when I saw this was "Aw yiiissss Hannah wrote a new post." Then I thought "Yes, EMOTION!"

    I think I struggle a lot with the melodrama thing, I'm so glad you mentioned it because I didn't think about it before. But then I read the tip, and went, "Huh, that sounds exactly like me." Oops. I guess I gotta work on that =)

    Thanks for sharing the awesome tips! It helps a bunch.

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    1. Lol! It makes me happy to know that my posts get people excited. =D

      I also struggle with melodrama at times, which is why it became a main point. I was partly trying to hammer the "balance the melodrama" rule into myself. It's just hard sometimes. I'm sure you and I will get the hang of it some day. =)

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  3. These are fantastic tips. I especially like #3. I feel that if you feel something while writing, it is bound to come through in what you write.

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  4. Very smart tips, Hannah - as always, there is much to learn from your posts :) Perhaps the most important pointer is to consider each other characters and their backstories separately, so that you may formulate a plan. Real emotion is rooted in a powerful story, which can be unrelated to the main plot. Fabulous post!

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    1. Great point! I like that you said to consider their backstories separately. It's important to treat each character as an individual, otherwise things will get all messy and monotonous.

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  5. ACK!! YES! This is super helpful, because I am terrified of writing something either too sappy/dramatic or something flat/unemotional. Your tip with Gabriel actually stands out the most for me... I could FEEL that heaviness when I read the story & could almost see that dark cloud you were telling us about. (And I promise I haven't forgotten about my review for that fabulous story, by the way! It will come! I took a spontaneous blogging-hiatus & am just now getting back into the swing of things. Lol!)

    Thanks for the tips, love!! <3

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    1. Yay! I'm so glad that you felt the "dark cloud" I tried to convey. =) And take your time with the review. I trust you. Also, you get major points for nerd referencing my story. I have no doubt that it will come. =)

      Happy that you found the post helpful! Happy writing.

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  6. I was very happy to see that you mentioned the Stanislavski method, also known as method acting. In Gail Carson Levine's creative writing textbook "Writing Magic", she devotes a whole chapter to what she calls method writing. I've found it very helpful for myself and especially for young writers who don't have a broad scope pf experiences to draw on on their writing. I was once coaching a fourteen year old writer who was working an a novel about an alien stranded on Earth. It was a marvelous and original plot, but it was very flat. Her family had recently moved to Israel from England, so I advised her to remember how she had felt arriving in a strange country where she didn't even know the language and yo transfer those emotions into her alien. The story became much more engaging and relatable.

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    1. That is so cool that "method writing" is an actual technique! I'm going to have to check out that book. Thank you for telling me about it!

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  7. Thank you for your guides.
    I am a writer in my country (Malaysia). I write novels and short stories in my mother's tongue (malay).
    I'll keep reading to improve my writing skill.
    I am a senior citizen aged 67.

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    1. Wow. That is so awesome! I'm wishing you the best of luck on your writing journey.

      Your English is very good, by the way. =)

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  8. Writing emotions is one of the hardest challenges for me as a writer. It probably has a basis in my own personality, but it's something I have to constantly check myself for. When I was first getting started I found THE EMOTIONAL THESAURUS an extremely useful resource. I still refer to it sometimes if I get stuck!

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    1. Ha! The Emotional Thesaurus, huh? I can actually see how that would be very helpful. Emotion is probably one of the hardest parts about being a writer, probably because it sucks out all of our energy. =)

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  9. The anchor concept is really interesting. I'll be keeping this in mind more as I write! And #5 and #7 are my pet peeves for when stories get emotions wrong. The movie adaptation of Insurgent really irked me for this exact reason. All the emotional moments were forced, delivered with arbitrary, excessive dialog. I felt like the characters were telling me, "You're supposed to feel this emotion now!" rather than leading me through the process of actually feeling the emotion.

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    1. Yeah, those are my pet peeves, too. I never saw Insurgent because I heard that that was a main issue.

      Let me know how using the anchor concept goes! It's helped me a lot.

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  10. Emotions and feelings both the factors are essential for our human behavior. Therefore we should put our emotions and deal with proper feelings whenever we involve in any work. In case of writing stories a writer is capable to put his or her emotions in it, so that readers are able to read with their feelings.
    Emotion Tips

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  11. This is a good article with points I've heard before, but told differently. I like how you have taken the tougher points and made them extremely simple to understand.
    One of the biggest things I struggle with while writing is getting emotionally engaged with the characters. In the real world, this is the complete opposite of me. My parents split when I was less than 5. (That whole story remains a mystery to me because no one will tell me the truth about that situation.) I've never really been able to connect with people because I've gotten hurt a lot and so I have a cast on my heart and thick walls surrounding me as well. Somehow, my wife made it past all that!
    I had no idea how really alone I felt until I entered a writing contest 2 months ago. I am currently sitting in the top 8 waiting for round 5 to be judged. What has been a real eye-opener for me, has been how emotionally taxing writing these stories has been. It wasn't until one story in particular surfaced did it dawn on me that I struggled writing emotions because I struggle with them in real life. It just goes to show that it is really hard not writing yourself into the story.
    The two big things I'm focusing on is dialogue and showing not telling. It is only recently that it finally clicked with the showing part.
    Good article and keep up the good work here.

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    1. Thank you so much for this heartfelt comment, Zavier. It's funny how writing works: one of the poitns to writing is to discover and grow new character, but often we end up discovering and growing ourselves. While it is hard that you had to go through your parents getting divorced and having your heart hurt so many times, I'm so glad that writing has helped you learn to break through that and deal with it. It also made me happy to hear that your wife is sticking with you. =) Once we're able to identify and work through our own problems, often our writing gets so much better. I'm excited for your and your stories. Keep up the awesome work!

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  12. This was super helpful, and you get bonus points and a basket of puppies for including references involving both Faramir, and Bucky Barnes, Who may or may not be something like my fictional soulmates, but that's beside the point. I loved this, I think it will be very useful to keep these easily digestible rules in my head as I try to craft my characters, though writing a biographical novel has more constraints than straight fiction, I have to make my characters as close to fact as possible.

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    1. Bonus points and puppies? Aww. Thank you! Faramir and Bucky Barnes are favorites of mine, too. =)

      I would imagine that writing a biographical novel would put some interesting constraints on character creation. Best of luck on your project!

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  13. I also found #3, anchoring your characters and "method writing" particularly applicable. Also had to learn not to identify with my heroine. Since the idea for my novel came from my daydreams and wishes, (this is a first novel) I didn't know how to set it up. Took me 50 years of playing around before I finally got serious and stuck with it to the end.

    Then I became friends with a writing coach and discovered the story wouldn't attract readers. I didn't have enough conflict because in daydreams everything always comes out "happily ever after." At least they do in mine.

    Looking at your list, I'm not sure I have a theme other than "I wish I could live my life over and make it different." So I guess I'll be downloading some of your other posts too.

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  14. "Don’t tell us you’re character is angry" Dude. Hugeass pet peeve here.

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    1. Gah. I hate it when I do that. I have edited the typo.

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  15. Great writing tips. Glad I discovered this post.

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