As a writer, you’ve probably learned that story is not about what happens. Rather, it’s about how the events affect the protagonist. The plot points may appeal to the reader’s intellect, but you want to go deeper than that, reaching and stirring the coals of a reader’s emotions. That kind of emotional writing is when you make a real connection, establishing something meaningful between writer and reader.
But how is this done? How do you reach beyond the plot points and offer your reader something more? There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but I’m going to focus on one technique for writing emotional scenes that might surprise you.
Emotion is complex. We never experience a single, isolated emotion. Instead, the emotions that sweep through us are a continually changing, multi-layered twist of complicated and often conflicting thoughts and feelings. We each carry deep emotions and a range of emotion, often at the same time.
When you write a scene where something happens to evoke emotion in your character, you probably have your character feel and express the most obvious emotion so your reader can feel it too. It’s only logical.
And because it’s so logical, it hardly needs to be emphasized. Go ahead and let that predictable emotion come out, but consider edging it aside with something unexpected, tainting it with something shameful, or layering it with something seemingly random.
Dig a little deeper
Instead of focusing solely on the emotion that would logically follow the plot event, allow your character to experience some of the deeper layers of emotion surrounding that event.
Is there something in her past that colors the incident? Something she’s trying to hide? Something she can’t admit, even to herself? What subtleties underlie this event? What unbidden thoughts force their way into her mind?
This is often a good time for a mini flashback, or even a full-fledged one. Memory is very powerful tool for evoking emotion and is an effective way to reveal a surprising emotion, one that goes beyond what your character should be feeling to delve into the deeper layers of her psyche.
Further argument for the flashback
Another good reason to use a flashback when introducing an intense emotion is that it gives your reader time to process. Drawing out a memory slows the pace and gives your reader an opportunity to process what’s happening on the page and arrive at his own emotional response. This is key for emotional writing.
Telling the reader what to feel is a sure-fire way to make sure they won’t really feel it. Much better to come at it sideways with unexpected or conflicting emotion. When the reader processes and generates his own emotional response, the story becomes more meaningful and more memorable.
Let’s look at an example
Imagine your character witnesses a child getting hit by a car. That’s going to generate some emotion, the most obvious of which is horror and concern for the poor child.
What are some of the other emotions that will be flying around inside your character? Maybe pity for the parents, empathy or blame for the driver, impatience for the ambulance to arrive, and so on. Emotions that would logically follow such an event.
These are all normal and expected, but what happens when we peel back some layers and go deeper into the emotional experience?
Might we encounter relief that the child hit was not her own? Guilt for harboring such feelings?
A hint of ghoulish voyeurism, wanting to get closer and be in the drama of the moment? A random, insignificant thought that persistently intrudes like “Do my socks match?” This might be a manifestation of shock or denial, the mind trying to deny what it just saw or avoid the emotional pain of the experience.
Using this emotional writing technique deepens and broadens the range of emotions, allowing your reader an emotional journey of his own.
The importance of distance
Readers are people. Each reader comes to your book with her own unique perspectives and package of past experiences. Using distance in fiction is a little like how Christ used parables in his teaching. It allows each individual to accept and embrace as much as they are ready and willing to.
Like flashback, distancing techniques, such as humor and objective showing, give your reader the space she needs to determine how close she’ll let the story get to her heart.
For example, when a character’s life is too dark or painful to ask readers to deal with directly, give them the option of stepping back. I recently heard from a fan of my work who said she couldn’t read my latest book because it hit too close to home. She knew it would surface painful emotions for her.
The Tower deals with a rough domestic situation, and I didn’t always allow my readers a lot of distance from my protagonist, using techniques to instead pull them in close. A decision that clearly might cost me some readers.
Readers read for emotion
Readers come in all varieties, each looking for something a little different in their ideal reading experience. But on the most basic level, every reader reads for emotion. He wants to feel something. He wants an emotional connection.
If you’re a fiction writer and interested in learning more about writing emotions and working toward emotional mastery, I suggest reading Donald Maass’s very fine book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How To Write The Story Beneath The Surface.
The book includes an in-depth look at several useful techniques for evoking emotion in your readers, and makes compelling arguments for why you’d want to. Here’s one of my favorites:
And that’s a worthy goal—to send readers on a journey through their own emotional landscape. By creating a reading experience that evinces, surprises, and provides space for growth and exploration, we can make a connection with readers through our characters and the emotions they share with the reader.
How about you? What techniques have you used to engage your readers' emotions? Would you like to develop more emotion tools for your writer’s toolbox? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Using the following prompt, explore the palette of emotions the point of view or POV character might feel and express. Go ahead and start with the obvious, go-to emotions, but don’t stop there. Dig deeper and think about possible, unexpected emotions that might come, unbidden, to your character.
PROMPT: Jewel intercepts a message from her husband, intended for another woman, and discovers he is having an affair.
List down the emotions that come to mind. Then think harder, and jot down a few more. Pick one or two surprising emotions and use them to write a scene, layering them over and around the obvious emotion to create a richer reading experience.
Enter your practice here:
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.