Emotions are the bridge that connects the writer to the reader. In her excellent book, 52 Dates for Writers, Claire Wingfield points out that fiction really needs authentic emotions.
That’s not just for your characters – that’s also for your readers.
Instalment 7 of 52 Dates for Writers revolves around problem-solving for you as a writer. Dates 26 to 31 cover a range of important considerations, but I chose to focus on Date 31 – “Do something to get your adrenaline going”.
But why should you consider emotions at all?
As much as humans like to think otherwise, our emotions guide us far more than we consciously realise.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discovered that people who suffered damage to the part of the brain that governs emotion find it difficult to make decisions. Logic alone falls apart; when a rational case can be made for two choices, humans resort to the option that has the most emotional resonance.
Without the ability to feel emotions, humans struggle to decide.
So what does this mean for you? Well, it means that, given the choice, readers will connect better with a story underpinned by emotions than one that might be full of action and suspense – but little emotional heart.
But it’s true, emotions can be difficult to write about.
Positive emotions are quite easy. Everyone can remember the times they felt excitement, happiness, or even simple contentment.
Unfortunately, everyone can also recall disappointment, jealousy, anger and bitterness.
But these difficult emotions can be slippery, elusive creatures that hide under lighter, more acceptable facades. You as the writer might shy away from including them.
Maybe you worry readers will judge you for them. Perhaps you’ve based your writing on real events and you don’t want to offend anyone also involved.
But your writing will have more resonance and carry more weight if you explore your own emotions, and those of your characters.
1. Use your own emotions as a guide
Wingfield’s most straightforward advice is to embrace your feelings. Note what they are before, during, and after doing anything. Write them down when they’re fresh in your mind. Maybe even keep a separate journal just to record your feelings.
It can become a useful resource to refer to later.
Next time you need to boost the emotional resonance of your story, pull out your journal and find a time you felt the same way. Thread that through the scene.
This is the part I struggle with the most. In Myers-Briggs terms, I’m an INTP. (Find out what you are here) Emotions do not come naturally. I’m aware of feeling them “in the moment” but I’m not always good at recalling them later.
But it’s something I’ve been making an effort to address. I can empathise with my protagonist Jyx in The Necromancer’s Apprentice when he’s ostracised by his classmates. I can try to amp up his frustration, and disappointment, at being an outcast. Because I’ve felt it too. Chances are, my readers have as well. It makes it easier for them to understand Jyx’s choices because they can empathise with his situation.
This is one of many reasons why few of my stories have romantic elements because I’m so useless at relationships myself. I understand lone protagonists, so that’s what I write. But if I want to grow as a writer, it’s something I need to work on.
2. Consider the emotions of your reader
If you ever want to be a published writer, then you do need to remember there’s a reader at the other end. You need to bear their emotions in mind.
- What do you want the reader to get out of the story?
- Do you want them to feel moved to act, to address an injustice?
- Do you want to make them cry – or laugh?
Laughter is a difficult emotion to include. Mostly because what makes you laugh won’t necessarily make your reader laugh. That’s why I have such ultimate respect for comedy writers!
Still, put it in anyway. For those readers on your humourous wavelength, they’ll appreciate it. The ones who aren’t will just skip over it anyway.
If you want to make them cry, then really dig deep. Find the core of what makes you cry, and pull those heartstrings. Again I find this really difficult because I’m not a weepy person, but it is possible. Just watch any of the scenes between the Creature and Vanessa in the second season of Penny Dreadful. Their interactions made me cry every time!
3. Plot the emotional journey of your characters
Take out your plot outline. You know what’s going to happen to your characters, and you know what they’ll do along the way.
But how will they feel?
Add a second strand to your outline that details their emotional journey. Does this dovetail with the emotions you want your reader to feel? Rewrite it until it does. If the reader feels what your characters feel then you’re onto a winner!
If you don’t have an outline, then look at your opening scenes. What emotions do you want your characters to feel throughout the story? This can help you to have an outline, of sorts, while allowing you to keep being a pantser!
The most easy way to start
Just ask yourself, Why is the story important to you? Was there an emotion that kicked it all off? Was the story a response to an emotional event?
If so, make sure that emotion is in there.
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