Emotions are our life blood. We make significant and trivial decisions based on emotion. Decisions like taking or quitting a job, marriage and divorce, having children, one night stands, etc. Most decisions are made with the influence of emotion – fear, anger, love, passion, jealousy, happiness . . . emotions are endless.
Why Emotions are Important
Imagine a life without emotion. Everything would be the same, day in and day out. I wouldn’t say boring, because some might consider that an emotion, but if there is no emotion, there can be no inspiration.
Now let’s translate that to writing and storytelling. If there is no emotion in the character’s lives, or the writing itself, no one will want to read it. Stories without emotion are a waste of words.
How to Use Emotion
Emotions are a part of our every breath, but you shouldn’t use that much detail in your writing. If you spend every scene detailing the emotions of that scene, your readers will get sick of it. The key comes back to what should be happening with all your fiction – you should be showing rather than telling. Showing enables the reader to truly immerse themselves in the story. Telling distances them because you are simply stating how it is without allowing them to create the world in their own mind.
Showing emotions is especially vital, because they can be different things to different people. To use an old phrase, though, actions speak louder than words. Saying ‘he loved her’ leaves too much room for interpretation because the word ‘love’ has so many different meanings in American culture today. We need to be shown how he loves her.
I have three types of men in my life – my father, my brother, and my husband. They all love me in different ways, and knowing what their relationship to me is will help identify how they love me. It’s not going to be more than words until the action is shown, though.
So how do you show emotion? Through the body language and thoughts of the characters. Dialogue can be used also, but don’t rely on only dialogue.
She ran as fast as she could, laughing into the wind. He was chasing her, and gaining ground quickly. Trying to dodge him by ducking around trees, their shrieks were heard all the way to the road when his arms wrapped around her waist and they tumbled to the ground. Holding her tightly for just a moment, he kissed her cheek. They rolled over on the grass, staring up at the sky. “Love you,” they both sighed at the same moment, and huffed at the fact afterward.
Hesitant footsteps signaled her entrance, and he turned to face her. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart raced, as she smiled at him. She was beautiful, and he wanted to smile back, but his mouth wouldn’t work. Even after all this time, she still made him speechless. Why had she chosen him? He had never been able to understand that, but he would always make sure she never wanted to change her mind.
They twirled together on the dance floor, her laughter reminding him of all the years gone by. They had both changed, but her changes were more noticeable to him. He hoped that she had not heard the melancholy sigh that escaped him as he spun her. The music ended, and he smiled as their eyes met. She was no longer the little girl he had set on his shoes to dance. He tried to tell her he loved her, but his voice was too choked up. She smiled understandingly, a glimmer of tears in her eyes, and all too soon he handed her over to her new husband.
I didn’t label which kind of love was the objective of each example, you should be able to tell by the end of each one. I know these aren’t the most well-written examples ever, but it should get the idea across. I used description of body language and internal dialogue at times, but tried to avoid character dialogue except in the first case, where the sibling camaraderie between the two was appropriate. All of these scenes could be extended, but the focus was on the emotions the characters were feeling.
An instinctive reaction depends on the emotion the character is feeling at the time. If someone taps you on the shoulder from behind, your reaction will depend on how the circumstances are making you feel. If you think you’re home alone you will react much differently than if you’re waiting on a friend in a public place.
Emotions will be different depending on the character, so get to know the characters you create. If you take the time to develop them, knowing their emotions and how they work will make knowing their reactions much easier.
Writing Emotional Circumstances
How do you write the emotion behind an experience you’ve never had, though? By referencing the emotions you already have! The feeling of grief is the same whether you have lost a beloved pet or a family member, the latter will simply be more intense and (most likely) last longer. Everyone has experienced a phobia at some point, or felt envious of a friend, or felt wronged. It does require imagination and creativity, but the potential for every type of emotion is already inside each of us, it’s simply a question of whether we have used it or not.
Writers must be the ultimate con artists – we must convince our readers to not only believe our ideas, but that we also know what facing any situation is like and how to react to it. It’s a difficult task at times, but not impossible.
Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Seventh Edition by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Believable Characters – “I think I know them . . .”
Dialogue – Who said what?