Emotion in Writing: Do You Need It?
We went around the room, sharing what we’d written. As I read my piece, I began to cry. That was the week we’d moved my father, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s, to a nursing home.
The instructor looked at me sympathetically and said, “No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader.”
The importance of emotion in writing
No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader. What’s so important about emotion?
I sometimes talk about the three Ts of nonfiction writing. To teach your readers, you must transport them so they pay attention; and if you touch your readers’ emotions, your message is more likely to stick.
Without emotional energy, your writing simply falls flat. It’s dull. It’s a slog—not only to read, but probably to write.
Emotion creates a connection between you and your readers. When readers understand your perspective, they can engage with your message, which makes them more likely to take action. (I’m not going to cite research on this point, but there’s plenty out there.)
For your book to have an impact on your reader, your writing must convey emotion.
Five ways to add emotion to your writing
One common piece of advice for introducing emotion is to tell stories, use anecdotes, and give examples. Great advice—the human brain is trained to pay attention to stories. Let’s take it a little further…
Move from abstract to concrete
When you teach, it’s easy to slip into lecturing about abstract concepts. Stories and examples help make concepts real. Adding concrete, sensory details (sight, touch, sound) creates energy and emotion. Instead of talking about how your father loved you (abstract), describe how he bought you a flouncy, red satin prom dress that he couldn’t really afford (concrete).
When your writing feels dull, check it for abstraction overload and give your reader something tangible to hold onto.
Look for highs and lows
My creative writing instructor asked us to write about the best and the worst, the high and the low. Look for stories and examples that reflect different emotional extremes. Emotions themselves aren’t “good” or “bad,” but they certainly have different charges.
To heighten the impact, put contrasting emotions together. My best thing that week? Escaping the office with a guy I had a crush on and flying down the interstate in his new convertible. What does the reader experience when grief and exhilaration sit side by side?
Look for where you have energy
Including emotion does not necessarily mean sharing personal experiences. Emotion can simply be the energy level that comes through in your writing. Your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) shows up.
Energy often manifests physically, so use that to your advantage. For example, read your writing aloud. How does it make you feel physically? Do the words generate energy? Not sure? Read it aloud to someone else; they can tell you where it has energy and where it flags.
If you can’t decide what to write, make a list of the possibilities and read them to a friend. Have that person pay attention to your facial expressions and tone of voice. If the topic excites you, it will show. (Write it.) If it deadens you, it will show. (Don’t write it.) If it makes you nervous…what then?
Look for the things you shy away from
When something makes you nervous—when you shy away from a topic or tamp down an opinion you wish you could share—include that in your writing. If it’s something you are reacting to emotionally, likely your readers will react to it as well.
Writing about sensitive topics might make you feel vulnerable, but that vulnerability reinforces the human connection with your readers. It says, “Look, I’m a real person—just like you are.” However, don’t do therapy on the page. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader, so be sure you’ve developed some distance from tender topics. I could write the opening scenario for this article only because it happened more than twenty years ago.
Pay attention to craft
This past weekend I was reminded that craft—the technical details of how you write—can evoke emotion as much as content. I took a poetry workshop called “The Energy in the Vowels.” (Yup.) The instructor described how vowel sounds—ay, ee, ah, oh, oo, and so on—can influence the energy of a poem with their high-low tones and frequency of use. Imagine the feeling of a yogi saying “ohm” in Lotus position versus a toddler crying “Whee!” down a slide.
The strategic use of vowels can increase the emotion of your writing! Who’da thunk it?
Of course, many other elements of craft can infuse your writing with emotion. Consonants: Consider what a smooth series of Ss conjures versus the rat-a-tat-tat of Ts. Sentence length: Short or long? Rushed or relaxed? Diction: What different emotions are evoked if I use the words “tepid” and “sweltering” instead of “warm” and “hot”?
What language elements reinforce the emotion that supports your message?
How much emotion is enough?
How do you know you’ve inserted the right amount of emotion in your writing? Perhaps the best way to know is to ask your readers. What do they feel? But before that, trust your gut. When you’ve written a piece with effective emotion, something thunks into place: You sense electricity. You get goosebumps. Relief washes over you.
In a nutshell, you know it when you feel it.
Does every piece of writing need heightened emotion? Of course not. But if it’s important for your message to stick, and if your writing feels lifeless, inject emotion. Follow the energy, find the charge, and you’ll find the emotion.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll find yourself on an exhilarating drive to the nursing home.
Not sure whether your book manuscript has enough emotional energy? A Manuscript Critique & Strategy Intensive can help find the right level for your audience. Get in touch (919.609.2817 or [email protected]) and we’ll talk.
14 Techniques to Write Emotional Truth to Engage Readers: Why It Works and How in Successful Storytelling
Why is engaging the reader’s emotions so important? YA author and award-winning journalist Robin Farmer lays out the answer in this article.
I never fancied myself a fantastic writer. What I do believe I excel at is the ability to capture the emotional truth(s) of a character, scene, chapter, and overall story.
Think about your favorite novels and how they made you feel. Something stirred and lingered, right? You felt—and likely still do—the uncertainty, rage, joy, and love that the characters felt. Perhaps your perspective even shifted as a result.
14 Techniques to Write Emotional Truth to Engage Readers
Defining emotional truth
Emotional truth is elusive and difficult to capture. No standard definition exists. Here’s my crack at it: Emotional truth allows readers to feel a certain way about the experiences of people who may live different lives from them. It’s the lens that allows us to see ourselves in a story that results in a heartfelt connection in a fictional narrative. Emotional truth transcends facts.
The lie is the invented narrative. The truth is an emotional experience not rooted in facts, but through a combination of visual details, actions, settings, inner monologue, and dialogue. What I value most is that emotional truth engenders empathy.
Fostering empathy is the main reason I infuse emotional truth in my work. In these increasingly polarized times, it’s clear empathy is in short supply. Several years ago a report found 40 percent of college freshmen lacked empathy. Reading that left me deeply disturbed. Future leaders need empathy to understand the needs of others. Without it, well… take a look around. Empathetic leaders can build a sense of trust, strengthening their relationships, which can lead to greater collaboration. I’ll leave that here.
I learned the techniques to capture emotional truth during my first fellowship through the Education Writers Association more than twenty years ago. Jon Franklin, author of “Writing for Story,” served as an advisor to my narrative nonfiction project examining survival tactics of gifted black students at troubled schools, where being smart carried a stigma. I was intimidated to work with the two-time Pulitzer Winner whose book included storytelling tips for journalistic articles. Imagine my surprise when Franklin read my three-day series and said, “You got it right.”
Techniques to Use
So how do you tap into such truth as a fiction writer? Here are 14 techniques I use to write with emotional truth:
Be vulnerable. My debut novel, Malcolm and Me, follows a reluctant rebel with the heart of a poet as she navigates a school year fraught with adult hypocrisy. While my protagonist is wounded by a traumatic event involving her Catholic school teacher, I knew she couldn’t wallow in pain and self-pity for 272 pages. She doesn’t. She’s funny, often in “good trouble” and a ball of confusion. Whatever Roberta feels so must my readers. Roberta’s vulnerability was rooted in my teen years. Nothing beats authentic angst.
Mine your secrets. Personal truth feeds the character’s truth. There’s nothing fictitious about that. In writing my debut novel, I borrowed the emotional truth about my struggle to forgive, including those I love deeply, and gave it to my protagonist. I could not write that story with authenticity until I dug deep and understood why I had been stuck and what led to a breakthrough. My clarity informed and honed the behavior of my character.
Listen to the “page people.” Just because you created your characters doesn’t mean you know their every move. Sometimes they will surprise you. Let them. Yield to their whims. When they want to be quiet, don’t force them to speak up. Silence can say a lot, too.
Create challenges. Understand what the protagonist and other characters want then remove it or make it a struggle to obtain. We root for characters we believe in, identify with, and want to succeed. In other words, characters we feel. I heard a speaker say that a novel is akin to taking a ride on an amusement park. Readers have purchased tickets and will feel cheated if a ride fails to carry them up and down and make their hearts pound.
Balance action. Life is messy and so are people’s reactions to it. But not everything happens at a level 10. Mix big, dramatic moments and scenes with quieter ones, which can also amplify emotional truth.
Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer
Cultivate growth. Know the emotional state of your character on page 1 and be clear about the various emotional stages he or she will experience to make it to the end of the story. This growth may not be linear and could include setbacks, but the person must experience changes that feel authentic.
Use your senses. Do you have a song that transports you to your first dance? A perfume or cologne that reminds you of someone no longer alive? Sound, smell, taste, and touch evoke powerful emotions to inspire you.
Pick from an “emotional garden.” Collect bits of dialogue, favorite lyrics, phrases, discarded scenes, observations, and reactions, anything that provokes strong feelings and may feed your current or future story. Visit often.
Learn from other writers. Read often. Reading expands your vocabulary and imagination, shows you what works and what doesn’t, and exposes you to diverse worlds. Reading other authors may also inspire you to take risks with your own work.
Revise, rinse and repeat. Emotional truth is an indistinct quality that works when the characters stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Weaving it into your work requires patience and practice. Writing is rewriting.
I’m big on takeaways. So, keep this acrostic handy for how to elevate the emotional tenor of your work:
Embrace the fear of vulnerability
Organize narrative arcs. Be clear about all stages.
Tap into your memories with music and smells—often-emotional anchors
Include powerful emotions with ordinary ones
Optimize opportunities for a character to accept or reject growth
Nurture an emotional “garden” of evocative material to inspire you
Avoid “one-note” characters; vary responses.
Listen to the unsaid as much as what’s spoken
Trust yourself to go deep and transfer what you find to the page.
Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.
Unearth feelings. Great stories reveal how people feel.
Try harder. Get frustrated. Revise. Rinse and repeat.
Have a sense of humor when appropriate.
Defining the emotional truth in stories can be elusive. But the heart of a reader understands it. As a writer, that’s the test we must strive to ace.
Dive into the world of writing and learn all 12 steps needed to complete a first draft. In this writing workshop you will tackle the steps to writing a book, learn effective writing techniques along the way, and of course, begin writing your first draft.
Robin Farmer, author of a new young adult novel Malcolm and Me, is a national award–winning journalist and transplanted Philadelphian who currently calls the Richmond, Va., area home. At 8, she told her mother she would write for a living, and she is grateful that her younger self knew what she was talking about (many young folks do). Her other interests include screenwriting, poetry, movies, and traveling. She’s still hoping to write stories about young people for television and film. Robin earned her degree in journalism from Marquette University. She lives in Richmond, Va.
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