December 12, 2013

How to Strengthen Emotions in Our Writing

Dumbbell with text: Stronger Emotions Strengthen Our Writing

Last time, we discussed ways to use The Emotion Thesaurus to avoid problems like telling instead of showing, head-hopping away from the point-of-view character, and clichéd writing. The fourth issue we touched on was avoiding flat or unemotional writing.

This last one is a bigger issue than can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs. Whole books could be (and probably have been) written about how to evoke emotions in readers. So I wanted to return to this point with a few more tips.

Like many things on my blog, this is an area I’ve struggled with during my learning curve. By no means do I claim to have “perfected” these techniques. Sometimes knowing and understanding a concept can be a very different problem from implementing a concept. *smile* So please feel free to add your tips and advice in the comments!

Every Emotional Response Needs a Cause

As I mentioned in my last post, understanding Dwight Swain’s Motivation Reaction Units (MRUs) can help us write emotional responses. Just like real people, our characters experience emotions when something triggers those emotions. This is the action/reaction chain:

“A story’s narrative is made up of a chain of actions (stimulus / motivation / cause) and reactions (response / effect). … The response to the previous action becomes the stimulus to the next response, and so on until the end of the story.”

So the emotional response of a character should be tied to the stimulus. A bigger or more unexpected stimulus would lead to a bigger reaction. A minor stimulus would lead to an understated reaction. Many (if not most) issues are caused by a mismatch between the two.

What Contributes to Flat, Unemotional Writing?

Let’s examine some of the different causes that can contribute to flat and unemotional writing: ( * See note below.)

  • Lack of response to a stimulus: If characters don’t react when something happens in the story, readers will see a “robot” instead of a character.
  • Misplaced response to a stimulus: If characters react before readers know the stimulus, the reaction won’t resonate as strongly.
  • Weak response to a stimulus: If characters seem underwhelmed, readers—unless they have reason to doubt the character—will assume the character knows the situation isn’t a big deal and will tone down their reaction.
  • Clichéd response to a stimulus: If characters react in a clichéd way, readers may skim over the response, lessening its impact.
  • Chopped/compressed response to a stimulus: If characters’ reactions feel cut off or compressed, readers won’t feel the full emphasis of the stimulus.
  • Superficial response to a stimulus: If characters react with only a physical or an internal or a mental response (rather than a combination of responses) to a major stimulus, the reaction can feel superficial.
  • Inappropriate response to a stimulus: If characters react wildly different from what readers expect (outside of societal norms or out-of-character) with no explanation, readers can distance themselves from the character because they no longer relate to them.
  • Melodramatic response to a stimulus: If characters overreact to a stimulus, readers can distance themselves from the story due to a lack of believability.

* Note: These techniques can also be used successfully to accomplish a goal, such as misleading the reader or creating behavior tics for character development, etc. If intentional, these methods aren’t a problem.

Matching the Stimulus and the Response

Every stimulus needs a response. The trick is finding the right response for the situation.

Sometimes a situation will call for a basic response just because the reader needs something to know the character isn’t a robot. As I mentioned last time, if a new character walks into the room, our point-of-view character should react in some way (look up, say “hi,” mentally grumble, etc.). A reader could be confused if the character doesn’t react in any way. The emotional goal for those sections might simply be to avoid a “speed bump” that takes the reader out of the story.

Other situations will call for a complex response. A complex response combines several emotional cues. For the reader, those cues will add up to more than its pieces and parts to create emotion.

How Writers Create Emotion

Just like with our characters, if we want our readers to experience emotion, we have to trigger it in some way. Our writing will be the stimulus of their emotion.

Every aspect of our writing can convey emotion:

  • Dialogue: “I want you to leave. Now.”
  • Dialogue Cues: Her voice broke.
  • Thoughts: She couldn’t take anymore.
  • Action: She slammed the door.
  • Body Language: She crossed her arms.
  • Visceral (Internal) Reaction: Her chest tightened.

Obviously, those short descriptions wouldn’t create much emotion in readers on their own. However, when all we need is a basic response, short-and-sweet descriptions will do the trick. They acknowledge the stimulus without overemphasizing it.

How Writers Emphasize Emotions

Other times we want to emphasize the emotion of an event. In general, the more words we dedicate to an event, the more we’re telling the reader to pay attention. By expanding an existing emotional cue and/or adding new emotional cues, we can add more emphasis to the emotions.

Margie Lawson teaches a technique in her Empowering Characters’ Emotions class of how to add emotional hits to a story event. Through a combination of adding more emotional cues (mixing physical, internal, and mental responses) and expanding them in a non-cliché way with strong “power” words, we can emphasize the emotions.

Along with pacing, mood, tone, and the stimulus itself, the emotional cues of the scene as a whole will lead the reader on the emotional path we want them to take.

How Writers Empower the Emotions of Big Events

Sometimes we need even more emphasis on the emotions, and that means we need to add power to an event without becoming repetitive. For those really big emotional events, we can “empower” the response by expanding into multiple paragraphs of emotional cues.

One way I approach creating a “deep enough” response is taking my original writing, which is usually only a paragraph, and “exploding” some of the sentences into their own paragraphs. My original draft might start off along the lines of:

Her heart stuttered. Did he really mean that? She raised her palm. “What did you say?”

Here, we have a visceral response, a mental response, an action, and dialogue. Those multiple cues would be enough for many situations in our story. But for the big responses, we might take that and expand it into something like:

Her heart stuttered and her breath caught, her body unable to ignore the implications of his words. A wobble started in her knees and she sat hard in the chair.

Did he really mean that? No. He couldn’t. This was just the latest in a long string of manipulations. She wouldn’t allow herself to believe him. She locked down her heart before she was hurt again. Never again.

She raised her palm, as though she could protect herself from his lies. “What did you say?”

Now we have those same four “steps” of a response but they’ve been expanded and more cues have been added. There’s more room for the reader to feel emotions along with character. The progression from shocked hope to wary denial is smoother and richer.

On the other hand, the pace is slower. Giving room for the reader to experience the emotions also spreads out the pace. Imagine longer paragraphs here, or multiple paragraphs of the internalization aspect, and it’s easy to see how this isn’t the right approach for every situation.

The Danger of Overdoing Emotional Responses

Out of context, that example above might sound melodramatic and overwrought. (And considering that I made that up just now, there is no context, so… Yeah. Anyway…) My point is that it’s just as harmful to our stories to overdo emotional responses as it is to fall short with them.

If we’re using “stuttering hearts” or doubling, tripling, or more up on those visceral reactions every scene, it might seem like our character’s having a heart attack or seizure. If our characters are going into paragraphs’ long internalization monologues at every event, a reader might be bored by their navel-gazing. And if our characters are constantly slamming doors or rolling their eyes, they might come across as childish and immature.

Anything we overdo will lose its impact. If we’re emphasizing everything, we end up emphasizing nothing. Save these “exploded” reactions for events that are important to the story. As I mentioned last time, think along the lines of adrenaline rush events, turning points, “black moments,” epiphanies, etc. The biggies.

That’s why the real key is to match the response to the stimulus. Whether our characters are under-reacting or overreacting, readers will be taken out of the story by elements that don’t fit.

The strongest emotions aren’t those with the most cues, but those that resonate the most with the reader. Make the emotional response fit the character, situation, and story, and our writing will have deeper emotional impact. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing emotions? If your writing sometimes feels flat, do you know what contributes to that issue? How have you worked to overcome the problem? Do you tend to underwrite or overwrite emotions? Do you have other tips or techniques to share?

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Davonne Burns

Another great post! I love how you break down the causes of unemotional or flat writing. And you are right, it can be very difficult to actually put what you learn into practice sometimes. I especially enjoyed your example of how to *explode* a reaction. I’m definitely going to try this technique. ^_^

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Great post, Jami. I, too, love how you’ve broken down the causes of flat emotional writing. And I like the point you made about how readers need time to feel along with the characters. Sometimes, the best way to effectively convey the emotion is to slow it down a tad so the emotion can sink in for the reader. Love this!

Felipe Adan Lerma

jami, esp enjoyed the “exploded” paragraph example, very instructive, thank you! 😉

Robyn LaRue

I enjoyed this very much and bookmarked it to share with my writers group. Awesome post to have nearby while revising. Thanks! 🙂

Jordan McCollum

I learned this from Margie, too!! I really felt like her classes helped to take my writing from . . . intermediate to advanced, we’ll say? (Especially since her techniques were one of several key changes I made to a MS that got it accepted at the same publisher that rejected it before.)


I like your suggestion of taking a set of emotional responses and spreading them out so that each part of the response receives its own paragraph. I tend to scoot through emotional responses with a minimum of words.

Angela Ackerman

You did such a beautiful job here, Jami! What an insightful and helpful post. I’m glad you linked to Margie–I learned a lot about emotion from Margie’s handouts. I would love to go on the retreat with her some time. She really has so much excellent teaching to share!

Thank you again for sharing your experiences with the ET! 🙂


Pirkko Rytkonen

Oh so much think about for a newbie…I certainly have a hard time including emotions…Just got the Emotions Thesaurus which I hope to use in the new year. I like the idea of exploding emotions into a paragraph.

Rhenna Morgan

My biggest struggle with emotion is that I’m sometimes blind to how much/how little they fit. This is probably the single biggest area where I rely on my critique partners. They’re objective. They don’t “fill in the gaps” that I–being in the character’s POV–might miss and call me on them.


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PK Hrezo

This is excellent, Jami! Very nicely explained. I took one of Margie’s courses in Feb and it was eye-opening. I think this area of connecting the characters with the reader and showing emotion is one that just clicks at the right moment in the writer’s journey. It took me a few stories to really get it down, and once it sinks in, it’s so easy to go back and point out all the places I failed at it before. 🙂


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