I’ve mentioned before that one of my “most improved” writing skills is writing with emotion. At least I hope so, but there’s always room for further improvement. *smile*
The ability to manipulate our readers’ emotions is a good thing (as screwed up as that sounds). We can probably all think of books with so-so writing quality that manage to be popular with readers anyway because readers are sucked into the story. How do they manage that trick?
Storytelling and keeping readers’ interest often comes down to creating emotions in our readers. So let’s take a closer look at how we create emotions in our readers and what we need to keep in mind to find the right balance.
The Elements of Writing that Create Emotion
As I mentioned in my post about strengthening emotions, 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.
One element I didn’t include in that list is narrative. When they involve emotion, narrative (descriptive) sentences (excluding any sentences that would fall into the above categories) are “telling” and not “showing.”
In most cases, narrative emotional cues would be the bad kind of telling too, like “She was angry.” Usually, our writing will be more compelling and use a deeper point of view if we don’t name emotions, but instead use dialogue, thoughts, action, or visceral reactions to get the information across to the reader.
The Three Ways We Need to Balance Emotions
Those elements seem straightforward enough. So why do we struggle with writing emotions?
One major reason we struggle with writing emotions is because there are multiple ways we can screw it up. We need to balance emotion in our story in three ways:
Amount of Emotion Shown:
We need to match the stimulus (the trigger, or cause, for the emotion) with the response.
- Too little exploration of emotions and our writing can feel flat. In that case, we’d want to emphasize and empower the emotional response to bring it up to the right level for the trigger.
- Too much emotional response and we veer toward melodrama. Even when portraying intense emotions, we need to be careful not to overdo it.
Variety of Emotion Shown:
We need to show an emotional journey for our characters by changing their responses to the plot events over the course of the story.
- Too simplistic of emotional responses and our characters don’t feel layered. We need our characters’ emotions to change as they adjust to the plot events. A character who’s always angry isn’t interesting.
- Too complex and readers might not be able to follow our characters’ emotional journey. If our characters’ emotions change too frequently, we risk them coming across like fickle teenagers. (Even if we are writing teenagers, we still have to give the reader something to relate to other than sheer chaos. *smile*)
Elements of Emotion Shown:
We need to mix and match the elements we use to portray characters’ emotions. During big emotional reactions, we can’t get across a full emotional experience by relying only on dialogue, or only on thoughts, etc.
- Too external of a response (dialogue/dialogue cues, body language, and action) and readers won’t have enough information to know what the character is really thinking or feeling. Sure, we might say the character crossed their arms, but was that due to anger, fear, shyness, or simply being cold? If you’re familiar with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus, you’ve probably noticed that the same body language cues can indicate multiple emotions. Readers need more information.
- Too internal of a response (thoughts and visceral reactions) and we can easily overuse some of our best tools.
- Thoughts: As I mentioned in the Option A example of my post about using layers to show emotions, we need to share characters’ thoughts to reveal the why—she’s angry or scared or worried because… (She’s afraid xyz will happen, etc.) However, sharing too many thoughts can result in “telling” the reader everything in an “on the nose” style rather than allowing emotions to grow in the subtext. We want to share thoughts, but only in the character’s voice and only as much as needed.
- Visceral Reactions: Similarly, involuntary physiological responses are great for showing the gut reactions of our characters, but if we use too many, our characters can seem constantly on the verge of a heart attack. (A pain grew in her chest and she couldn’t breathe, etc.) We want to save visceral reactions for triggers that would cause a gut check, and not use them for just any random, mildly bad news for our characters.
Finding the Right Balance
With all those potential pitfalls, it’s no wonder that we sometimes miss the mark. As Angela Ackerman pointed out, just because we know how to “show rather than tell” doesn’t mean we’re home free.
Sometimes we’ll feel the need to explain and show and tell. Or sometimes our character’s emotional response will over-show, with melodrama, purple prose, or near-heart-attacks.
The wrong balance can create a shallow point of view or distant emotions. The wrong balance can cause slow pacing. The wrong balance can create two-dimensional characters. In other words, the wrong balance won’t engage readers in our storytelling.
To find the right balance, we’ll probably have to rely on the two tried-and-true feedback methods. If we gain distance from our story, we can self-edit by reading our character’s emotional response in the full context of the story to see if it’s an off-note. Or we can use beta readers, critique partners, or editors to know when we’ve succeeded or failed at finding the right balance.
Either way, feedback from others or from our instincts can be our best weapon for getting the balance just right. The reward for succeeding might be readers who can’t put down our story. *smile*
Do you disagree that creating emotion in the reader is important for keeping their interest? Can you think of times when using narrative sentences for emotion might work? Can you think of other ways we need to balance emotions in our writing? Do you struggle with some kinds of balancing more than others? How do you find the right balance?Pin It