Getting Emotion on the Page

Note: You might completely disagree with what I have to say. I didn’t go to school for writing. I didn’t take classes. This post isn’t about bringing connection to a character or depicting an emotional journey. It’s about expanding on emotional moments, on the things I consider when I want to make someone feel strongly about something in my story. These points are super general.

Sometimes, emotion feels like the easiest thing to write because, hey, I have the ability to feel emotions. Other times, it’s my worst enemy. In the latter, I’m pulling at my hair and screaming at Word documents, trying to put emotion in pretty words and fitting it within action. Every now and then, I get comments about my writing where the lines are just right and inspire the intended emotions. The rest of the time, moments fall flat and it’s hard to make a connection to the main characters and everything that’s going on in the story.

I’ve read articles. I’ve received advice. I’ve noted lines that hit me right in the heart and bring tears to my eyes. Any writer can hit the mark with specific lines. That’s not the problem, though it might be a challenge to come up with that perfect line. A big thing is bringing emotion to the action, keeping the reader invested. There is so much involved in order to accomplish this and I’m constantly struggling with it. I know, I know, a first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, but it sucks to know your betas and CPs aren’t feeling the things you need them to feel.

Evoking the right emotions is how I know when I’ve gotten to the right draft. At this point, I haven’t reached that perfect draft. I thought I did late last year, but I didn’t. I know better and I am determined to work on this. Writing is just words, but stories are all about action and emotion. Don’t let your stories be lifeless. Give them depth. Bring on the pining, the heartache, the tears! Make yourself feel things and make others feel things. Think of your favourite book, the ones that pull a strong reaction, and note how, where, and why those reactions come forward.

Here are some points I consider when trying to bring emotion into my writing:

1. Use the senses.

When we feel things, it’s not just in our head. It’s in touch, sight, smell, sound, and even taste. Sensations are tied to how we remember things, to our memories themselves. Does the smell of lilacs remind you of playing in your neighbourhood as a child as they do for me? Is the smell of a bakery enough to calm the noise in your head like it can for me? Or maybe the soft, fluffy blanket reminds you of cuddling with a pet that always made you happy and brings back those happy feelings. Or you sip hot chocolate when days feel dull. Or maybe you need that caffeine buzz from coffee or tea to wake you up and get you going.

What about how the character sees the world? What details do they notice? Small details or the overall image? Do they see the patterns or the vivid colours? Do they take it in a little bit at a time or as a whole? Do they look at faces? Meet eyes? Do they look for exits or escape routes? Do they catalogue details or skim over them? Is how they’re feeling in the moment affecting how and what they see?

You could apply similar questions to all the senses. What do they notice? Why? Does their emotional state affect how they sense things? Think about how various sensations affect you and how they can be meaningful. Incorporate it into your writing. Give the reader a multidimensional experience! Show the reader what the character feels before explicitly describing how they feel, if you need to be blunt about it at all.

2. Match sentence length and structure to the emotion.

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before. Sentence length can do a lot for a scene. Long sentences for long, rambling thoughts. Short sentences for quick action, brief thoughts. Are their thoughts meandering? Or are they short and scattered? Are they feeling sharp emotions, like characters with short tempers? Or do they take some time in processing things? Are they mulling over something? Or are they struggling to think clearly? Do they move quickly? Are they sluggish?

Is it a short moment? Does it feel long to the character? Is it a long moment but feels like it’s happening too quickly? Is the world a blur or is it moving in slow-motion? Consider television shows and movies. Sometimes there’s a series of shots, so quick that you could miss them. Sometimes everything slows. Sometimes they use loud, booming noises – or there isn’t any sound at all. Think about those details that force a reaction and evoke emotions. Think of tv/film soundtracks and how they affect your reaction to the scenes. Have you noticed the difference between media that feels awkward to watch, like the editing doesn’t match how you’re supposed to feel? Whenever I’m uncertain, I watch movies and let them show me what filmmakers do to get a specific emotional reaction from viewers.

3. Be descriptive.

I mean, this is a no-brainer if you consider the previous points. Consider the senses and how that affect perspective and experience for the character. What details do you write down? What details really matter? Be descriptive of those details. Not everything in the scene needs to be described down to the smallest, most insignificant point. Focus on the details that affect how you feel.

Focusing on a character, describe their movements. What gestures are they making? Facial expressions? What does their body language say? Where is their attention? What catches their attention or switches their focus? If they’re speaking, what does their voice sound like? Scared? Certain? Steady or shaky? Don’t be afraid to let their actions and behaviour speak for themselves. Maybe even the spoken words don’t match the body language.

Another example: in a hospital, you might focus on the sterile scent of everything. Or maybe the character can’t stop smelling the medicine scent in the air. Or maybe it’s impossible to focus because they’re in the emergency room and there’s too much going on to focus on one thing. Is it calm or chaotic? Is it quiet or loud? Focus on the world from the character’s perspective. The reader needs that sense of being in the character’s head to feel what they’re feeling so the descriptions are importance. Describe the character, describe the world, describe the interactions between the two.

If you write too much, that’s okay. Cut it down later. If you didn’t write enough and feel like you need to add more, then figure out what matters and write more about it.

4. Draw out the moment.

It’s hard to evoke an emotion within a couple of lines. There needs to be some set-up, whether it’s been building up throughout the story, or if it’s part of that set-up to the climax. It can be a few sentences, or some paragraphs, or even a few pages leading up to that big moment. It can take a while to get to that emotional point, or it’ll be sharp and sudden.

Relate it to the character. Do they react instantaneously to things happening to and around them? Or do they need some time to process things? Are they highly sensitive or quick to anger? Do they consider others before themselves? Are they denying some kind of feeling? Are they oblivious? Is it something they understand immediately or learned a while ago or do they need to figure out what’s going on and how they feel?

Avoid quick sentences that basically come out as “and they felt __” because that’s boring and often doesn’t work. Put us in the character’s head, in their shoes. Building on previous points, tell us their sensations. Is their head pulsing? Does their heart ache? Are their muscles tense? Do they taste blood or see red? Are their eyes welling up? Get detailed. Get into it. Cut it down later if you need to, but make sure the words are there so the reader gets a sense of how important the scene is and what it means to the character(s).

5. Get the right words.

This is vague and generally unhelpful. I can just imagine you rolling your eyes and thinking, ‘wow, this is a waste of time’. Sorry. This is something that is somewhat objective, somewhat subjective. The right words are the ones that work best for your voice, your characters, and your story. You’ll know what they are when they evoke something in you and your betas/CPs. You’ll know what they are when they resonate, when they get that hard impact and leave a mark. Basically, you’ll know it when you figure out what they are and they work perfectly.

The right words mean you’re on the right track. You’ve set the mood, got the right tone, used an evocative voice, and ensured the emotions are there.

/ / /

As I wrote this post and before I pushed that Publish button, I started to doubt if I was even contributing valuable input. I’m trying to remember that these are the things I consider and art is a subjective experience. What I do is not the only way to do things. I’m a planner with a need for lists to get anything done. If this doesn’t work for you, there are other things to read. Use that Google search bar! Look up things when you’re uncertain about what to do. There are lots of valuable posts out there to help you, just as they help me. I’m always willing to learn more about writing and how to improve.

For more advice on writing emotional scenes, emotional journeys, etc., try these articles:

There are several other posts and articles to got through! These are just some that I found. I hope this post and the ones listed above can help you in your writing journey. ❤

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