We’ve looked at emotion in our Fiction Writing Basics series — check out Fiction Writing Basics: Focus On EMOTION.
Writing about emotions is a challenge for many writers. It’s easy to write melodrama, or conversely, to simply label the emotion: “he was angry.” Neither option does much for your readers.
Relax. Emotions are challenging. They’re challenging in daily life, and in your fiction.
Where do emotions come from?
Emotions arise from our hopes, fears and expectations. They arise from our thinking — from our system of beliefs. Some of our beliefs are conscious. Others are internalized. Internalized beliefs are so much a part of us, that we can’t see them, and therefore we can’t challenge them.
Our unconsciously held beliefs govern our actions. Think about your characters. What unconscious beliefs govern their actions? We’ve talked about character flaws. You can go much deeper into a character when you build his flaw on an unconscious belief. Over the course of your story, that unconscious belief becomes conscious, and your character decides to change.
Tip: emotions arise after sudden events.
Let’s image that you’re going shopping. You’re driving along, thinking. Suddenly, you see a child run out into the road. Your foot slams onto the brake. You don’t need to think about this. When danger threatens, you act. Thought comes later.
You can use this snippet of know-how effectively in your fiction, whenever your character is threatened. He acts without thinking. Does he act badly, or act well?
After he acts, emotions arise. He’s angry, frightened… relieved, happy, while he reflects on what his actions mean. Your readers feel, because your characters feel. You don’t need to describe the emotions your character’s feeling. His emotions are obvious from his thoughts, his actions, and his words.
Forget emotion: reveal your character’s thoughts
In our article, How to Write Scenes in Novels and Short Stories, we offer a simple graphic to help you to outline your scenes.
Here it is again.
Your fiction is built up of scenes, and their aftermath. They’re the most powerful parts of your fiction. If you’ve got long sections of narrative, without scenes, without something happening NOW, your fiction (probably) has problems.
When you write a scene, your point of view (POV) character has a goal. How does he feel about this goal? Is he excited, confident, and sure he’ll achieve the goal? Or is he anxious? Show your character’s thinking. Readers will feel for him.
You can also describe his sweaty palms, his pounding heart etc. However, a little description of the effects of what he’s feeling goes a long way. I discussed the noddies and wandering eyes here.
In your first draft, accept that you’ll have lots of pounding hearts, wandering eyes and the rest. However, realize too, that these are placeholders. When you rewrite, give us your character’s thoughts. What’s he thinking to cause the physical reactions?
Put yourself in your character’s shoes
Not sure what your characters are thinking?
Imagine. Close your eyes. You’re now you’re character. What are you thinking? I find that when I want to imagine myself as a character, it helps me if I move around. I stroll around my office, or walk out into the garden. Movement helps.
Before you know it, you’ll know. Go back to your desk, and write your character’s thoughts.
Emotional cues to readers: tone
In a scene, you’re writing from the POV of a character. Your writing’s tone is your character’s attitude, which you show via his thoughts. Readers take their emotional clues from your characters.
You can help the tone along. For example, let’s say that your POV character fears losing his job. He’s deeply in debt; the company is downsizing. Your character’s been called into the boss’s office. A thunderstorm rages outside.
You set the stage for the scene with the thunderstorm. It’s a cue to the reader: something BIG is about to happen. As he heads for the boss’s office, there’s a blinding flash, and a moment later, a thunderclap shakes the building. What are your character’s thoughts?
Big scenes: give them your ALL
Every scene in your novel has different weight. A novel might have four or five major scenes. Give those big scenes everything you’ve got. Surprise the reader. Make him laugh, or cry.
In your reading, can you identify a novel’s biggest scenes? In bestselling novels, the big scenes are often the turning points of a novel. They have lots of emotion. Study those scenes in bestselling authors’ work. You’ll learn a lot.
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You want to write a novel. Perhaps you can't get started. Or maybe you got started, and then you stopped.You need a plan, broken down into easy steps. This program began as a 30-day challenge which I organized for readers in 2010. Hundreds of writers joined the challenge and completed it. They wrote novels.More info →
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