What is the toughest job the fiction writer has? Emotion.

Getting an emotion reaction from her readers.

A good story has several key elements–all of them are challenging:

  • Character. You need to create characters your reader will relate to and care about.
  • Plot. Your protagonist has to want or need something. And if you are good, you provide a steady diet of hurdles, surprises and interesting situations along the way.
  • Setting. The story must take place in a specific time and place, the more vivid and interesing the better.
  • And emotion.

MY focus here is on emotion.

How do you get your reader to feel your story, be emotionally affected by what’s happening on the page?

By showing how your character is feeling. How she reacts to what’s happening in the story.

If you are constructing your story well, you’ll have: a good plot–a goal for your character to achieve and conflict, things in the way of attaining that goal–and a character the reader can relate to and care about, in a setting that seems real to your reader. But for your story to be moving, your job is also to portray what your characters (major and minor) are feeling.

If you do that, your reader will sympathize and feel those emotions himself

Emotions move us. Readers want to experience emotion while reading. Make them feel, and they will love your story.

But portraying those emotions is not easy.

It’s way too tempting to take the easy, lazy route and just tell,  just name the emotion.  “He got really mad.” Instead of: “His face was a raging fire out of control, and he clenched his fists so fiercely his knuckles looked like they would break.”

One of the finest resources in print that you should have readily available is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It is a well indexed listing of human emotions with  accompanying words and phrases to describe them. To me it’s indispensable. In the introduction, the authors describe the keys ways to portray emotion. Here is a brief summary:

1. Outward physical signs. You describe what  you would see in another person that would tell you what they are feeling. “Her face looked as if it has lost the last drop of blood.”

2.  Mental responses.  You describe what a character is thinking about what is going on.

3.  Mainly-internal Physical Sensations (Visceral responses). These are basically involuntary, raw and uncontrolled reponses–like: heavy breathing, a rapid hear rate, dizziness, and so on.

A balance is always advisable.

The authors also point out that you can err in two ways. Having too much emotion in a scene or having too little. And overusing visceral reponses can make your writing melodramatic.

I highly recommend this book. I have reviewed it here before, but my re-reading the intro today prompted me to share it again.

Another book.

…is The Definitive Book of Body Language  by Allan and Barbara Pease. This book is primarily aimed at business people or anyone who wants to learn to read other peoples’ body language more accurately. I wish the writers would have provided an index in the back of the book of all the types of messages that can be sent, which would have made it more useful. But the table of contents does arrange and categorize the content by means of the  different areas of the body that send the signals. 

So, to make this book useful to you, it’s a good idea to at least scan it to familiarize yourself as to what’s where.

Do you have any practical advice on portraying character emotion in words? If so, please share.

P.S. I want to mention once again K. M. Weiland’s excellent and helpful book , just published, Structuring Your Novel. It’s the clearest and most useful description of story structure I have found. You want a good plot/structure? This book can help a lot. And her section on scene structure and options is super-helpful too!

 

One thought on “What is the toughest job the fiction writer has? Emotion.

  1. Jacki Dilley

    I’m going to check out “The Emotion Thesaurus” — thanks for telling us about it. I generally rely on physical changes and body language to express emotion, so I’m interested in what they have to say about mental responses.

    Reply

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