Emotional Writing: Show, Don’t Tell

In my editorial work, I often encounter clients who struggle with emotional writing. Specifically, there’s a tendency towards naming emotions. Or, as I see it, the most flagrant disregard of show, don’t tell that writers can come up with. Telling about feelings and character is the lowest form, something to generally avoid.

emotional writing, how to write feelings
How to write feelings: If you want the emotions in your story to ring true, you have to be willing to feel the things your characters are feeling.

It often breeds things like:

Hannah felt very sad about the death of her bunny.

Ellis couldn’t be happier.

Emotional Writing: Naming the Emotion isn’t Enough

Let’s cut to the chase. Reading the word “happy” doesn’t make me happy. (No matter how much the cute embellished throw pillows at Joss & Main would like me to feel otherwise.) Hearing “sad” doesn’t bring a tear to my eye. Simply naming the emotion makes any opportunity for true emoting lie flat on the page.

There are a thousand different nuances to being happy, and to expressing it through emotional writing. Find ones that are personal to your character. Go above and beyond naming the feeling, since that is the territory of the lazy. There’s a whole art and science to making the reader care through creating emotions in them, and I’m afraid there’s no simple shortcut.

Stand In Your Characters’ Shoes

The very job of writing fiction starts with feeling your own feelings, and finding your own story through those hard-won emotions. If you can’t wrangle your own feelings, how can you nail them when you’re tackling emotional writing? With a lot of moments in editing and writing, I tell my clients that maybe they haven’t stood in their characters’ shoes enough at pivotal moments.

They know what the basic emotion is, and they put the obligatory placeholder on the page–“grumpy,” or “heartbroken,” or “exhilarated”–but there’s often an aversion to standing in that emotion and pulling something more specific out of the experience to really ground it.

Too bad, lovelies. If you want to know how to write feelings, you gotta go there first if you want your readers to go with you!

Is your manuscript hitting the right emotional notes? Hire me as your developmental editor and get an expert second pair of eyes on your emotional writing.

4 Replies to “Emotional Writing: Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Very easy way of making sure we’re showing emotions!

    Also, what I see a lot which makes me want to scream, is when an author does an awesome job with interiority, or through dialogue, so the reader can completely grasp what the character is feeling, but then adds on the actual name of the emotion. Like the reader can’t get it on her own. I mean, the hard part’s done!! I know authors want to make sure readers get it, but it destroys all the work the author’s put into the scene.

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