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.

Writing Fiction a Reader Cares About

Writing fiction a reader cares about is a huge question many writers have. This post will be a short one but it strikes at, I think, the very heart of being a good writer. What is your number one objective as a writer?

To make your reader feel.

Whenever I speak about how to write a query letter at conferences, I always have one request: Make me care. This is the same idea. I want to feel my interest piqued with the query. I want to feel something, even if it’s just a stirring of feeling or concern or nervousness or longing. Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).

how to write fiction, how to write emotion, how to write character, being a good writer
Being a good writer means you craft fiction that will make a reader care and feel.

How to Make a Reader Care

The manuscript itself, however, has to do much more than just make a reader care (though that’s an excellent starting point, and it will set you apart from most writers). When your character  — who is the focal point of our feelings and our gateway into the story — feels hurt, the reader should ache. When they fall in love, the reader should feel her heart quicken. When they think all is lost, the reader should reach for the Ben & Jerry’s. That’s when you know you’re on your way to being a good writer.

If you’re not writing fiction that manipulates your reader’s emotions and takes your audience on a journey of feelings, thoughts, and realizations, what’s the point?

How do you make your readers feel emotion? You do it through crafting a character with feelings and goals, and also by knowing your own feelings. At the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency I attended this July in Vermont, COUNTDOWN author and master writer Deborah Wiles said the following:

Allow your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.

What Does a Reader Care About?

As you’re writing fiction and your character encounters a thrilling roller coast of emotional ups and downs, of victories and disappointments, you must always be thinking of their emotions. How are they reacting to this event? How are they interpreting it? What is the emotional context? Where do they think they go from here? Use your character’s interiority.

More importantly, use your own emotions and thoughts as guides for what your character is going through. That will lend your writing truth, and it’s a key part of being a good writer. Pour your heart out a little bit. Always think of the character’s emotions (usually a version of your own) and the emotions you want to evoke in the reader when you’re writing about feelings.

Readers expect to pick up a book and be transported and transformed, not only to another world or time or unique point of view, but to emotional places own hearts, minds, and lives.

Writing Fiction That Elicits Emotions

Last week, I watched The Notebook for the first time, just because it was so wildly popular and I wanted to see how it was put together. (I didn’t much care for it but that’s beside the point.) Has anyone ever recommended this particular movie to you? If you’re a woman and you have girlfriends that are crazy about it, what did they say to convince you to watch?

I bet it wasn’t, “You’ll really love the dialogue” or, “You should see how the filmmakers introduce the complication of the rich fiancé.” It could just be my own experience here, but the only thing anyone ever told me about The Notebook (and this came from about ten different people) is:

“It will make you cry your face off.”*

Readers couldn’t care less about the craft and framework behind a tale when emotions are in the mix. (When you’re writing fiction, you have to care very much about it, but that’s another story.)

Emotions and Writing Good Fiction

Emotion is going to be your reader’s biggest takeaway…and their biggest expectation when they’re considering reading a book. And if you’re writing fiction effectively — if you write a book that’s not only cathartic for your character and your reader but for you, too — you will definitely give your readers a journey they won’t forget.

* My eyes stayed dry and my face intact, unfortunately. Incidentally, some things that do make me cry: Swing Kids, Titanic, the second half of the BBC Office Christmas special, the last scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (happy tears), “Levon” by Elton John, BEFORE I DIE by Jenny Downham, IF I STAY by Gayle Forman, LOVE, AUBREY by Suzanne LaFleur, WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the scene with Harry’s family near the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, etc.

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