Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and how to make it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions).

writing about feelings, how to describe emotional pain
How to describe emotional pain: let readers know what your protagonist’s feelings feel like.

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job when writing fiction is to make the reader care. And writing about feelings in a way that’s authentic and relatable is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up with how to describe emotional pain.

In truth, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion. They might struggle with emotional writing or interiority in writing, or sink into violet prose.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start in terms of how to describe emotional pain. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

When you’re writing about feelings with authenticity, you have to acknowledge that there’s so much more nuance to human emotion. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger. (More tips about how to write emotions in a story.)

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers when you’re writing about feelings. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with how to describe emotional pain, hire me as your book editor. I’ll give your work a personalized, hands-on character critique.

11 Replies to “Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?”

  1. Mark Parsons says:

    I wish you had a “like” button, because so many times I read your posts and my only real comment is basically “Damn, that was insightful – you nailed it.”

    So, not to be a broken record, but… damn, that was insightful.

    1. Mark, I will take it. If you’d really like, you can buy me a diamond-encrusted mic and I’ll be sure to drop it every time I wrote a post and hit “Publish.” 😛

  2. Mary Warth says:

    You have a way of boiling concepts down to very workable parts and examples. Thank you! It helps me rethink what I know about topics like “feelings”. It’s very motivating.

  3. Mary Krakow says:

    The ‘how to write interiority’ link isn’t working for me. Is there a secret code?

    1. Mark: That link is to all the posts tagged with the term “interiority,” so the post you just read will appear at the top of the list, which makes it seem like you’re being linked to the same post. If you keep scrolling, you’ll find all of the other materials that deal with interiority. Sorry for the confusion!

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