For Crying Out Loud: Writing Emotion Effectively

It’s my belief that the chief goal of writing fiction is to make a reader care — and writing emotion effectively is key to achieving that goal. Without that emotional investment, you’d be wasting even the most kick-butt plot and the most ingenious characters. Without an emotional connection, the rest of your hard work will never take off.

writing emotion, writing drama
If you want me to rise to serious emotions with your characters, I need a good reason to go there with them.

Give Me A Reason

That’s why I get frustrated with writers who expect me to rise to serious emotions without giving me a reason. A great example is writing emotion — intense emotion — in the first chapter, before I’ve had a chance to bond with the character. Let’s say the book opens with a funeral for the character’s father. They are a wreck, weeping all over the place, inconsolable. You’d think that a funeral scene would automatically elicit strong emotions in the reader, but you’d be wrong.

Simply writing drama doesn’t make a reader care. If I’m just meeting your character, I don’t know anything about them. And while funerals are sad, yes, and crying is sad, sure, I will not automatically match emotions just because they are presented on the page. (Looking for tips on beginning a novel?)

Writing Emotion Effectively Requires Interiority

Similarly, I don’t much like to see crying for crying’s sake (more on interiority meaning). There are manuscripts I’ve read where the author seems to have lost all restraint when it comes to writing drama. Characters are screaming, raging, crying, laughing, and every other powerful emotion in between. But they fail to strike a chord. Why? Because rather than seeing those external displays of emotion, I’d rather know the exact thoughts that bring those tears about. Instead of saying, “She wept bitterly as they lowered the casket into the ground,” I’d prefer to read something like, “Of all things to think in this moment, she remembered the stupid joke birthday card she was planning on giving him next week, and how she’d never hear him laugh about it.” The thought that triggers the tears, whether it’s rational or completely random, like the above, is always much more powerful when you’re writing emotion. I know more about the character and her relationship to her now-dead father from the specific second example, and that makes me more invested. It helps me to form that emotional bond.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Another thing to think about, and this I borrow from Robert McKee and his scriptwriting Bible, STORY: The Law of Diminishing Returns. The first time you see something, it’s powerful and it gets your attention. Like a rip-roaring action sequence in a summer blockbuster. “Awesome,” you think, “that semi just totally just clipped that low-flying police helicopter,” or whatever. But if the movie keeps throwing insane chase sequences at you, they’re going to have less and less of an effect. This principle makes many things in life possible. Think about doctors. They may feel queasy digging into their first cadaver, but by the end of medical school, they’re mucking around in bodies like champs.

When you’re writing emotion, don’t hit your reader with intense feelings over and over again because you mistake this for making your audience care. If people aren’t attaching to your characters or their struggles, the answer isn’t to make them cry or rage more or more often, it’s to carefully choose your moments of high emotion, motivate them well, and really let us into the character’s experience. (Even more tips for how to write emotions in a story.)

Be Thoughtful And Intentional When Writing Emotion

Again, I’ve read many manuscripts (especially YA), where a vexed and emotional teen cries all the time, constantly flying off the handle. Instead of bringing me into that character’s world, the author’s attempt at writing drama turns me off, and keeps pushing me away the longer the tantrums continue.

We all are hard-wired to respond to emotions, but it’s the way in which you present those moments in your fiction that will make all the difference.

My manuscript critique services will help you write authentic emotion that prioritizes quality over quantity.

15 Replies to “For Crying Out Loud: Writing Emotion Effectively”

  1. Such an excellent post! And great advice.

    “Because rather than seeing those external displays of emotion, I’d rather know the exact thoughts that bring those tears about.”

    You once said something to this effect on a critique of some of my writing and it has changed my writing for the better.

    All writers take heed!

  2. Agent Rachelle Gardner once posted on her blog that she limits her clients to one cry per book. After reading that, I try to follow that rule.

  3. Christina C. says:

    Thanks Mary!

    Your posts are always so very helpful!

  4. Thank you!

    I love this post. There is a lot of advice out there, telling us to always keep the tension high, to have actions in every scene — however, sometimes, new writers like I am can take that to the extreme.

  5. “I don’t sympathize with anything or anyone unless I care about it first, even a little bit.” You’d think more accomplished authors would take note of this! Thanks for the great post (what? I’ll admit; I’m such a sap I almost did tear up when you mentioned the birthday card…told you…such a sap). 😀

  6. I think that this is part of the reason why I tune out if the first scene starts with dialogue. I don’t know who’s speaking, so I don’t really care what she has to say yet.

  7. Very good point. The parts of book that always make me cry are moments that I don’t expect to be touched by, but they’re well crafted details or lines of dialogue that take me by surprise but are filled with emotion. They’re never moments in which a character is weeping/screaming/etc.

  8. Nicely explained. Nothing to disagree with in this post, and the funeral example is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

  9. I suppose another way to look at the vexing issue of characters expressing emotions (and they really do insist on getting emotional at the most inappropriate times) is to be specific. I also really loved the funeral example!

  10. Adele Richards says:

    It’s official. You are the cleverest.

    Thank you 🙂

  11. So well said. I completely agree. Everything rings truer when it’s carefully built up to. Imagine if Snape would have told Harry about Lilly’s eyes in book one, or even book five.

    When it does finally happen, it hits you like a Mack truck that’s just clipped a chopper because the backstory and power of the reasoning that builds up to that emotion has been so well laid.

  12. Ah, you’ve hit on my Pet Peeve Number One! If a book starts with an action scene right away, I put it down.

    There’s a fine balance to be struck in the first pages of a book: I need to meet and get to know and care about the characters, but I don’t like pages and pages of exposition. This is the trick as a writer: how to make the characters intriguing and draw the reader in, without boring them to death?

    I guess this is why the first pages usually get workshopped a million times more often than the rest of the book. 🙂

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