Why emotion?

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

A version of this post originally ran on 12 July 2010.

Last summer, after I had baby #3, I went on a reading spree. I read a lot of great books, but after more than a month of devouring award-winning (and not so much) novels, I hit the wall. In less than a week, I started a number of books that just didn’t reel me in. They didn’t “seduce” me. Reading them was, frankly, a chore.

I did skip to the end of the novels, but largely so I’d never, ever be tempted to pick them up again. (If your novel makes sense without the middle 100 pages, something might be wrong…) Telling vs. showing was the main problem. I said it was like the author was standing in front of me, holding up a curtain as he dictated the action on the other side.

Although bad writing is always a turn off, it’s not always enough to make me give up on a book, or at least half of it. Some of the books I just couldn’t not put down lost me in character soup. Ten characters in the first five pages is way too many—especially when for some reason, we have to dip into each character’s POV for a paragraph or two, even if that character is 2000 miles away and not having a scene of her own! In another case, the story was told from one character’s POV, but by the end of the first chapter, we’d met so many people I couldn’t remember which character that was. And I kept forgetting in subsequent chapters.

I think both of these issues stem from the same problem: a failure to get the reader (me) involved in the characters. Something about the narration style (telling) was too distant or confusing for me to make an emotional connection and sympathize with characters. And I’m realizing that life’s too short for boring books (or boring novels, anyway), so I’m not willing to persevere through a hundred pages to see if I suddenly start liking a character.

No, I don’t believe characters have to be likeable to be sympathetic—but man, they have to inspire me to feel something!

What do you think? Why is emotion so important in writing? What keeps you from relating to a character?

Photo by Wade Kelly

Let’s get emotional

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

Remember the Romance Blogfest coming up on February 14, just one week away!

It’s time for another series! I’ve been pondering this one for a long time because emotion is vital to fiction. And what more emotional month is there than this one? Love, hope, disappointment, despair—and that’s just on Valentine’s Day! 😉

We know that most readers read for an experience. New circumstances and exotic settings do give our readers an experience. But to truly immerse them in our characters stories, we need emotion.

But, just like in real life, emotion in fiction is tough. It requires just the right touch to know when and how to put it in, a fine balance to know when to leave it out, creativity to avoid clichés and reaching deep within ourselves for authenticity—possibly even exposing some of our hidden inner lives to the entire world.

It’s easy to rely on clichés, to tell what the character’s emotion is, to underwrite to the point of apparent sociopathy or overwrite to the point of purple prose. But easy writing is seldom powerful writing, and seldom powerful reading. To really reach (and hook!) our readers, we have to get to their emotions. So this month, look for posts on effectively creating characters’ emotions!

Got something you want to say about writing emotion? Guest post! Email me at jordan (at) jordanmccollum dot com for the full guidelines—but I do have limited slots, so hurry!

Photo by Peter Dutton

Emotion: how we get in our readers’ hearts

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

Emotion is vital to fiction. Without emotion, our books can read like bad history textbooks: a log of who did what, where, and when. Some history stories are moving enough to catch our imagination, but those are rare.

If we want our readers to care about our stories—our characterswe have to grab our readers (and our characters) by the emotions.

This is something I’ve had to work hard on in my fiction. I’ve usually run under the assumption that my readers could infer how my character felt. Until I got that dreaded feedback: “This scene drags. It’s boring.”

Boring? Boring?! I thought. Can’t you see the emotional turmoil she must be in? The moral dilemma this puts her in?

Um, no, they couldn’t—because I didn’t put it in there. For all they could tell, the character didn’t care. She was impassively watching the scene unfold, or participating without any trouble. Setting up a situation just isn’t enough: you have to show how that situation affects the character as it unfolds, or we’ll have to assume it’s not.


Andrica grabbed the rope with both hands. She stared at the ground thirty feet below her. Her palms slipped a little.

She looked up. Above her, footsteps echoed across the rooftop she’d jumped from. They were going to come after her any minute.

But she could get out of this. She had to. She just needed to think.

No, she needed to act.

She’s in a pretty precarious situation—but do we really care about the outcome?

Andrica grabbed the rope with both hands. Her heart beat in her throat, but the thrill of triumph quickly faded. She dared to peek at the ground below. It should have been only thirty feet down, but her vision swirled dizzyingly. Her stomach plummeted and her clammy palms slipped a fraction of an inch.

She willed herself to look up. Above her, footsteps echoed across the rooftop she’d jumped from. They were going to come after her any minute. Adrenaline sang in her veins, making coherent thought impossible.

But she could get out of this. This time, she had to. Andrica forced a deep breath into her lungs. She just needed to think.

No, Aryn needed her—he needed his mother. She had to act. Now.

Now, not only do we watch what she experiences, but we know what she feels. And if the author does it right, we feel what she feels. And that‘s the way to creating powerful characters and stories.

Next, we’ll move into how to add emotion in your writing—and how not to.

What do you think? How do you like your emotion in fiction?

Photo by Steve Ventress

Don’t tell me how you feel: showing emotions

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

The lie from the First Crusader Challenge? I don’t have any brothers: three younger sisters. When I went to college, they got a rabbit. Seriously.

The major pitfall most of us face when writing emotions is falling into the trap of telling. But to engage our readers, simply stating “she was scared” or “he was angry” isn’t going to suffice.

This is just another example of one of those old writing rules: show, don’t tell. But this time, the rule rings true. Take this example from Flogging the Quill:

The scene: Anna is beat from a long, bad day at work and now she’s spent hours at the hospital with her father, who has been unconscious for days. You want to give the reader Anna’s physical and emotional condition. This author wrote:

Anna was physically and mentally exhausted.

Sure, you get information. You have an intellectual understanding of her condition. But you have no feeling for what Anna feels like, do you? To show that Anna is physically and mentally exhausted, you could write this:

All Anna wanted to do was crawl into bed and go to sleep. But first she would cry. She didn’t think she could be calm and composed for another minute.

Here, the example relies on getting deep into the character’s thoughts. Personally, I think we should be on this level with the character a lot of the time. That level of access to the character’s thoughts and feelings draws the reader in.

Another technique is to use action (to use another FtQ example):

Telling: He stabbed the man furiously.

See how an adverb tells rather than shows?

Showing: He plunged the dagger into the man’s chest again and again and again, screaming “Die!” each time the blade stabbed into flesh.

Notice that this example doesn’t name the emotion. Can you tell what it is? Of course! Would using the word “anger” help? Probably not. In fact, it might undercut the power of the scene.

Another option is showing with the cliché, of course, but that’s hardly any better than telling. Clichés, automatic turns of phrase like “his blood boiled,” are used so often they don’t carry much meaning anymore. Even gestures can become cliché. Work harder—change it up and make it fresh instead of giving your readers something to gloss over.

Next time we’ll look at two more ways to show character emotions!

What do you think? How have you used characters’ thoughts or actions to convey their emotions?

Photo by Daniel James

Make a scene: show your characters emotions II

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

Tag! I’m it—I’m interviewed on Christine Bryant’s Tag! You’re it! Tuesday this week. Are you next?

I have to be honest. The resource that really revealed this whole idea to me was part of Kaye Dacus’s showing vs. telling series, on feelings. And to give credit where credit is due, I’ll also be using one of her examples on these two techniques to show characters’ emotions.

The first method is possibly the most powerful way to show a character’s emotion:

Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.

That’s right: figurative language like metaphors and similes. Can’t you just feel that spine tingling? Figurative language is the best way to show an emotion. The imagery here can be so vivid that you might be able to get away without the name of the emotion at all.

This figurative language can be even more powerful an draw reader into the story and the characters even more when we work hard to use language specific to our character. Your MC is a veterinarian? Maybe she thinks of fear like an animal backed into a corner, and describes each of her actions and responses that way (arching her back, snarling, barking, etc.). Or maybe he’s a veteran—he sees the world divided along battle lines, can’t shake the memories of those he’s lost, or is just ready for all this fighting to be over.

Finally, in Margie Lawson’s Empowering Character Emotions course (and her EDITS system), she has a special classification for an involuntary physical response to an emotional situation—the most powerful type of emotional response. Things like sweating, blushing, skin tingling, and other responses to extreme emotion pack a powerful punch.

These methods of showing character emotions are a little more advanced and work best in tandem. But these are the most vivid methods, the most individual, and the best to illustrate the feelings and the character. But they should still used in moderation—especially involuntary physical responses and similes/metaphors. Too many, even if they’re all spot-on, can really distract the reader.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Showing character emotions in a unique and engaging way is a pretty big challenge, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. (Actually, I might argue it gets harder over time, since you continually have to fish for new ideas so you won’t repeat yourself.) So, seriously, don’t pressure yourself to get this all right on the first try, or even the first draft. Human emotions are tricky things—and in writing, we should be grateful we get multiple attempts to get them right!

What do you think? How else can you show a character’s emotion? What are your favorite methods?

Photo by Bobby Acree

Emotion: less isn’t always more

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

You might not be able to tell so far from this series, but I’ve actually long been a proponent of the “less is more” school of writing, especially when it comes to emotion. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned the hard way, sometimes less is just less. Not enough.

Different readers like different styles, and expectations vary by genre. But, handled well, emotion can enhance any dramatic scene. Sometimes we do need to avoid putting too much emotion in to give the reader room to feel, too. Other times, it’s more important to show the reader that the character cares and struggles, so they should, too.

I think we’re all used to seeing the sin of too much emotion in writing. But not enough emotion is probably just as common a problem, and even trickier to diagnose. It’s good—vital, even—to leave room for our readers to feel, too, and to avoid melodrama. But if our characters don’t feel anything on the page, the readers are left to wonder whether they are supposed to fill in all the blanks (and if so, how, exactly?), or whether they’re just blanks.

Writing “she felt sad” or “he was scared” isn’t going to cut it. We want our readers to feel what our characters feel, and characters—peopleexperience emotion physically.

Our emotions engage our bodies. Even emotional clichés convey this: we see red, our blood boils, we get butterflies in our stomach. To get to our readers’ emotions, we do need to go through our characters’ emotions. As I’ve said before, we want our readers to experience these emotions right along with our characters. Techniques like figurative language from last week, when focused on physical reactions to emotions, almost bypass a reader’s thoughts, evoking similar physical responses from the reader. That’s why they’re so powerful—and why we have to be careful to use them judiciously.

We still have to be careful to make sure we don’t overdo it—we’ll be talking more about that this week—but at the least, I think we need a little physical response to the emotional stimulus in any scene where we want the readers to know this matters to our character (and, by extension, them).

What do you think? How do you convey physical emotion?

Photo by René van Belzen

Too much emotion: the other extreme

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

When it comes to writing emotion (just like everything else in writing!), we each face our own challenges. I tend to leave it out too much—but putting too much emotion in can be just as deadly to our writing (or even more so, since it can be an even more obvious problem for readers). This is especially true in highly emotional scenes. I think we’ve all heard the adage, “If the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to” (or something like that).

the actual scene from the show: Psych, episode Dual Spires (a tribute to Twin Peaks)This reminds me of a scene in a recent episode of one of my favorite TV shows. Two characters (whom we’ve just met) discovered the niece they’ve loved and raised has drowned. When they view her body, they bawl.

And they bawl.

And they bawl. (And this is a comedy!)

At the opening of the scene, knowing what they’ll find, I was on the verge of tears myself. (I’m a mother, and for once I didn’t resent the emotional manipulation.) But after what felt like several minutes (though it was probably only one) of watching these people cry, my feelings changed from deep sympathy to alarm. “Why are we still watching them cry?!” I asked my husband. “This is torture!”

Don’t torture your readers! Too much emotion can pull your reader out of the story. It may be overwrought or melodramatic, or perhaps it trips your readers’ sensitive emotional shutoff valve (exactly what happened when I watched that show).

How can you avoid using too much emotion? We need to know when and how to portray emotion to make sure we don’t turn our readers off.

Set it up in advance
Don’t just drop an emotional scene out of nowhere, without giving the readers some frame of reference. Foreshadow. Set it up. Give us a chance to find out how the character feels about others in the scene or the general situation or similar events, etc. Then it’s safe to let the reader feel along with the character with a lot less emotion words. As author/editor Alicia Rasley says:

I suspect "less is more" really works here; most of the scenes that bring me to tears are underwritten, without emotion words.

But these passages are usually at the end of an emotional set up– that is, the author sets up the emotional situation so that I know what the stakes are, and then there’s the moment of emotional release.

Even then, though, there’s a fine line between subtle and just plain underdone.

Make it clear in the scene, but don’t beat us over the head with it!
Using common gestures probably won’t make it perfectly clear (unless you’re going for a common emotion—and then, dig deeper). We don’t need to be reminded every five lines, and we don’t need paragraphs about the feelings, but do make sure it’s there.

Use emotional imagery, especially something physical in the setting or props
Going along with the physical sensation of emotions, physical objects in the setting—whether scenery or props—can imbue even more meaning and resonance into a scene, as editor/author Alicia Rasley points out:

We really do endow things with emotional significance (wedding ring!), so that works better for me than emotion WORDS, which are necessarily a step removed.

Know when to put it in, and when not to
A number of factors influence this. One of them is pacing: if the scene is fast-paced and the emotional beat is short, don’t delve too deeply into it. (Gasp! You could even get away with telling!)

Get feedback
Probably the most important step here: get some objective eyes on it!

What do you think? How do you tell whether your emotion is overdoing it?

Image totally lifted from Wikipedia. Fair use FTW.

Contradicting emotions

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

When we’re crafting our characters’ emotions, we want to strive for consistency. Our characters are going to look fickle, insecure or flat-out crazy if it seems like they’re playing “he loves me, he loves me not” in every scene. However, while we want to make sure we preserve the causality chain of emotional responses, if our characters just play the single note of “love” or “fear,” well, that’s the definition of “monotonous.”

So we can’t just show our character as “in love” or “afraid” all the time—even highly suspenseful or romantic scenes will tend to lose their power when strung together ad nauseam. By incorporating other emotions—even contradictory ones occasionally—we enable our characters to come to life, throw their “main” emotions into relief, and show the many facets of human emotion.

Author Brandilyn Collins calls these “main” emotions passions in her book Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. She bases her secrets on the methods of acting guru Konstantin Stanislavsky. On passions, she writes (emphasis mine):

Stanislavsky likens a human passion to a necklace of beads. Standing back from the necklace, you might think it appears to have a yellow cast or a green or red one. But come closer, and you can see all the tiny beads that create that overall appearance. If the necklace appears yellow, many beads will be yellow, but in various shades. And a few may be green or blue or even black. In the same way, human passions are made up of many smaller and varied feelings—sometimes even contradictory feelings—that together form the “cast” or color of a certain passion. So, if you want to portray a passion to its utmost, you must focus not on the passion itself, but on its varied components. (95)

So by using different aspects of these passions, we can better illustrate the real depth of feeling a person would experience. Instead of constantly hitting the same emotional cues in every single scene, we can change up some of the emotions to explore the real depths of the feeling. And every once in a while, we can even take a break from that passion—dropping a low-tension scene every once in a while to make the high-tension scenes stand out.

What do you think? What are the components of the passions you tend to write most?