Thursday, July 9, 2009

Feeling Emotional

Blog chain time, and the topic comes from the always awesome Christine:

How do you add emotional depth to your stories? How do you know when you have enough emotional content? And how do you keep it authentic?

This is a tough question. Emotion isn't like setting where you can do research or imagine a place you've been before. And it isn't like character where you can borrow traits of people you know, or in the case of some of my characters - people that I actually hope to never know.

The point, is that these are more concrete things, where as emotion is a little more difficult to grab hold of with two hands so that the necessary details can be wrung out onto the page.

When I first read this question, I honestly didn't know how I put emotion into my stories, and I'm not really certain how effectively I do it either. I am a big fan of using a lot of internal thoughts/dialogue in my writing, and I think that by letting readers into a characters' heads, you are getting a glimpse of their hearts as well.

Maybe the most important thing when writing emotion is to follow that often recited writing rule: Show, don't tell.

To be perfectly honest I usually think this rule is kind of obnoxious, because sometimes you just need to tell the reader something straight out, and not beat around the bush with a bunch of showing.

However, when it comes to emotion I cannot think of many instances where:

He had a temper tantrum.

would trump:

His screaming mouth was rounded into a wide O of outrage. The wail that poured out seemed to be pulled all the way up from his tiny little toes, and it went on for so long he lost his breath. The tears that ran down his round cheeks were almost an afterthought.

Hopefully, the second example works better at conveying the emotions displayed during a toddler's temper tantrum.

Of course, toddler's emotions are always on the surface - they haven't yet figured out how to hide them or hold them in. Still, there are ways to show a character's anger, even if they are not the type to kick and scream and generally throw a fit.

Does that answer the questions? I think it kind of does, but you can follow along the chain to read a bunch of other answers that are even better. Carolyn's answer was right before mine, and Kat will be posting her own take on the subject tomorrow.

And I'd also like to know - how do you convey emotion in your own writing? Do you believe in the show, don't tell technique? Or have you found another way to get all those pesky feelings across?


  1. Yeah, this is a hard one to answer for a lot of people. That's why I picked writer friends and I talk about this a lot!!!

    Good job.

  2. I try to do like you did, and also to stay away from cliches. I'd like to write emotions well, but I also want to evoke emotions in the reader. Sometimes I think the reader feels more when the emotional description is more sparse. What do you think?

  3. There have been so many incredible posts on this topic, I don't know what to say in mine.

    I think you're certainly right about the show, don't tell thing.

  4. Love the Calvin images at the top!

    I'm also a big fan of internal dialogue. It's a great way to get into the character's voice.

  5. In this case, I also agree that showing and not telling is a good way to get some emotional writing in there. I always have a hard time writing anger in an adult, because they have learned to keep it in, so to speak. I usually have to do it with something internal, and that's even harder.

    Great insight, Kate. :)

  6. Show, don't tell has always been a problem with me with describing emotional scenes. It's something that I am working on improving.

  7. I agree with the show don't tell, but sometimes my characters aren't the kind to show it. But that doesn't mean they aren't thinking it, so I use internal dialogue to show emotion too. Good post!

  8. I believe in the "show, don't tell" rule, but I agree with you. Sometimes, we just need to tell the reader something. Also, like you, I tend to use internal thoughts to convey my characters' emotions.

  9. Ahhh, show, don't tell. The bane of my existence ;-D Not really....I know how important it is. The showing breathes the life into your story, especially when you are talking about emotions. Saying "he was mad" is so flat, lifeless. Showing his anger makes it come alive. But, it is always something I struggle with...or at least have to work harder with than others. When I first write the story, I just want to get the words down, so more often than not I'll say "he's mad" and on the second go around flesh it out and really show you. It can be tough though to make it authentic without being cliche, showing without beating your reader over the head with it :)

  10. That rule has always bothered me...I think we should have a good mix of both showing and telling. I even tried to write without telling once, and the whole story was this contrived mosh of description...It was terrible.
    I have something of my own too tho--I will add some emotion into the atmosphere. This is good for places when I can use the environment. EX: "The air was thick and hung low to the ground, giving everything-including my thoughts-a frustrating and heavy feeling."
    -THat's a bad example, but I think it gets across my point. I think that ANY time you can give a scene emotion, you heighten the sense of place for the reader. Without it, you're scene can be like a movie with no music in the background...not good. :)

  11. Yeah, I pretty much don't know how I convey emotion in my writing. This blog chain has really exposed a lot of things I don't know.

    I also love internal thoughts/dialogue. That is something Stephen King does all the time, and I like being a part of the mental story.