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Using Emotion in Our Stories

posted in: Writing Craft | 4

Good morning everyone!

CP Bialois
CP Bialois

One of the first things we hear when we start writing is to make the reader experience our character’s love, joy, sorrow, and other experiences. I’m sure many of us can attest that doing so can be one of the more difficult tasks. The reason is simple enough: it’s pretty damn hard to express what we feel in words.

To combat that issue we can choose the easy way out and say our character is sad or keep working to break down the wall. Personally, it was never my habit to do things the easy way, so let’s pick up our sledge hammers and get to work.

The first thing we need to look at is the scene and our character. Do we want the scene to be a heartfelt one-time event or is it building to a greater climax? Also, is our character the type to hold in their emotions or allow them to control over his/her actions?

For the first question, it depends on us and our stories. I’m a fan of building, and we can use some of the same techniques. For a subtle build, we can have the character sniffle or have a tear run down their cheek if it’s a sad event, or constantly smiling and chatting if it’s a joyous one. Sometimes, even just having them watch the focal point of the emotion can be enough. Here are a couple of examples:

Happy: Alan shook his head, fighting a losing battle against his growing smile. “I guess I can be wrong about something after all.”

Sad: Clenching his jaw, Alan watched his partner’s son being lifted onto the gurney. Someone will pay for this, he silently told himself.

In each, we can tell something happened and how deeply the action affected Alan. We either relax and enjoy the scene, or want revenge like our character. Both can be the start of our character’s growing affection or rage. With each scene we can show the growing emotion through various conflicts or meetings with others tied to our character’s life until they come to their moment of glory or failure. In fact, both can be used in conjunction to help our character along their path and make their journey all the more touching.

Now let’s look at having a character that holds in their emotions by using the same examples as above:

Happy: Alan’s eyes sparkled as he watched his partner become a father-in-law. He never expected this, but it was something he’d always remember.

Sad: Alan’s eyes turned hard as he stared at the paramedics working on his partner’s son. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but decided against doing so. Turning, he headed for the exit. There was work to do.

With these, we get a feel for what Alan is feeling by implying his emotions. By displaying his emotion mainly through his eyes, we’ve established he’s not one to broadcast his thoughts and feelings to others. What makes this type difficult to pull off is most of our character’s reactions are internalized, and it can become difficult to maintain interest. Hence, why having and outgoing type across from them can often open things up and create some interesting and entertaining moments throughout the story.

There are times we need to really go hard at our characters to convey the depth of their happiness or joy. To do is tricky at best. For me, it’s tricky in that it’s easy to fall into the overindulgence of our characters, but more on that in a moment.

Simply put, we can spend pages explaining all the little things that had happened that made our character the joyous person he/she has become.

By: Eneas De Troya

Happy: Alan paused outside his door and drew in a deep breath. The sweet scent of the morning dew and flowers energized him in ways he never thought possible. Even the green of the grass, the red of the roses, and pink of the tulips seemed to glow as though they shared in his excitement.

Sad: Closing the door, Alan’s turned and smacked his hand against the railing. Wincing, he looked skyward and let out a curse. Of all the times for his luck to turn bad, it had to be on this day. And his family wondered why he was in therapy.

In these examples, we are shown Alan’s mood and know something fantastic or horrible happened. Sometimes, all it takes are simple paragraphs like these, but often they lead into a back story or an over abundance of descriptions about how they feel. This is where over-indulgence comes into play and we have to be careful.

For the first point, I personally love flashbacks and back stories and use them a lot, but we need to be careful. It’s so easy to slip into a side story, that we can be several pages in before we even think about questioning whether it’s needed. I look at it simply as does the flashback add to the character or story to move them forward or is it covered throughout the story in bits and pieces? Basically, if it doesn’t add to the story and character and move things along, or is covered in tidbits throughout the story, I drop it. (On a side note, depending on who you talk to, flashbacks and back stories in general are bad. Honestly, that’s a decision you need to make for yourself after evaluating everything. If you want to use them, study the giants like Stephen King and how he does them.)

As for spending multiple paragraphs or pages explaining how everything around the person matches their mood, it can be tedious. For me (And this is just my opinion. Do what you feel works best for you), that’s tedious and wasteful. I prefer to show their feelings like I’ve done in the examples above and leave it at that. At most, I try to expand it through interaction with other characters or have the thought cross their mind from time to time. It works for me, but it may not for you.

What do you look for when writing emotions? Is there a particular method you prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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4 Responses

  1. Audrey Andujar Wright
    | Reply

    WOW! Great information, written well! That was a blessing, thank you!

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      Thank you! I’m glad I oculd help out. 🙂

  2. aliciaminor
    | Reply

    I embrace the scene as if I am the character and I was there. Sometimes, I cry when my character cries. I follow where my character leads me. We are writers in our own
    comfort. Thanks for sharing.

    • CP Bialois
      | Reply

      My pleasure. I’ve done that a few times myself.

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