April 25, 2022
Writing and emotions, emotions and writing: they go hand in hand a lot of the time. Of course, a scientific paper probably wants to exclude the touchy-feely stuff, and some poems may even want to be super stark. But often, poetry and prose rely on emotions because one of the goals is to get readers to feel something.
Reading and emotions
I know some people avoid things that make them too emotional. But speaking for myself, a book rarely qualifies as a favourite unless it makes me cry at least once. And the best poems leave me feeling all wistful or wishy-washy or chest heavy or something more than just “that was nice.” Although I like those ones too, to be fair.
For me, connecting emotionally with a piece of writing means the author succeeded in touching a heart string of mine. They made me feel for the characters, or made it simple for me to imagine myself in that awe-inspiring moment. I don’t need to put effort in – I just feel it.
Now, I know it might not be quite so simple for everyone out there to become as wishy-washy as me. But I think the sentiment is the same – if we truly feel something when we read, it gives us a new experience, or makes us feel seen. It’s a nice feeling.
Writing and emotions – how???
I don’t know that I have a concrete answer.
But I’ve got some suggestions.
Coming at this question as a fiction writer, I know that if I can make myself feel emotional during a scene, someone else is bound to feel it, too. Now, it probably needs editing and tweaking before it can do that as well as I’m hoping it will, but I think that’s a pretty good first step. We’re never alone in the things we feel – emotions in stories aren’t any different.
Basically, if you get yourself to feel something, you’re on the right track.
Beyond that, there are a lot of tools you have at your disposal that can help.
Use imagery and metaphor! Connect a swell of hope to a sunrise, a broken heart to shattered glass, emotional numbing to a snowstorm, etc., etc. It sounds cliche, but the actual weather of a scene can really impact things. Rain does evoke something different in us than a bright sunny day.
Maybe you want readers to feel a childlike happiness. I find that for poetry or children’s books, fun rhymes* or great alliteration can do this (maybe it’s just my brain bringing me back to The Cat in the Hat, but hey, whatever works).
(*Mini disclaimer. As many an article has recently pointed out to me – including this one from Reedsy – be careful putting rhyming into your children’s book. It can be hard to get right. Find the story and then see if you can add a rhyme, and don’t be upset if the rhyming doesn’t fly. There are other ways to have fun with language!)
Get your characters’ feelings out there. Can you reflect their emotions with a particularly strong word or turn of phrase? Can you add more detail to what they’re experiencing? In poetry, would a line break emphasize that feeling? For example, maybe you’re writing about heartbreak. Perhaps you can write a stanza along the lines of:
he held her heart in his hands
then she watched it
as he walked away
In this case, putting shatter on a line of its own emphasizes the pain (which would also be shown in other stanzas, I’m imagining. I’m a poetry editor and not a poet for a reason).
And of course, for fiction or prose (and poetry, depending on what your subject is), try to use the “show don’t tell” method. As far as that goes with character emotion, try to explain how it feels rather than what the feeling is. There will always be exceptions, so don’t hold this as the constant golden rule. But test it out where you can. For example:
She felt very happy
Her heart soared
See (or feel??) the difference?
Finally, don’t be afraid of detailing what’s going on. Depending on the scene, maybe don’t leave it at “her heart soared,” but build off it. Is she with someone else? How does experiencing it with someone make her feel even happier? What does the setting look like and why does that make her happy? You don’t have to go overboard, but the more a reader gets why a character is feeling a certain way (especially in fiction), the easier it is to feel that way, too. In poetry, consider how many lines you need to evoke that feeling, and how strongly you want it evoked. The more emphasis you place on it, the stronger the reaction should be. Use the tools above (playing with language, imagery, etc.) in careful ways to make that happen.
Long story short: play around with the places you want readers to feel something. Can you strengthen it with sharper words? Draw attention to it with placement? Is there a metaphor just waiting to be drawn out?
If you struggle with this, that’s ok! Beta readers can point out where there should be more emotion, and editors can help you bring it out.
So, what do you think? What’s something you’d like to work on when it comes to emotions, or what’s your favourite way of showing them? Or if you’re a reader more than a writer, what’s the last piece of writing that moved you?