Conveying emotion in your writing
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Reading a story is an emotional experience. Or at least, it should be, but not everyone gets emotions just right in their writing. It’s a delicate thing to do, to say the least; one has to get it just right, and too much or too little can tip the scale and make it either stiff or melodramatic. There are a few tricks to conveying emotion well, but the real trick to it is to really master the basics of writing. If you can write three-dimensional characters and really understand style, most of the time, conveying emotion will come naturally to you.
I know I’ve said this plenty of times before, and I will say it again, but this is really one of the basic things one needs to master to write fiction; they don’t call it a golden rule for nothing. But when it comes to emotion, it takes on a particular importance; you want to be able to make your readers feel what the character is going through; and “she felt sad” really doesn’t do the trick. Emotion is an abstract concept, and to be able to “show” something, you should stick to the concrete. Remember that the difference between concrete and abstract things is that something concrete is measurable with one of the five senses. What that means is that you should concentrate on the physiological and physical reactions that the emotion provokes. Do some introspection, and think about the particular sensations any given emotion can give; the way certain muscles tighten, the way your blood quickens, the dizziness or that odd sinking feeling you can get in the pit of your stomach, among many, many others. Body language is also very revealing of emotion; different emotions can provoke changes in posture, eye contact, facial expressions as well as particular gestures.
Yes, I’m going to talk about sentence structure, but this isn’t an English class so I won’t linger. I just have to say that if you want to give a sense of immediacy and urgency, or if you want your reader to feel like they are at the heart of the action, you should endeavor to use active voice rather than passive. This simply consist in making the person who performs the action described the actual subject of the sentence rather than its object. For example, “the dog stole the hamburger” represents active voice, and “the hamburger was stolen by the dog” represents passive voice. As a good rule of thumb, if you see passive voice in your writing that you didn’t intend to use with a specific effect in mind, replace it with the active voice.
Always be aware of the connotations a particular word brings with it. Always try to go for words that have connotations that support the emotion or the mood you are trying to create. There are two types of connotations, and they should both be used judiciously: general connotations are the ones that are generally accepted as having that particular meaning; for example, when you say the word “blanket”, most people can agree that thoughts of warmth and comfort spring to mind. Personal connotations, however, are special meanings that a single person (or, as it should be in this case, a character) has for a word or a concept based on their own personal experience. To use the same example as earlier, if a character’s lover was killed by being smothered with a blanket, then they would not associate feelings of warmth and comfort to that word anymore! Have fun with personal connotations; again, they are a great way to reinforce your reader’s relationship to the character.
Try to avoid clichés
“His heart raced”, “her breath caught in her throat”… when you are thinking of your reactions, there are lots and lots of clichés that spring to mind. Clichés are clichés for a reason; they are common reactions, and it’s normal to jump to them, and it’s all right to write them down in your first draft. But they’re also terribly general, and they are not the most efficient way to convey emotion. The best thing to do is to try to make the different reactions you write about unique to your character. Not only does this make for much better style, but it also serves the double purpose of building and reaffirming character. How would this particular character change their body language? What physical sensation would they focus on?
The importance of surroundings
The world around us is always perceived through the filter of our perception, which is, in turn, greatly influenced by the mood we are in. Taking a walk outside on a winter day, if you are in a good mood, you might notice how bright the sun is, or the nice crunching sound of the snow under your boots, or how each individual snowflake creates its own reflection of the sun; if you are in a bad mood, you might notice that it’s cold, and slippery, and that the slush on the side of the road is a disgusting brownish gray color. What I’m trying to say here is that the mood your POV character is in should influence the way you describe their surroundings; what they focus on will be very revealing of the emotion they are feeling.
“I love you” and other trivial phrases
One of the most misrepresented emotions, to me, is love and romance. A lot of writers think that because one character tells another “I love you”, then they have shown that these characters love each other, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of the greatest love scenes ever written do not even have these words in them; in fact, once a character has reached the point where they say this to another, it should be clear in the reader’s mind that they do. I have said that naming the emotion is telling, not showing; just because you use dialogue to do it does not make that any different. “I love you” should not be the big reveal; it is not something that makes it worth being with another person, and it is not the essence of what brings two people together; it is the conclusion of all these things.
Well, if I’m not going to say that, how do I tell the readers these two people love each other, then?
A convincing and poignant love scene must reveal to the reader the essence of their relationship; it must reveal something about who these people are and why they love each other. In giving someone your heart, you also give them great power over yourself and your happiness; relationship are built on the trust people have in their loved one that they will not take advantage of this power. True acceptance is also part of the essence of a good relationship, and a lot of true love resides in being able to be ourselves and be accepted for who we are.
Great love scenes speak to that in the way that a character often bears their soul to another they reveal something deeply personal about themselves and who they are, and trust the other person to accept them. When that trust is rewarded with worthiness, then love is achieved. At that point, the words “I love you” can still be said, but they don’t necessarily need to be, as the way the trust, respect and love these two people have for each other should have been demonstrated.
Knowing the characters
With all that being said, it still comes down to the fact that there is truly only one great way to convey emotion to your reader, and that is to write characters that are well-rounded enough the reader gets to know them as real people. If your reader can truly relate to them, if they can come to expect their reactions towards certain situations, then the situations themselves will provoke empathetic emotions in your readers – they will feel the character’s emotions because they know them well enough to relate. Think about it; when you see someone you know going through something humiliating or extremely painful, do you feel for them because they explain that they felt a given emotion, or because you know them well enough to imagine how they felt?