Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. Join us on March 8 for the online class The Heart of Story.
The great Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
It’s a saying that applies well to fiction: people often don’t remember the plots of the novels they love, but they absolutely do remember how those books made them feel.
I think this is such a huge part of what makes us readers—and writers—to begin with: as James Michener put it, “the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”
Okay, but…how do you do that, exactly? Meaning, how do you actually generate strong emotions in the reader—and how do you get the reader to feel what your POV character is feeling in the moment?
In another one of my posts for Jane, I detailed the sometimes mysterious ways that seemingly disparate elements of story, when handled right, conspire to achieve this alchemy of emotion: The story’s stakes. The backstory of the characters, and the closeness of their relationships. The protagonist’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue.
But beyond all that, there are some very specific points in your story where the rubber meets the road, as far as emotion goes, and these are the points where you’re actually writing the character experiencing emotion in the moment.
And this is something that even many otherwise excellent writers get wrong, I find, by slipping into a distanced POV—an issue that can occur whether you’re writing in first person or third.
Here’s an example of an emotion written in a distanced way from the third person:
She felt angry. “Stop that!” she shouted.
And here it is from the first person:
I was stunned. “I’m leaving,” I announced.
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with either of these little snippets—but the fact is, neither is likely to generate any real emotion in the reader, even if the author has set up those other key elements of the story in such a way as to predispose that reader to care.
So what will?
I’ll get to that, I promise. But first, let’s address why overt statements of emotion don’t work.
Think back to a time when you really were angry, or really were sad.
Did you realize, in the moment, that you were feeling angry?
Did you realize, in the moment, that you were sad?
Chances are, you didn’t. Not right away, at least. Because those words—angry, sad—are the sort of labels we apply to our feelings after we’ve had a chance to process them. The feelings themselves are much more immediate and visceral.
To speak in the terms of brain science: Emotional labels like anger and sadness are generated by the frontal lobe, that advanced part of the human brain that can think about what it is thinking, and think about what it is feeling as well.
To truly put your reader in the emotional position of your POV character, you have to dig deeper, to the more primary thing, the feeling itself, which doesn’t occur in the frontal lobe at all, but rather in the older, more primal parts of the brain associated with our physical and social survival.
And that is best accomplished by body language and internal narration.
Tactic #1: Body language
Body language is generally the easier tactic for most of us to get a hold of, because we’re all quite familiar with the physical manifestations of emotion.
For anger, for instance, that might mean:
- your hands balling up into fists
- pursing your lips
- clenching your napkin
- feeling your jaw tighten
- shoving something out of the way
Those are all physical manifestations of an emotion that tells us we may need to fight, to defend ourselves or others.
For feeling sad, that might mean:
- feeling tears well up in your eyes
- feeling heavy
- needing to sit down
- closing your eyes
- taking a deep breath
Those are all physical manifestations of an emotion that tells us we may need to reveal our vulnerability to others, so we can help—or that we may need to go to ground, conserve energy, and nurse our wounds.
Fiction is full of the physical manifestations of emotions, and writers can often go too far with it, having their characters leapfrog right from bad news to outright sobbing, with no pitstops in between for glassy eyes, a tear escaping down a cheek, and so forth.
But even so, this sort of “body language” is indispensable when it comes to really translating the emotion of the POV character to the reader. Because it’s this sort of language that the reader maps onto her own body, via the magic of mirror neurons, when she reads it.
Meaning, this sort of thing actually helps your reader feel the emotion of the character, physically.
Tactic #2: Internal narrative
But to my mind, the more important tactic, when it comes to the generating emotion in the reader, are the thoughts that actually carry that emotion.
Feeling teary-eyed and heavy, feeling your jaw clench—that sort of body language carries emotion in a general sense. The thoughts associated with the specific emotions of a specific circumstance actually put us there, in this specific moment of the story.
For instance, here are some thoughts that might carry the emotion of anger in a specific circumstance:
Julie couldn’t believe it—her best friend had betrayed her, and hadn’t even had the decency to try to hide it. How had Julie so disastrously misjudged her? And here Julie had thought they’d still be friends when their kids were grown, when they were two old biddies getting up early to hit the estate sales…
And here are some thoughts that might carry the emotion of sadness in a specific circumstance:
Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had the slightest idea that anything was even wrong until the moment she said it. And now everything I’d worked so hard to build was crumbling down around me…
These sorts of thoughts are part our internal narration—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about what’s going on in our life. These sorts of thoughts help us formulate and preserve our identity, and to negotiate our social environment.
Internal narration does a lot to show the reader the meaning the character takes from the event being related, which helps to keep us clearly in that person’s POV—and helps us to feel exactly what they’re feeling.
Now here’s the body language and the thoughts conveying anger combined:
Julie could feel her hands balling up into fists as she clenched the napkin in her lap. Her best friend had betrayed her, and hadn’t even had the decency to try to hide it. How had Julie so disastrously misjudged her? And here Julie had thought they’d still be friends when their kids were grown, when they were two old biddies getting up early to hit the estate sales…
Here’s the combined body language and thoughts conveying sadness:
I could feel tears prickling in my eyes, so I squeezed them shut. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had the slightest idea that anything was even wrong until the moment she said it. And now everything I’d worked so hard to build was crumbling down around me…
If you get that on the page, and you still want to go ahead and say something like, “She felt angry” or “I was stunned,” go for it—you’ll have earned the right to label the emotion by sharing what actually came first from your character’s POV.
But chances are? You won’t even need to. Because your reader will already be feeling what your character is feeling.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, join us on March 8 for the online class The Heart of Story.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.