Recently, a friend of mine emailed a question about how to let the reader in on what another character other than the main character is feeling. I promptly answered, and then realized it would also make a great topic for a blog post. I haven’t touched on emotional writing for awhile, so here we go. Let’s dive into how to become an emotional writer.
Ever read or written a sentence like this…..
“You can’t be serious? How could you do that? Roger replied angrily.
“Wow. Would you look at that?” Madison said. I could tell she was surprised.
On the surface there’s nothing really wrong with these sentences. But from a creative writing standpoint, well… they aren’t that spectacular either. Mostly, because these sentences are telling the reader what’s going on instead of showing it. The reader doesn’t want to be told how the characters are feeling, they want to feel it for themselves. One of the best way to accomplish this is to give emotional cues.
What’s an emotional cue?
Let’s check some out…
“You can’t be serious? How could you do that?” Roger’s face flushed deep crimson as his hands gripped the edge of the table with enough force to turn his knuckles white.
“Wow.” Madison couldn’t keep the brilliant smile from her face, and danced about with a giddiness to her step. “Would you look at that?”
Each sentence actually has two emotional cues (I did that on purpose to help get my point across, but usually just one cue works fine). Roger’s face turns red and he grips the table tightly. Madison gets a brilliant smile on her face and she dances around with giddiness. These cues tell the reader how the characters feel, but never actually uses the word angry or surprised (more on that in a minute).
The difference from the two sets of sentences is significant. A reader can really understand and even feel what’s going on better with the second set of sentences because they are more descriptive about what the character is actually feeling. It puts the reader in the character’s shoes because who hasn’t gotten so angry their faces turned color or who hasn’t gotten so happy they didn’t dance around with giddiness?
I’ve talked about this book before and I will mention it again (yes, it’s that freaking good). The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi lists seventy-five emotions and emotional cues for those emotions. It’s a book I keep with me as I write, because I find it such a useful resource and sometimes I can’t get my brain to cooperate and tell me how a person might act in a given situation.
Some other ways to find emotional cues is to pay attention while reading from a book by a favorite author. There’s no better way to learn than to learn from those who have already already done it!
Another good way is to people watch. Yep, I’m talking about being one of those kind of people. The kind that sits on the mall bench and stares as everyone passes, or the one in the restaurant that pretends to read the menu but is really seeing what everyone else is doing.
Okay, so what about when I was talking using emotional words like angry or surprised? What’s wrong with using emotional words to create emotional writing? Well, because when saying a person is angry or surprised or whatever that’s actually telling the reader how the character feels.
Shhh. I have a confession to make. I never did like being told what to do, and it got me in trouble quite a bit as a kid.
Does that sound familiar? Soooooo………….
Let’s not tell what the emotion is. Let’s keep it a secret and see if the reader can figure things out for themselves. Let’s show them and see how smart they really are.
Try this… write a scene where a character has a strong emotion. Doesn’t matter which happy, sad, anger, confused, surprised, insulted, ect. Just pick one! And then write that scene without ever using the word of the emotion that’s trying to be conveyed.
Ray paced the floor. The afternoon wore on much too slowly. He stopped to check the clock on the wall for the hundredth time. Still an hour to go. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. The pressure built up in his chest, making it difficult to breath. Would this day ever end? Would her flight ever land? It’d been far too long since she’d seen his little girl.
So what emotion did the above example convey? And did I ever use the actual word I wanted to convey in that paragraph? And even though I never used the word impatient, it clearly shows the reader how Ray feels by letting the reader feel it too.
Being an emotional writer is important, not because it’s a more in-depth way to write, but because the reader likes to feel. Yep, it’s true. Readers read to feel something, to experience another world or another life. So when writing isn’t emotionally descriptive it actually cheats the reader out of an enjoyable experience (even if the emotion itself isn’t enjoyable like hate, anger, despair, and sadness).
Let’s not cheat the reader. Let’s give them a mystery to figure out. Let’s give them some emotion to feel.