The Problem with Conveying Emotion

It’s an element that all writers need, but they are not always good at showing the reader. The problem with emotion is that sometimes, it’s just difficult and awkward to get right.

The aim for any writer is to move the reader, so that they read a particularly moving scene and feel the emotion behind it and they may feel a tug at the heart, or even feel like crying. Perhaps they read a terrifying scene and it affects them with fear or apprehension. Or there might be a heart-warming, happy scene that simply makes the reader smile.

Getting the reader to react to what the main character is feeling is no mean feat.

The most common problem with trying to convey emotion occurs when writers sometimes make the mistake of telling the reader the emotion they should feel, for example ‘John was sad’ or ‘John was angry.’ While this may seem logical to write, it doesn’t convey any feeling; it doesn’t mean anything to the reader. For emotion to work, the reader has to feel it or be affected by it.

As an example, compare these two scenes. The first one has little emotional depth, while the other does:

His heartbeat grew loud in his ears. The sounds of desperate men floundering against barbed wire and bullets soaked his senses.

He hid among tangled arms and legs and sand-smeared entrails, stooped to the knees in a pool of a dozen soldiers’ sacrificial blood.  There could be no surrender, no glory in death.

Something trickled down his face.  He couldn’t stop the tears...

This example doesn’t even try to show much emotion. The narrative simply tells the reader what the emotion is and doesn’t describe anything in detail. It fails to engage. Compare the same scene with more emotional depth:

His heartbeat unfolded like a flower. It grew loud in his ears, louder than the blasts that shredded the ground, louder than the voices in the middle of a blood-raked beach.  The sounds of desperate men floundering against barbed wire and bullets soaked his ragged senses and made him shudder.

Purple scars stretched across a blackened sky.

Fox in the hole; he hid among tangled arms and legs and sand-smeared entrails, stooped to the knees in a pool of a dozen soldiers’ sacrificial blood. There could be no surrender, no glory in death.

He thought about his family then; their memory burned to his mind and the new born child he would never see. Something trickled down his face then, and he couldn’t stop the tears...

This is the same narrative, but with the added emotion and sentiment. This one is much better; it engages the reader and it shows the emotion through description and the ‘showing’ technique and highlighting the emotive themes of loss (he thinks about the child he will never see), and cold acceptance of his fate.

The more you can give to the reader, the more they can feel.

The way around the problem of conveying emotion is to describe a character’s physical responses rather than telling the reader about them, for example the mention of tears, the twitching of the bottom lip, the colour of someone’s face as frustration gets the better of them, their reactions with objects, such as door-slamming, pushing things over, even hitting someone. All are reactions to and because of emotion.

If you can convey emotions well, you have a chance of affecting the reader in the same way. They will feel sad, happy or relieved, or angry at something.  Remember that not only do your characters need to feel; your readers do, too.

In a nutshell, emotion is about responses; it’s a reactive feeling to something or someone. There are other devices to use:

  • Physicality to highlight emotions
  • Use thoughts or dialogue to show emotion or sentiment
  • Subtext can be used to show emotion
  • Use imagery to suggest emotion
While it may seem daunting trying to encapsulate the sentiment of a situation, emotion helps the reader connect with the character. The reader can identify with the character’s risky predicament or perilous journey, or the ultimate goal they’re trying to achieve. And because of this connection, they can sympathise with or feel for the character when things go wrong or the character is in danger. Simply telling the reader how a character feels just doesn’t work. There is no emotion involved.
Conflict creates an endless list of emotions. Be ruthless with your main character. Put them in mortal danger, take away the things they love most, kill off their nearest and dearest and create all manner of trauma. All these create reactions and in turn they generate emotions. Don’t be afraid to push your characters, torment them or be mean to them. Physical and psychological pain creates emotion, too, and none more so when we sympathise or empathise with what the character is going through, because certain situations will be all too familiar to us.
Something else that packs the emotional punch is the descriptions you create. Manipulate them to emphasise the emotion and make them believe the feeling is all too real. Remember:

  • Excellent characterisation is essential – create immediacy and a connection to the reader.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Emotive themes always make for emotional writing – loss of something or someone, grief etc.
  • Create empathy and sympathy with familiar themes.
  • Conflict & overcoming obstacles provides emotion.
  • Quality of writing counts.
  • Look inward for own experiences to convey them to the reader, however hard or painful.

The thing about emotion is that it’s something everyone feels, even to those who pretend otherwise. It’s inescapable because we all feel pain, joy, despair, sadness, anger, grief, love...all the things that can and do take place within stories.

Conveying emotions doesn’t have to be hard. It just takes a bit of thought to understand why these emotions are important and how they should be shown.

Allwrite is taking a well-earned break and will return in two weeks.



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