Writing Emotion

Charles Yallowitz’s great tips on balancing humor and heavy topics (you can access it here:
https://legendsofwindemere.com/2022/01/24/2-post-of-2021-7-tips-to-balancing-the-humor-and-the-heavy/) got me to thinking about posting on the subject of writing emotion. Obviously, I’m not an expert. Yet as a freelance book editor, the emotional aspects of a story are what gain the most comments from me. That and perspective issues. Maybe that is the subject for another post. Anyway, take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Back in grad school days, I gave my advisor some pages of a manuscript for feedback. The note she provided was short and sweet: I hate it.

Lest you think she was unduly harsh, let me explain. I had written a scene I thought was beautiful and emotional. I dressed the prose in all of the figurative language I could—similes and metaphors galore. But the problem was that my goal was to prove to her that I could write well. A rookie mistake, as they say. I didn’t factor in a reader’s reaction—whether or not the scene would resonate with a reader’s emotion. It did, but in a negative way. My advisor added that she felt emotionally manipulated with all of the figurative language.

I was angry and hurt, because I didn’t understand her reaction. Understanding didn’t come until years later, when I was hired by some publishers to help authors revise their manuscripts before editing them. In regard to writing emotion, here are a couple issues I noticed (there are others, but this post is already very long):

An Overabundance of Tears. Many authors use tears to show emotion in a character. But tears often are a short-cut to emotional depth. They also have a cumulative effect. The more a character cries, the less effective those tears become. If a character bursts into tears at the drop of a hat every ten to twenty pages, usually by the second or third crying bout, I’m irritated, rather than moved with sadness on that character’s behalf. I have had some hard emotional blows but didn’t shed a tear. Yet I have had excruciating physical pain that caused me to shed them. Tears do not always equal real emotion,

Shallow Emotion. In many manuscripts a character has been dealt a harsh blow in one scene. I mean something that would take a person in real life multiple counseling sessions and months, or even years, to work through. Events like this take a toll on a person. Yet in the very next scene the character is mostly or even completely over what occurred in the previous scene. This lack of emotional carryover always raises a red flag within me. If the character is over the event so easily, the emotional depth seems questionable.

Now I totally understand that if your story takes place over a two-week period, you’re pressed for time. If you’re trying to get through a certain amount of plot points, maybe you just want to move on, even if it means a quick emotional reaction. Keep in mind also that I’m not talking about a two-hour movie where characters move about on the screen and you’re seeing snippets of their lives.

In The Emotional Craft of Fiction author/agent Donald Maass discusses the emotional turmoil many of us face through life’s difficult events. (Anyone alive during a pandemic can relate.) He writes

Let’s look at the emotions [these events] evoke, for these are strong feelings and the ones you’d like readers to feel as they read your fiction. . . . However, there’s a problem with that: Big emotions often fall flat on the page. (35)

Note that he mentions the emotions you want readers to feel. So what does he suggest?

Creating big feelings in readers requires laying a foundation on top of which readers build their own towering experience. . . . Details have the power of suggestion. Suggestion evokes feelings in readers, drawing them out rather than pounding them with emotional hammer blows. (36)

In other words, instead of having your character fall out on the floor in tears (which does nothing for me, to be honest) do something to help your reader connect to his or her own emotion.

Here’s a snippet from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a story taking place before and during WWII. A French young woman is one of the protagonists.

Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes grows. (6)


All the Light We Cannot See I felt a mounting sense of dread as I read that paragraph, thinking about the oncoming Nazi occupation of France and what that could mean to a blind young woman. This kind of writing might look simple yet is difficult to achieve. It takes some restraint on the author’s part and trust that the reader is savvy enough to understand and connect without hand holding.

Writing scenes with emotional depth takes some bleeding on the page. Many of us don’t want to go there, because we don’t want to feel that emotion. But if we’re writing a scene with any sort of emotional authenticity, we can’t really escape going there.

Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Donald Mass. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Book covers from Goodreads. Crying man from clipground.com.