THAT LOVIN’ FEELING: Putting Emotions On The Page
by Sylvie Kurtz
People read stories for the emotional journey they hope to experience. If she’s reading a romance, the reader wants the illusion that she’s falling in love. If he’s reading a thriller, the reader wants the illusion that he’s in mortal danger and has the tiniest of chances to come out alive. If she’s reading a fantasy, the reader wants the illusion that she’s stepped into this wonderful and magical world that doesn’t exist in her ordinary life.
But emotion is the trickiest part of life–and the trickiest part of writing. Emotion makes your character vulnerable and that vulnerability makes your reader identify with your character. The ultimate connection with your reader happens when she gets lost inside your character’s skin and lives the story as your character lives it.
New Age gurus would have you think that you can control your thoughts and, therefore, control your life. The truth is that passion, not reason, controls most people’s lives. And struggling with emotions is a part of dealing with problems. Passion, not reason, makes your character take action. This emotional struggle creates conflict and leads to the drama that sucks in a reader and makes your reader feel the story.
The best way to achieve this connection is to get deep into your character’s thoughts. Emotion names–anger, love, jealousy, despair, hatred–are labels. A character isn’t likely to think, I’m angry. More than likely, she’ll think, Damn it! Is the man incapable of closing any drawer? as she slams shut the dresser drawers her husband left open when he got dressed that morning. The thought is an expression of her anger. It shows rather than tells the emotional state. The reader can feel and see the anger in a way she can’t when she reads She was angry.
Here’s another example. You’re alone in your house. It’s past midnight. Thunder growls outside. Lightning crazes the ceiling of your bedroom. Then a series of creaks travels up the wooden stairway. Your heart races, your hands shake, and you’re sweating even though you lowered the thermostat to fifty for the night. But what led to those reactions? Your thoughts. Your heart raced, your hands shook, your armpits sweat because you thought, Oh, my God. There’s someone in the house. I’m going to die. Your body churns because you registered the situation as dangerous.
Now take that same situation–same dark and stormy night. Give yourself a different thought.Thank God, he’s home safe. Your caged breath releases. Your muscles relax. And you snuggle deeper into the covers. Same situation, different thought, different bodily expression. The mind leads the body.
Then to make things more complicated, emotions don’t stay constant. They go up and down like a rollercoaster. The woman in the bed might first feel relief, then anger. What took him so long? He left work three hours ago. Why didn’t he call? Then she might move to guilt when she sees him standing soaking wet with mud all over his pants and shirt–especially when she learns he had a flat tire and his cell phone battery died so he couldn’t call AAA. This ever-changing movement helps create the internal struggle that leads your reader to feel the story.
This concept of making emotions live on the page takes a lifetime to master, so go easy on yourself. Emotion rarely shows up in a first draft. It tends to come after you’ve figured everything else in your story. As Jerry Cleaver suggests in his book Immediate Fiction, as you revise, ask yourself, “What are my character’s worries, fears, and hopes?”
Stories are about conflict and threat. If someone threatens something your character values, he worries and fears he’ll lose it while he also hopes that he can find a way to save it. These worries, fears, and hopes run through his mind until the problem is solved, and your story ends.
If you can create the desired emotional experience for your reader, you’ve succeeded as a writer–and your reader will come back for more.