Friday December 15
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Writing for the Emotions

January 21, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 30, 2011

(I wrote this article in 2007 and posted it at A Novel Edit. I’ve posted it here to make it easily accessible to readers of The Editor’s Blog.)


Favorite stories—what are they?

Are they the cold, emotionless tales that report facts and figures, rather like a business report?  Or, are your favorite stories—books that you return to for a second read, novels you recommend—are they instead tales that have touched your emotions?

Have you spent the early part of an evening devouring Stephen King and the remainder of the night in suspense, tense and trembling at every sound?

Do you laugh at Stephanie Plum’s antics, cry with Travis and Old Yeller?

Does a brutal murder steal your breath?  An erotic scene get you hot?

Do books make you tremble with anger or steam at injustice?  Does your heart race?  What about your nails—ever chewed them off during an intense read?

Most of us like our fiction to touch us.  And not only a simple nudge.  We want to be prodded and pulled and pushed.  We want tears and laughter and shivers and breathlessness.  We want to feel the more-than-normal emotions that fictional characters experience.  If we didn’t, we’d be satisfied with the business report and the newspaper article and our magazines.

For writers, this is key.  Whether we intentionally write a scene to stir emotions or we go back and add words that engage the reader’s passions on a rewrite, we have to do it.

We’ve all read books that are technically perfect but emotionally barren.

Where’s the life?  Why couldn’t we, as readers, engage?

Often we find books cold because the author hasn’t raised the emotional level.  Hasn’t considered emotions at all.

Details and description have their places, but emotions flavor a story.  A whodunit can engage a reader’s mind and for some readers of mysteries, that may be enough.  But for the romance lover or the reader who craves action/adventure, a writer must add more.

A writer need not feel an emotion when writing, but he must be able to tap into it.  He must know how to convey it.  Never lost a child to violent death?  How about a beloved pet?  Transfer that feeling of loss over Fido to your character as she fights traffic, intent on getting to her child’s side in the ER, knowing that she’s already too late.  We all know the impatience stirred by traffic.  Exacerbate the panic and fear and helplessness for the mother as tears blind her and her breath is stolen by terror.

Emotions pull readers into the story faster than most anything else a writer could try.  They are instant connection points.  Think of emotions as tentacles reaching to the reader and tying him to your tale.  Wrap him tight so he must stay with you until the end.  You do want your readers to stay with you for reasons other than the $23.95 paid for the book, right?  You want them to become involved.  You want them to read your next story and the one after that.  So don’t shortchange them.  Give them all of you, including your private emotions and memories.

Writing to create emotional responses in your reader will cost you.  You will reveal part of yourself.  You will show that you know what moves others, what touches your readers.  You’ll be proving that you’ve been moved at some point in your own life.  Writing to stir emotions may also rouse some of your own.  And to do it effectively, you may have to expose yourself.  We writers like to think we’re private, but we often reveal our deepest selves when we write.  Especially when our characters’ strongest emotions influence our readers.


Put your protagonist in an absurd situation and let her react with aplomb.  Or let your klutz of a character skate through a scene oblivious of the chaos he leaves behind.

Ratchet up fear and suspense so your readers feel like hiding under the covers.  Write to trigger adrenaline surges in your readers.

Make your readers cry.  It’s okay—they want to.  They want to laugh and scream and tremble.

Why engage emotions?  To create a good read.  So yours will be the books that readers come back to again and again.  So your characters will be remembered.  So your novels will be recommended among friends


Need practical tips and strategies for inducing emotions in your readers? Read Creating Emotion in the Reader.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

5 Responses to “Writing for the Emotions”