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Creating Emotion in the Reader

January 30, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 8, 2011

I wrote an article on the importance of creating emotions in readers, but I’ve noticed that writers are looking for specifics on how to accomplish that. So, this article complements that first one, presents practical tips on how to stir the reader’s emotions.

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Readers like to be touched, moved, by story. They like to imagine themselves in worlds and situations that challenge them, that give them opportunity to do and be something other than what they do or are in their real lives.

Fiction, whether in book or film or games, allows people to not only step into other worlds, but to experience those worlds. To do what they can’t in the course of a normal day. To feel beyond their normal feelings.

Since readers want to immerse themselves in other worlds and other lives, what can writers do to make that experience authentic, to make the fictional world real for a few hours?

One technique the writer can make use of to create reality out of fiction is to induce emotion in readers, make them feel something of what the characters are experiencing. Writer and reader know the fictional events aren’t real, but the emotion can be. Readers can fear and feel joy and be excited and know grief. They can laugh and cry, shiver and rage. All from reading a story.

But how can a writer accomplish this? How does a writer make readers feel emotion?

1.  Write in scenes, showing rather than telling. That is, don’t report that a character is afraid or giddy or grieving. Show the results of character emotions through the character’s actions. Show what fear or giddiness or grief does to him. Character action and response is a good place to focus.

This is a major key for rousing reader emotions. No one gets emotional over a report. They do get emotional when they can step into someone’s shoes and experience his or her feelings as if those feelings were churning inside them.

Delores was afraid to open the door to the basement steps. She stood at the far side of the kitchen, debating what to do.

vs.

Delores’s hand trembled as she reached for the locked doorknob. Tom had warned her not to open the basement door when he wasn’t around, but he was due home soon, so what could happen? She bit her lip and tightened her fingers around the cold knob. A shiver shook her. She inhaled only a shallow breath and then struggled for another.

And nearly shot through the ceiling when the microwave dinged, letting her know her tea was hot.

2.  Make a character sympathetic, so the reader identifies with her.

If the reader can identify with a character—with her dreams or habits or choices—he can also identify with her emotions—pains and joys and sorrows. (Readers can also identify with the shared human condition, so sometimes a particular situation will resonate with readers even before the character becomes involved.)

Make sure the reader knows/understands/identifies with the character before trying to connect emotionally. The reader won’t be affected by a character’s deep emotions on page one, simply because he has no ties to the character. By chapter three, if you’ve put the reader in the character’s place in the story, what touches the character can touch the reader. By the novel’s climax, the reader should so identify with the lead character that the character’s pain becomes the reader’s pain, his triumphs, the reader’s triumphs. The reader may have a physical response—laughter or tears or shivers—as if whatever happened to the character had actually happened to the reader.

You know how this plays out in your own life. A death reported on the nightly news means one thing when it’s a stranger and something totally different when it’s someone you know or a relative of someone you know.

Help your readers know your characters.

Make your character believable and sympathetic so the reader wants to be that character, wants to go through everything he goes through for the length of the story.

3.  Make a character unsympathetic, so the reader feels anger or repugnance toward him.

A character who is hated has already created an emotional response in your reader. I’m not talking caricature or stereotype here. I’m talking about creating a character who is soul ugly or evil or unfeeling, but one who belongs in one story and no other.

Your unsympathetic character might be no one of consequence in another book. But here, in this particular story, his actions/words are destructive to your protagonist or to someone close to him.

Cruel characters doing cruel things—cruel in the eyes of the protagonist or the reader—can affect the reader. If the character reacts to the cruelty, the reader can as well. Or, if the reader feels something because of what a cruel character does, you’ve already stirred his emotions.

If, however, your protagonist has no response to the cruel actions of another character, your readers may feel both bewildered and cheated. Show the reactions/response of characters to the actions of another character. Characters must do more than think about the evil of another character. They must have a response in terms of action and/or dialogue.

4.  Don’t hold back. If you want to reach the reader’s emotions, you need to write emotion-evoking scenes. Killing or injuring a character’s child, pet, or loved one can touch the reader, if the reader has sufficient investment in the character.

If Sarah gets a phone call, with someone saying her son has died, readers won’t feel grief, even if you show Sarah grieving, unless you’ve created a tie between Sarah and the readers, unless you’ve prepared for the death ahead of time, showing Sarah’s love for her son, perhaps her fear for his life or her dreams for him.

If he’s never been mentioned and we don’t know how much he means to Sarah, an announcement of his death will have no emotional impact on the reader.

If, however, Sarah had been worried for his safety or has been sitting at his hospital bedside, the reader is connected both to Sarah and her son, and his death can shake up the reader.

Don’t be afraid of killing off someone close to your main characters or of taking away something else dear to them. If they are crushed, the reader can be as well. This is fiction; you’re not really hurting someone if you write them into a car accident.

Death or injury aren’t the only ways to hurt your characters. Misunderstanding, betrayal, and forced choices that hurt their friends are all ways to agitate characters. And when characters are agitated, readers can be as well.

5.  Tease the reader with hints of what’s to come. You see this in romantic comedies, the backward and forward dance between a couple just falling in love. The tease, the delay, the anticipation makes the payoff dramatic and satisfying.

In mysteries and suspense, anticipation increases tension and therefore increases the emotional impact. Fear drawn out to just the right degree gives a satisfying snap when hell breaks loose.

6.  Recognize that word choice can greatly affect reader emotions. Some words are triggers in themselves and can be used to set off the reader.

Putting an especially nasty cuss word in the mouth of a character who doesn’t curse can jolt the reader. It’s a strong signal that something is very wrong.

Verbs or nouns that are socially loathed or that remind readers of hated people or abhorrent practices can be used to instantly rouse the reader. Of course, you can’t use this technique too often because the reader will feel manipulated and feel anger toward you, the writer, rather than with a character or the story on the page. You can manipulate readers; you shouldn’t let them feel the manipulation.

Some words convey lightness or humor or passion. Other words have little emotional shading. Choose your words with their impact potential in mind.

Even common actions can be influenced by word choice. Do characters cross a room or lope or shuffle? Do they race across town or merely make their way through traffic? Do they demand or ask for something? Do they heave or lift or haul or pick up an object?

Know the power of word choice in eliciting emotions. Use words throughout a scene to express your exact meaning so a scene is cohesive and the emotion consistent. Don’t mix light and fluffy words into a dark, heavy scene unless you’re doing so for effect. That is, be aware of your word choices and what they can do to the scene and the overall tone of the story—increase tension because you choose the right word combinations or diffuse tension because you’ve used ill-matched words.

Note—Even though you want the words to create a tight scene, one with cohesion and consistency, this doesn’t mean that all characters in the scene will have the same agenda and speak to the same end. That is, you may have a character quite at odds with the other characters and what’s happening. Your antagonist may not care that he’s caused negative events in the protagonist’s life. He might not feel remorse or pain at what’s happened. And therefore he may talk at cross purposes with other characters. This, of course, creates a tension all its own and can set the reader on edge.

7.  Create a situation that’s important, vital, or life altering, if not life threatening. Make sure there’s something at stake for the character, make sure his actions reflect the importance of this something, and make sure he tries to do something to change this intolerable dilemma. Produce in the reader both the emotion from the situation and the hope that the character can triumph.

8.  Put your characters under time constraints to increase tension, to cause them to make decisions they might not ordinarily make, to set them—and the reader—on edge.

9.  Force your character into making a decision between a bad choice and a worse choice. This kind of situation pulls the reader in whether he knows the reason for those bad choices or not. The reader feels for the character, for him having to make bad decisions that both character and reader know will cause even more problems.

10.  Move the story. Don’t dwell so long on an event that the reader loses interest or the urgency wanes.

11.  Write realistic scenes with realistic problems, problems that are conceivable for the characters and world you’ve created. Events, characters, and setting must be logical for your world. Don’t give your reader a reason to doubt the truth and possibilities of your story and story events. Don’t give them a push out of your fictional world.

12.  Surprise the reader by turning the story in an unexpected direction. Keep the reader off balance, unsuspecting, so he can be blindsided and thus feel more unsettling emotions.

13.  Write conflict into every scene. Conflict can be character to character, character to himself, character to events, and character to setting. An agitated character can pass that agitation to the reader.

14.  Adjust the pace for the emotion you want to create. Use short sentences and paragraphs to speed the pace, to encourage suspense and fear. (Readers read faster and feel the story is moving at a faster pace when there’s more white space on a page.) Use longer phrases and paragraphs to slow the momentum, to ease off the forward rush, to create a sense of relaxation or calm.

15.  Choose words with deliberation. Use harsh or sharp words for the harsher emotions, soft-sounding and soft-meaning words for gentle emotions. (Or, cross up your words and emotions to create confusion. But remember that you want the reader confused in the same way the characters are confused, not unable to follow what you’re saying.)

16.  Reduce the use of unnecessary and unrelated detail to keep the focus on one emotion. Characters involved in chases don’t notice the flowers or the store fronts decorated for Christmas. Lovers in their first sex scene don’t notice every object in the room; they’re far more interested in one another.

Stay in the moment and only turn the reader’s attention to what’s important for this moment and this scene and the characters involved.

There are, of course, exceptions to this piece of advice. Yet, when you’re trying to build emotion, don’t dilute it or distract the reader with unrelated details. Use your details in other scenes, when it’s appropriate to introduce them.

Do use detail that will heighten emotion.

17.  Use setting to influence the reader and deepen his emotional response. Paint your rooms, put sounds in your outdoor spaces, add smells to your attic. Imagine how these elements would influence your readers—dark rooms, dark colors, enclosed spaces, echoing spaces, wide-open fields, silence, the living room of a house where someone was murdered, the living room of the house owned by the lead character’s enemy, a courtroom, a boardroom, back stage during a concert, back stage three hours after the concert-goers have all gone home.

Play with setting so you put your characters in the best locale for each scene. Need to ramp up unease? Move the scene to a deserted office at night. Need something lighter than the bedside of a comatose patient? Take the scene to the hospital’s cafeteria. Or chapel. Or business office.

18.  Use sense details to mire readers in the reality of the scene. What can the character hear and smell? What does a change in sound mean? What does the absence of sound mean for the character and the reader? When a character reaches into a dark hole and feels something brittle, does the reader break out in goose bumps? What if the character felt something soft and silky, something like springy curls? Does the reader’s pulse jump?

Play with all five senses to keep your readers involved, maybe off balance, but always interested in what’s coming next.

*******

Use each of these methods, not just one, to raise an emotional response in your reader. Touch the reader often, noting that each scene doesn’t have to register higher on the emotional meter than the scene before. (Though emotions do rise through the climax, the rate of the climb isn’t consistent and emotional impact can be variable; both character and readers need variations in intensity. Downs are as important as ups.)

Don’t hesitate to mix emotions. A heroine in a suspense thriller can’t be frightened all the time. Use humor or lust or exasperation or anger or joy to change the type of tension for her and for the reader. Take the reader up and down and then up again. Readers like ups and downs, not a flat line of no emotion, of zero affect. Keep the reader engaged by making her feel. Stir up your readers.

Tap into emotions to give your readers a read that satisfies on all levels.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, How to, Writing Tips

38 Responses to “Creating Emotion in the Reader”

  1. frida says:

    thank you for this very useful piece :D

  2. Frida, I’m glad you found it useful. Thank you for letting me know.

  3. HJ says:

    I’m an aspiring writer (though only 14), and after reading this, it’s given me useful insight on how to develop emotions in my characters. This helped a lot since theres a lot of tragedy

  4. HJ, I wish you great success with your writing career. I hope it proves enjoyable and challenging and profitable. Something to help you achieve your goals is to write often and read more often.

    I’m glad this article was helpful for you.

  5. earl esteva says:

    thank you so much…..this blog help me so much in my thesis…..i hope you will continue making such a useful info’s

  6. Earl, I hope to continue with the blog for a long, long time. I’m glad you found info useful for your thesis.

  7. Chuck P says:

    I just found you and thanks, I was looking for exactly this advice.

  8. Chuck, I’m glad you found the information you were looking for. You are most welcome.

  9. abbey says:

    I am also an aspiring writer at the age of 17, and I’m currently writing my first novel. I’ve attempted a few times before, but I lacked any engagement with my characters and there was certainly not a variation of emotion- all doom and gloom! However, I’ve found that with planning, reading and writing everyday, the quality of my work is really improving. (I’m well into Chapter 13).
    I can’t thank you enough for this post- very helpful! Often, you find yourself wanting to say so much, but don’t quite know how to in order to ensure the reader’s empathy. I want the reader to really FEEL in the more tragic scenes. (One of which involves the main character losing her mother).
    I will definitely be trying these tips! Thank you so much!

  10. Abbey, I wish you success upon success as you continue to write. I can verify that yes, as you write and practice and write some more, the quality of your work will improve. You also obviously already know that there’s more to writing than simply doing it—if you’re looking at writing sites online, you know there are tools available to strengthen your skills. I’d say you’re off to a great start to your career.

    I encourage you to write and study and live a full life.

    You are most welcome for the tips.

  11. Kim says:

    Thanks so much! ^^ I’m fifteen, working on my first novel. It’s a dystopian, and I saw the Hunger Games today and wanted to play into my readers’ emotions like that movie did.

  12. Kim, I wish you great success with your writing. There’s nothing better than putting that first manuscript together. Here’s hoping you have fun as you work it all out.

  13. Chloe says:

    This has been the best advice for writing i have every found. Thank You!!!! I have a narrative writing due soon and whatever i write sounds like a report. I’ve read many books that have such strong emotion and have touched me but i just can’t write like that. This has really helped me write the conclusion for my narrative writing… now i need to come up with the beginning.. ^-^

    Thanks again!!!

  14. Chloe, I’m very glad you found something here to help. When chapters and events read like reports, it helps to step away from actions and move to feelings or thoughts.

    Another trick that might help in the short-term is to write a handful of long, long sentences, sentences you might never use. Get out of the pattern of she did this, she did that that comes out rat-a-tat-tat in short sentences. Change the sentence flow. Change the focus of the moment.

    I wish you great success with your writing.

  15. Mark says:

    I am an aspiring writer by the age of thirteen, I am most experienced at fantasy and has studied ancient and medieval history both at home and in school for the last three years which had greatly helped in my writing. I am currently writing the third draft of my first novel. Yes, before reading this article, I showed my drafts to some of my friends. I had them feel for my characters at some points, but I want the protagonist’s journey to be perilous and will leave him mortally wounded both inside and outside. How do I show that?

  16. Mark, congratulations on not only completing a novel but on your dedication to strengthening it. You are well on your way as a writer. And you’ve asked a great question.

    First, I’m going to ask if you truly mean mortally wounded. That would indicate the protagonist will die from his wounds. I’m guessing that instead you merely mean severely wounded both physically and emotionally. (If he really does die from either the physical or emotional wounds, most of what I include here will still apply.)

    For the outside, you could show him recovering from the injury—taking medicine, going through physical therapy, having other characters react to the damage and even to the scars as he heals.

    For the inside, you could show a change in personality, whether that means being uncaring toward anyone and anything or, conversely, being more caring and tender toward a particular group (such as victims of crimes or burn victims). You can show him shutting down when before he was outgoing. You could have him unable to sleep, maybe repeatedly pulling an object out of his pocket, something that speaks to his emotional wound. Such an object could be the ribbon of a girl he failed to save or a pebble he picked up on the beach that reminds him of his loss.

    He could lock himself up inside his home or head off alone, without his best buddies. He could visit a cemetery but be unable to cry over the grave of someone he lost. Or maybe the cemetery’s the only place he can cry.

    You can also show both wounds through the eyes and words of others. They can say they’re worried about him or point out the odd behavior. They can try to devise ways of bringing him back into the regular world, ways that backfire when he turns on them, people who were always his friends.

    He can give away a fortune or something dear to him, something that shows his priorities have shifted.

    Such wounds, if they do change someone inside, often change behavior. And they make what used to be important unimportant. Look for ways to have him act in ways contrary to what used to be normal behavior.

    You can also make him non-communicative until he just can’t stand the encouragement of others and then have him blow up, going crazy on his friends. Again, think of behaviors contrary to what he would have done before being wounded.

    Many people turn to drink or drugs when catastrophes overwhelm them. I don’t know what age you’re writing for or if such a thing would be appropriate for your story, but he could always think he’d like to drown his sorrows, even if he didn’t know where to score drugs and had no access to alcohol. If he couldn’t find drugs or alcohol, or if he did try them but they weren’t successful in making him forget what had happened, he could see that as another failure, another way he wasn’t like the rest of the world.

    You’ve got lots of options. See if some of these suggestions don’t get you started. If not, let me know and we’ll see what else might work.

  17. Cay says:

    As I read through this, I read it as a mental checklist for my first draft of my drama/suspense story (written as a sort of skeleton for a graphic novel). Plot wise, I’m feeling proud of myself for knowing exactly where and how often I used these, but this post will definitely help me out with editing and better dialogue! Thanks!

  18. James says:

    I am only sixteen years old, yet I want to become a writer or novelist! We have learnt a few of these techniques in English, and I recently got an A* in my creative writing piece! However I’m not sure I have the dedication to finish a novel the whole way through would hate the idea of me giving up on it unfinished, wondering if you have any tips? :)

    • Steph says:

      A true writer would ask themself “If I a tossing is the storyline good?” If you answer no, consider changing the plot or adding in a couple of characters to stir the maim character. If you answered yes, then keep working at it and good luck :) ;)

      • James, I’m sorry. I must have missed this comment.

        I would say to keep writing. Quitting is easy, especially when it’s time to rewrite and work through problems. But the only way to get through the problems is to work them out.

  19. Keaton says:

    Thank you for sharing these tips! I’m in the beginning stages of writing a novel and though only 13, I strive to be a pro! Inducing the emotion is what sells a good book, so I’m happy that I got some good tips to connect the readers to my story. I will definitely try these and see how it goes. Thanks again!

  20. Steph says:

    Amazing article. I’m only 13, turning 14 soon, and have just read this article. I am currently writing a book and was struggling to write a sad and emotional scene, but this article has changed my whole perspective of the view to come from.

  21. Glenn says:

    Thanks for posting this — many solid examples and methods. I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog.

  22. Tina says:

    Hi there. I’m a single mom soon to be 33. I take time when I can to write but mostly for fun so I’ve never published. I have a story idea that started simple but keeps evolving in different ways & has nearly become consuming to the point that my thoughts get carried away when I sleep. I just found your bogs today & wish I’d found it years ago. My story has multiple important characters since it involves a sizable family of I guess you could say paranormals. One character in particular is a comlplicated puzzle, I`m having trouble portraying him in a way that is mysterious, emotionless, serious, & quite difficult for others to understand or figure out, without making him seem boring or less important in comparison to other characters. Do you have any advice?

    • Tina, what about the character would be fascinating to other characters or the readers? Can you tease at that? What interesting events happened in his past that make him interesting? What about him would have readers wanting to know more?

      You have to hint and tease so that readers need to know more. Teasing about a character keeps readers interested, and it keeps them thinking about the character.

      If you don’t know this particular character’s back story, that’s where you should start. Figure out who he is and what he wants and how he plans to get it. Then use that information to make him an integral part of the story.

      Who can he make alliances with? Who does he oppose?

      You don’t want everything to be too obvious, but you will want to fold some of his life into the story. Everything that happened in his past affects his present and future. You’ve just got to create something interesting for his past that makes him interesting in the present.

      I hope that gives you a place to start.

      • Tina says:

        I had been concerned that using his actions to define him would not be enough since his siblings are defined by more than actions. I was concerned but your advice has given me better confidence in the way I’ve been writing. Thank you.

  23. Thank you a very helpful article, I was aware of some of the points but had forgotten about the power of using simple everyday words. Also I hope my characters become more realistic after reading your post, as I have started to create cv’s of past life events for my characters.

  24. Lynn says:

    I just wrote one of my characters having a terrible headache and now I have a headache(not that bad, but it’s kind of annoying). I also just want it to be dark since the light is making my character’s headache worsen.

    If it affects me like that, is it good?(it’s the only reason why I don’t write my characters in extreme pain in first person)

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