E is for Emotion

Wow, do I struggle with this.

I don’t know how many times plowing through my first draft I heard … but what’s she feeling? I tried to make sense of that, because, from my perspective, I’d put all the bits in there to show her emotion. Physical signs. Short and angry dialogue. Yet, it wasn’t enough.

And I was afraid. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to generate any sympathy for my main character.

So I tried to put in ‘emotions.’ To show the fear or frustration or love my character felt. Like this:

Not enough emotion:

“No, it’s not,” I snapped.

With lame-ass attempt at emotion:

“No, it’s not.” My anger could barely be restrained and I bit my lip.

*cue rolling of eyes and grinding of teeth*

Why emotions are so hard for me to write I’m not sure. Could be the years I’ve spent developing my cold and rational side and repressing my artistic side. Or it could be that I’m a very visual story-seer. I imagine scenes much like a TV show or movie, where an action carries weight because you can see the expression of the character. However, that doesn’t always translate into black and white.

Whatever the reason, action, fight scenes, and dialogue come more naturally than emotions. Plot ideas? I have so many I won’t be able to write all the stories I’ve thought of in the past year alone.

But what good is telling all those stories if my readers can’t connect to the characters? To care about their challenges enough to see them from page 1 to page 400?

Despite this struggle of mine, I decided to try and break down exactly what people meant when they said they didn’t understand my character’s emotional state. And it turns out, what it was wasn’t the emotions themselves. It was the thoughts and motivations behind the emotions.

Because emotions are easy to show—it’s why the character feels emotion that generates sympathy and understanding from the reader.


Once I learned this, the whole thing became a tad less intimidating. I don’t need to show the emotion behind every little reaction or line of dialogue. What’s important is to draw my reader into sympathy with how the character sees the world—and once they’ve bought into the character’s mindset, they have no trouble fleshing out un-tagged emotion throughout the rest of a scene or book. The key is to figure out the crucial emotional reactions of your character in each scene and fully draw the reader into those moments.

This won’t succeed or fail based on one passage. In fact, it’s the building of moments between character and reader that strengthens the emotional power of each scene and provides depth as the story progresses.

If you continue to put your character in situations that force them to show their character—their goals, struggles, and reasons for reactions—your readers will be pulled further into a relationship with them and will care about the outcome of their story.

I’ll bite my tongue there.

This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTip Tuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon.

*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca.

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