Humans are emotional creatures. Sometimes our emotions are fleeting, like motion at the corner of your eye. Sometimes they’re so powerful they simmer in us for years. Our job as writers is to convey the emotions of our characters in a fresh way that is both accurate and draws empathy.
So here’s a writing exercise that will help you explore the emotions in your story. Even if you write nonfiction or poetry, try this exercise. Remember, change exercises to make them more useful for you.
Pick an emotion and a character who typically deals with that emotion in your story. Here’s a list to spark ideas (because I can never think of any when I do exercises): happiness, fear, anger, triumph, despair, hopelessness, jealousy, hate, excitement, love, sadness, contentment, helplessness. I’m going to use anger for this exercise, because the character I’ve chosen to explore deals a lot with anger. Let’s start simple.
She was angry.
Great. But I hope you would agree that this sentence does very little to convey anger to the reader. Let’s go deeper. How is she angry? Why is she angry? I’ll go ahead and add a reason to it.
She was angry because her father never listened to her.
Just by adding a reason for the emotion, we have already added depth to this character and begun to foster empathy in the reader. But the sentence is still weak. Just saying your character is angry and pinpointing why isn’t enough, because anger looks different to different people and different characters. Let’s show how she is angry. We could edit the above sentence in a number of ways.
She clenched her fists in anger because her father never listened to her.
Her anger flashed like a sudden storm and drained slowly, too slowly, as her father ignored her once again.
His words were heavy bricks, her anger the silent mortar, and the wall between them was built higher.
With those edits, we’re getting closer to conveying emotion in a fresh way. The first is a physical reaction of anger; the second a simile that adds depth to the reasoning behind the anger; the third a metaphor that hints at the why without explicitly stating it. Depending on the character and the scene, the emotion conveys a different feel to the reader. In different situations, even the same character will portray anger differently. Different characters will do the same.
Notice, though, that I still used the word anger in each of those revisions. This is okay for most of the important emotions your character feels. But let’s go even deeper to the pivotal emotional scenes for the character, where their feelings are vital parts to the choices that affect the rest of the story. There should only be a handful of these (maybe) for your character throughout the book. This time I’m not going to use the word anger at all because I want the reader to feel the anger without me telling them it’s anger. It is more powerful to show, and you want these pivotal moments to be powerful.
Conversations were supposed to go both ways, but he had never understood that. His words had been the sand in an hourglass, pouring into her for years. They had shifted, settled, compacted, time and time again, but now there was no room for more. The whole of her being groaned beneath the cracks in the glass, and still the sand continued to wedge its way in until finally the glass shattered and the mess was beyond repair.
I get the feeling of anger from this paragraph. But it’s more than that. It’s a helpless, resigned anger. But you be the judge. Did it work? I know without a context and a setting, the words can’t carry as much weight, but still I hope this helps you craft emotion into your story.
Here are just a few tips to keep in mind when approaching this exercise and the emotions in your story.
Emotions differ between the characters. If you write more than one character or more than one story, then know that the way you convey emotion should differ from character to character. You should be writing your characters as people, and people are made up of their background, their choices, and their natures. As each of these factors will differ, so should their responses. This is why you have a job. You’re taking the emotion of a character who could be so different than your reader and you’re being a conduit of that emotion so that even a reader who is different from your character can feel the emotion.
Emotions differ based on personality. Not everybody feels emotions at the same time or in the same way. Not everybody knows why they’re feeling the emotions. Remember the personality tests we’ve recommended? Feelers are more easily driven by their emotions. Thinkers still feel the emotions but can analyze them easier. Men and women differ in how they experience emotions and what they do with them. And there are always exceptions. It’s knowing who your characters are and being consistent with the choices you’ve made.
Emotions can differ between themselves. We used anger in the exercise above, and we explored revealing it with different images. But there are many kinds of anger. Cold, hot, dark, quiet. I’ve used all these, and each can bring something new to the description. Each is important and has a place and can cue your readers into how dangerous or elevated the emotion is.
It’s okay to use the names of emotions to convey larger emotions. Humans don’t always know what they’re feeling. And neither do characters. It’s okay to say a character is angry and sad and hopeless to get across the larger emotion of despair. Larger emotions are often made up of smaller ones, and the combination will differ depending on the character.
Remember to write for impact. Remember that humans (and characters) feel emotions all the time. If you used the last part of this exercise every time your character felt something, you will have no impact anywhere because that would be the norm. It’s okay to make the sentence describing the emotion as fleeting as the emotion itself.
Be intentional with your choices. Choose words, images, action, dialogue, etc. that fit the emotion. Don’t just pick something random because you think that will be fresh. Force yourself to carefully think about the emotion and how you can put a fresh spin on it without defaulting to cliché. In the exercise we did for instance, I could have easily defaulted to “it was only a matter of time before she exploded.” But that would have fallen flat. Instead I settled on an hourglass with endless sand. You still have time and an explosion, but it’s stronger.
Last time I talked a bit about David Morrell’s idea about dominant emotions and my opinion on that, which is why emotions are on the brain and I wrote this exercise. Think about the whole of your story as you start to examine emotions, and don’t be afraid to let your characters and their pivotal moments begin to show the dominant emotion of the whole piece.
By Tracy Buckler