Emotion can make or break a story. Getting readers to feel each scene right alongside your characters transforms your words into real people. Readers will bond with those people and become invested in their journey. On the flip side, your story will fall flat if it lacks the right emotion.
No one wants to hear that most deflating piece of feedback, “I just didn’t care about any of the characters.” Consider these tips while revising your manuscript.
Show, don’t tell.
Depending on the situation, the show, don’t tell cliche may or may not be good advice. Most stories need a balance of both showing and telling — unless you’re talking about emotion. When it comes to feelings, you want your readers to experience them firsthand.
During emotionally charged periods in our lives, we don’t just want the people around us to say the right things. We want to know they feel the way we’d expect them to. Saying “I feel sad that I hurt you and I apologize” in a flat tone does more harm than good if you don’t express any true remorse. An friend stating matter-of-factly that they’re very happy about your recent engagement leaves you to wonder: should you believe them? Stating emotion isn’t always enough. Sometimes we need to see people’s emotions align with their words — especially if we don’t know them that well.
The same goes for fiction. Especially in your first chapters, readers perceive your characters as a blank slate. Statements like “her words hurt his feelings” create distance between the reader and the point-of-view character and don’t help them get to know each other. Instead, show emotions happening in real time. Does he cringe at her words? Try to keep his expression neutral? Clench his jaw? Seeing how your character reacts to hurt feelings — or if he’s even able to identify his feelings at all — helps readers get to know what kind of person he is.
As you revise, look carefully for so-called filter words like thought, felt, wondered, hoped, knew, or decided. These words pull readers out of deep point of view and remind them they’re reading, not experiencing, a story.
Give readers some stakes.
Because your readers meet your protagonist for the first time on page one, they have no context for whether this person is reasonable or not. If readers see a character have a big emotional reaction but don’t know what’s at stake, they can’t tell if your character’s behavior is justified or irrational.
In real life and in fiction, we don’t care about a situation just because someone else feels strongly about it. We need to know what’s at stake, both for that person and for anyone else involved. Imagine a teenager flying into a rage when her mother forbids her from going to the mall. Maybe she can’t abide being told no. Maybe she was planning to meet a someone there to buy drugs. Or maybe she wanted to buy a dress for a friend who was going to skip tomorrow’s dance because she couldn’t afford one. Readers want to know why an emotionally charged situation matters, and how they should feel about a character’s reaction to it.
Add some contrast.
Like any art form, writing requires contrast. Readers will get fatigued by a constant onslaught of intense emotion. This can leave your story just as flat as if you’d shown no feeling at all. Contrast gives readers a chance to rest between intense scenes.
Good contrast also helps provide context for your characters’ emotions. You may know your characters deeply, but your readers have to build the relationship from scratch. That happens just like it would in real life: by seeing your characters respond to a variety of situations, including mundane ones.
When your readers gain an intimate knowledge of your characters, they will know how to react when those characters show intense emotions. They’ll know whether this character is usually melodramatic, or if an outburst reveals something important to the story. Your story world — including your characters’ inner worlds — will be rich enough for readers to intuit the significance of major events.
As with any skill, writing emotion requires a lot of practice. Find passages in your favorite books that make particularly good use of emotion. Try rewriting them in your own notebook and analyzing what makes them so powerful. And above all, don’t back away from emotion, especially at critical points in your story. Let your readers into your characters’ hearts by showing their emotions in rich detail. This vulnerability will turn your characters into real people — people whose stories your readers will care deeply about.