I am tackling one of your most popular requests–how to evoke emotion through your writing! Evoking emotion is one of the most important things an author can do because it keeps your audience reading. If they don't feel anything, they're gonna get bored, and if they’re bored, they're gonna put the book down. Not only have you guys been requesting this topic, but it was also requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, Matt Hollon. Matt is an amazing guy, he was also one of my beta readers for TSS, and just one of my favorite people overall. He wanted to learn more about how to write emotional scenes without laying it on too thick. I've covered this in the past, but I have a ton more to say on the topic. So much so that I have way too much information to fit into one post, so I'm gonna make a few. Today I’m breaking down my first 10 tips for evoking emotion through your writing. I shared 10 more in this post, and I’ll cover the rest of 'em another time.
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Number 1: Show, Don’t Tell
Bet you saw this coming! There are definitely places where telling in fiction is perfectly acceptable, but when it comes to the emotional shit, it ain't gonna work. If you simply tell the reader, “She was mad,” that's gonna do nothing for ’em. A much better option is to show the character’s anger. If you state, “The moment was sad,” the reader is going to feel nothing. But if you convey the sadness through tone, pacing, and dialogue, it's going to have a much more evocative effect. Most of the points on this list are essentially different ways to show the emotion as opposed to telling the emotion because showing has a much more transportive effect on the reader.
Number 2: Use the Five Senses
One of the easiest tricks to show as opposed to tell is to rely on your five senses. The reason the five senses work is because one, most of us have ’em, so they're super relatable, and two, our senses are deeply tied to emotion. Look at the sense of touch. If your character is touching something soft and silky, this can create feelings of comfort, tranquility, or sexiness. If your character is touching something sharp and jagged, this can create feelings of fear or worry. The taste of salt can be panic-inducing if you are licking the sweat off of your lips during a grueling battle. But the same exact taste could be super arousing if you're licking the rippling abs of a man you're about to bone. Consider the five senses as a shortcut to tugging at your reader's heartstrings . . . or horny strings.
Number 3: Nix Filter Words
Filter words are words that filter the reader's experience through the main character. "Feel," "heard," "saw," "realized," "wondered," "thought"–all of these are filter words. Like all words, there is a time and place for them, but nine times out of ten, filter words are gonna distance readers from the emotion of the story. They remind the reader that they’re reading as opposed to experiencing the story firsthand, and you don't want that. You want them to feel as though they are living the story through the character. Eliminating filter words is easy once you learn how to recognize them. For example, the sentence, “She heard the crash of thunder in the distance,” can be rewritten as “Thunder crashed in the distance.” Simple, effective.
Number 4: Speak Through the Character
I recently read a book that followed a woman who had been kidnapped and shackled to a bed. At the exact moment she realized she was being held against her will, she looked out the window and paused to muse about the weather and how it would be a perfect day for gardening. I was instantly sucked out of the scene and all emotion from the moment completely disappeared. What the author did was fail to speak through the character. Sure, the character was the one who was supposed to be talking in theory, but it was very clear that we were getting the author's thoughts at that moment. Why? Because no one who's discovered they've been kidnapped is gonna muse about gardening. They're gonna be afraid, or shocked, or confused. There are a ton of emotions they could be experiencing. Serene wonder over tomato plants is not one of ’em. Never lose sight of the fact that this is not only your story, it's the character’s story. And if you convey how they'd realistically feel in that moment, it'll be a lot easier for the reader to emotionally connect to them.
Number 5: Keep It Moving
The longer you stay in the same moment, the less impactful it'll be. That's not to say that you should keep all scenes short and sweet, give ’em the attention they deserve, just don't stay there forever. Think of it this way: we all know a person who cries over everything. If they get a bad grade, they cry. If they watch a movie, they cry. If they see a baby, they cry. It's their prerogative to express their emotions however they like, but the fact is since they're constantly crying, we become numb to it. We are so used to that reaction that it stops having an impact on us. It's the same in fiction. If your main character is in the same exact scene featuring the same exact emotion for chapters upon chapters, the reader's gonna get over it. They can only sit on the edge of their seat or mourn the character for so long, and the emotion is gonna stop feeling real and start feeling melodramatic.
Number 6: Vary the Emotion
Just like my previous example with the person who always cries, if your character is always scared or always sad, it's gonna lose impact. Your reader is going to become numb to the emotion, it's gonna feel overdone and melodramatic, but most importantly it's gonna feel unrealistic. Human beings are complex! We experience a wide range of emotions every day, and the odds are your character should do the same. The easiest way to achieve this is to constantly put your character in new situations or expose them to different stimuli that will affect them in different ways emotionally. This will make the reader feel a variety of emotions alongside the character, and it will eliminate–or at least decrease–the presence of melodrama.
Number 7: Dialogue
A lot of people here use dialogue to convey emotion and then have their characters explicitly state how they feel. This may work sometimes, but how often do you get into an argument with a person where they evenly state, “I am angry for the following reasons.” I fucking wish, right? Emotion is often verbalized through tone of voice, the flow of our sentences, word choice, and sentence length. If someone is extremely excited, they may ramble on and on with hardly any pauses. If they're angry, they may swear or yell. If they're nervous, their speaking may be fragmented or disjointed. These are all clear signs of how a character is feeling, which will create a visceral reaction in your reader.
Number 8: Body Language
Body language is one of the easiest ways to convey emotion. It's also one of the easiest writing tools to forget. If a character is feeling skeptical, they can raise an eyebrow. If they're feeling petulant, they can pout. If they're sad, they can stare at the floor. If they're nervous, they can fiddle with their clothing. If they're angry, they can ball their hands into fists. All of these actions create a very distinct visual, and these visuals are a lot more impactful than simply stating, “He was sad,” “He was nervous,” or “He was angry.” Pay attention to how your character’s emotions manifest in their body, and it will take your writing to the next level!
Number 9: Pacing
Pacing can have a huge effect on the emotion of a scene, provided you use it correctly. A faster pace (which typically constitutes shorter sentences) creates a sense of urgency, whereas a slower pace (which is usually made up of longer sentences) creates a feeling of slowness. This means if you're writing a fight scene, you’ll probably rely heavily on shorter sentences, whereas if you're writing a thoughtful conversation between two characters, you might be using longer sentences. Please don't automatically assume that a slower pace equates to boring. There are plenty of situations where a slower pace is preferred. A perfect example is a kiss scene. You want the pace to be slow, because the character, and thus the reader, is savoring every sensation. Know the emotion you want to convey in a scene and pace it accordingly.
Number 10: Word Choice
Word choice will absolutely make or break the emotional tone of your story because words themselves carry a shit ton of emotion. I've talked in the past about powerful verbs and this is where the idea comes from. Certain verbs pack more of an emotional punch than others. For example, a character could wave their arms, they could thrash, or they could flail. These verbs are essentially synonyms, yet they each carry their own visuals and emotion. “Waving” your arms could mean a lot of things. Maybe you're dancing or waving hello. On the flip side, “thrash” implies fear, danger, or panic. There's an undertone of violence. Make sure you're using the words that best convey the emotion for that moment. Otherwise, readers are going to be pulled out of the story because the words aren't meshing with the tone.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Hopefully, this helped you dig into the emotion of your scenes and convey them to the reader in a way that’ll keep them hooked throughout your story. I’ll hit you with the rest of my tips for evoking emotion some other time. In the meantime, check out this post for the tips I’ve already shared:
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