This article by Joanne Grant is from the January 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership

If you want your story to connect with the reader and be memorable, it’s not enough to simply tell a story and explain the characters’ feelings. Instead, you need to immerse your reader in a myriad of emotions to experience the story and really make them really feel.

So if you have ever received feedback such as: I didn’t connect with the characters or The story lacked emotional depth, or perhaps you just want to dig deeper when you write emotion, this article will offer tips to help you do just this!

Emotions are complex
When readers fail to connect with a character the way you’d hoped, it could be because the expression of their emotions is too simplistic.

There are the broad strokes of emotions: sad, happy, angry, but to say a character is sad, for example, doesn’t capture the complexity of emotions that is specific to the situation or the individual character.

Instead dive into the nuances and many shades of the broad emotion to find depth. For example, sad could be mournful, dejected, depressed or hopeless and can be relevant to an array of different situations. Find the more nuanced emotion that is right for both your character and the situation they are reacting to.

But of course, you don’t want to tell the reader how a character is feeling; you want to show it so they can connect with the character and the moment.

How to show, not tell emotion for greatest impact
Most of human communication is nonverbal, so whilst a character can say “I am angry” there are endless ways to show a character being angry, or the shade of anger they are experiencing. Body language is essential to this. Recognise that not everyone shows emotion in the same way, so think about how your characters as individuals will react in different situations.

When showing a character’s reaction think about both their emotions and feelings:

  • Emotions are visible and are often instant and incontrollable.
  • External reactions such as clenched fists, colour rising, and agitated movements can be seen by other characters and the reader and be interpreted as a type of anger.

In addition to body language and the visible signs of emotion, there are the character feelings—what is going on internally.

  • Feelings are the byproduct of emotion and are not visible.
  • Internal reactions such as a sick, hot feeling in their stomach or creeping tingles up their spine could depict fear or dread, for example, and the reader can be privy to those feelings to deepen their connection to what the character is experiencing.

The combination of visible and sensory reactions can create a more visceral experience for the reader to connect to and to evoke a feeling within them.

How to get close to your character
Using deep point of view, whether you are writing in first or third person, can help your reader get up close and personal with your character. The aim of deep point of view is to erase much of the narrative voice and therefore close the distance between reader and characters. The reader can see their innermost thoughts and feel what they’re feeling.

A technique of deep point of view is to replace dialogue tags with beats. A beat can show who is speaking without the intrusive he/she/they said, create texture and movement, avoid the dreaded floating heads and, of course, can be a great way to show emotion.

Here is an example:

From a dialogue tag that tells:

“What is it you want from me?” she asked angrily, frustration clear on her face. “I’ve answered every question truthfully!”

To a beat that shows:

“What is it you want from me?” Sarah’s face reddened. If she was a cartoon character, steam would be coming out of her ears. “I’ve answered every question truthfully!”

When writing your beats, try to avoid using the emotion word, “frustration” in this case, and instead replace with how the emotion is manifesting itself. By allowing your reader space to interpret the emotion, it can bring them closer to how a character is feeling.

A note on tags versus beats: depending on your preference and style, this doesn’t mean you have to eliminate every dialogue tag. A well-appointed dialogue tag should be almost invisible to the reader, and I have read very engaging books that use a variety of beats and tags with great effect so don’t feel you can’t mix it up!

Use emotive language
Connecting your reader to your characters is key in making them feel, but there are other tools you can use to great effect. Don’t neglect the mood and tone of your story through setting and the use of emotive language throughout your storytelling.

Think about the emotion that you want to convey in a scene and look to your setting to either help create and harmonise with that emotion, or to purposefully clash and create conflict with the emotion. This obviously depends on the type of story you are writing and the effect you want to create.

Think of a wedding scene. It could be picture perfect with fragrant spring flowers perfuming the air as sunlight streams into the church, highlighting the nervous groom’s golden hair as he fidgets nervously. Or it may look picture perfect, but the fragrance of flowers is overpowering, the church is dark and cold, and the groom’s fidgeting is becoming increasingly erratic. Which one of these descriptions makes you feel comfortable, as though the wedding will go well?

The horror genre does this exceptionally well, such as a spooky derelict house, or a cabin hidden deep in the woods. These types of settings create a tone and successfully manipulate the readers’ feelings, but evoking mood through setting is effective in all fiction, so don’t forget to utilise emotive language in your descriptions.

When it comes to making your reader feel, it really is the whole package. A combination of nuanced character body language and expression of emotion, with deep point of view and evocative scene building and use of language, can all combine to create a richly vivid experience that the reader will feel. And hopefully will continue to feel long after they have finished your story.

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Joanne Grant is an editorial coach with over 16 years of editorial expertise working for Harlequin. Joanne has edited hundreds of romance novels over the years and understands how to coach authors of all genres to overcome their barriers and deliver their best work. If you’re interested in finding out how she can help you achieve your writing goals, get in touch—Joanne loves to chat! For inspiration, tips and offers, sign up for her newsletter, join her Facebook group Motivation for Writers! or connect on Twitter @JoanneMGrant.

Laura Resnick

Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series. A monthly columnist for Nink, she is also a past president of Ninc.