From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, January 7, 2013

How Do You Write Emotional Reactions?

So its official. I've had more than one person tell me that they want more emotional reaction from my main character. Or just, more reaction in general.

I didn't think about this when I was writing, but I think I know what's going on here. I think there are two main reasons people are feeling like there's not enough emotional reaction in certain parts of my book.

First, I guess I subconsciously assumed that the scenario/situation itself would raise certain emotional responses in the reader, which they would then fill in for the characters reaction. Does that make sense? I don't want to say that George is obsessively worried about his daughter right now, I want the fact that he sleeps in the hall outside her door to speak for itself. That already bespeaks a certain emotional state. Am I thinking wrongly here? So, basically, since the reader knows how he or she is reacting, there is no need for me to spell it out for them.

Second, I believe and have always believed that writing emotional reactions, perhaps emotion in general, is very, very dangerous and a fine line. On the one hand, you need emotion in your book (unless you're Hemingway) or people won't as easily relate to your characters. On the other hand, it must be done perfectly or it will stink up your story like rotten cheese. There is nothing that can so easily slip in to cliche, nothing to expose ones amateurity like bad emotional reaction. My sister makes fun of me for not finishing my sentences and I think that comes from the same place; she knows my general meaning, I want her to experience the rest for herself :) Obviously I'm still figuring this out.

Therein lies my dilemma. I stand by my theory that the best emotional reactions are what the readers themselves are feeling, and that I don't want to condescend or fall into cliche by spelling things out for them. That ruins the emotion anyway. However, if I'm getting relatively consistent feedback that parts of my novel need more of an emotional response from my MC, something needs to be done.

That means I'm coming to you guys! This is very similar to when I asked about writing vocal tone and facial expression, and in many ways I'm asking the same question, just in different words. So how do you do it? How do you write emotional reactions? Some people make it work, but I refuse to go the "quickened pulse" and "chilled spine" route. Maybe give me some examples from your own work, if you're willing.

I also think I'm going to look very, very closely at some Wallace Stegner and Marilynne Robinson to see how The Bests do it. That might be an interesting exercise.

Your turn :)

Sarah Allen


  1. I'm on the same page as you - I take a step back to allow the reader to apply their own emotion, instead of write it myself and hit them over the head with it. But I think my writing loses a bit from that, so I'm really pushing myself to get more emotional with it. I'm eager to see some of the suggestions given here!

  2. I write very lean descriptions, yet my readers seem to feel the emotion. I have no idea how I do it, though, sorry :-)

    Having a quirk might help - if your MC bites her nails when she's nervous, or twists her hair, chews her lip, kicks her shoes off and maintains the lotus position until the danger is over...

  3. My attempt at writing a fiction book lead to similar feedback. For me, the character was too much like me-- how I would think and react, which of course isn't good for a novel. So the feedback you're receiving tells me that for some reason, even if the emotions are there, the readers aren't connecting with them enough in your characters. Are they open and vulnerable enough to your readers?

    Let me know what you learn as you go through this. I'll be curious since I struggled with that as well.

  4. My issues stem in describing what the characters may look like. Writing emotions has never been a problem.

    Do you own the Emotional Thesaurus. It's great. I own one. You can find it on Amazon.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  5. I'm with you on making the reader work, but maybe you should push it a bit further. OK, he sleeps outside the door, but does he sleep?. What does he dream about, and are those dreams new to him? Does he sleep on the hard floor so that he knows he'll keep waking up, does he set his phone to wake him every hour?
    I know that when I was a single parent with three kids my greatest fear was that they might call out in the night and I wouldn't hear. I often fell asleep thinking about baby alarms and amplifiers that would be bound to wake me.
    Then take it another step, does he want to keep it a secret that he's doing this? Does he set the alarm for 5.30 so he has time to sneak back to his own bed and make like he's been sound asleep all night?
    From there I guess the emotions translate into rituals, or become quirks, as Annalisa suggested. Just push it.

  6. I'm with rodgriff on this one. Sometimes you just need a combination of subtle and obvious actions to really make the reader understand without you having to tell them.

    At least you can own up to the fact that it needs work. Sometimes even hearing it from others isn't enough :P

  7. I think you had the right idea with trying to show, not tell, the reaction. However, you're probably a lot closer to your MC than your readers are, so his reaction is more obvious to you.

    I think dialogue is a good way to show the reaction, but it's not always possible to use it. Internal thoughts can be good as well, but it's a balance. If something has happened in the past to make George behave this way, then you could maybe give glimpses of it.

    Sorry if this isn't any help! I'm just thinking on my feet. :)

  8. I never really given it much thought on how to write emotional reactions.

    I think most of mine have roots in the dialogue of a given situation, then I'll throw in a very small visible emotional reaction to hammer the point home.

  9. I also have an Emotional Thesaurus. It really helps. I love it. :D

  10. I had (well, have, but work on it in revisions now) the same problem. I thought the emotions should be obvious from the events, and I didn't want to smother the reader, leaving them room to feel.

    Instead, I didn't put in enough of the characters' emotions, and didn't give the reader enough cues of what to feel.

    I think the Emotion Thesaurus is a good start, but we can also learn more about when, where and how to write those emotions. I learned SO MUCH from taking Margie Lawson's online course on empowering character emotions. (Warning: her classes are addictive!) Margie is a psychologist(? psychiatrist?) who makes her living working with people's emotions. She teaches you WHERE to put the emotions and how to SHOW those emotions on visceral and conscious levels instead of telling them. Plus the classes are pretty inexpensive--$30 for a live class or $22 for the course text alone (which is 300+ pages). And I get nothing for saying this--I just LOVE her classes and think they're a great resource for all writers.

    Good luck!


I absolutely love hearing from you! Thank you so, so much for your thoughts and comments, they really do make my day. Consider yourself awesome. Also, I do my best to respond to every comment within 24 hours, so I invite you to come back and continue the conversation :)

To have weekly posts delivered to your inbox, just sign up here!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...