Learning to Write Emotion
Emotions are difficult to write. It’s a well-known, author-universally recognized fact that, while a person can improve when it comes to writing emotions, while it can get easier, it rarely is easy.
A quick search of the internet will provide many tips on how to write emotions more effectively. Most of the things have been repeated over and over, so I’ll try not to repeat them here—especially since I just received a book I’ve been very excited about, and I need to keep this article brief so I can get to reading it.
We, as humans, learn primarily from experiences. Characters will come up against crazy things; things that most of us probably will never have to worry about (no portals opening at our doorstep, unfortunately). Of course, some of us will be able to go on epic adventures and, between fighting dragons and saving worlds, be able to take down notes, but most of us just have to learn from the emotion we have to deal with in normal life. A terribly boring prospect, I know, but our normal lives carries a surprising amount of emotion. All around us, day by day, we feel something. The trick is learning how to transfer the normal emotions to experiences we can learn from; the problem being that most of us don’t usually decide, “Oh, I’m about to have an emotional breakdown. I just need to get my notebook and my pencil, and then we can begin…”
But then, would that be such a bad idea?
Many months ago, upon feeling strong emotion welling up inside of me, the thought entered my mind that, perhaps, I could write it down; it might be helpful to me. Yet as I pulled my journal from beneath stacks of other notebooks and binders, it was very present in my mind that I’m not much of a journal-er. A writer, though, is something that I certainly am.
So I set the pencil to the page and began to write it out as though I wrote a story. In third-person, I wrote about what was going on, but the names for the emotions I was feeling never entered my vocabulary.
“Her eyes felt heavy as though tears pushed at the edge of her eyelids. Not one to cry, she pushed them away. They formed into a cold, hard ball in her stomach, leaving a few in her eyes to hold down the fort.”
Just for the record, this isn’t an example of what good writing looks like. Instead, I’m putting this in here to demonstrate the manner I wrote it in; how I didn’t speak of what I felt, just the way I reacted to it. I wrote no apprehension, no sadness; I wrote how my emotions manifested themselves.
Now, just in case I need to figure out how it feels to write those emotions while working on a novel, I can go back to that page of my journal.
Learn from the way you feel things. When you’re angry, how do you react? Don’t forget that, and instead of telling us, “Shawn was angry,” you can tell us exactly how Shawn expresses anger.
People have specific reactions to certain emotions. If we decide to be technical, emotions are chemicals in the brain. Those chemicals affect how the rest of the body operates. While about half the time, we couldn’t really care about how our body is reacting when we’re feeling strong emotions, perhaps it would not only be helpful to writing, I’ve noticed that identifying certain areas of how you feel can oftentimes make you calm down. That, and the fact that when our brains cannot seem to keep track of specific things when they’re distracted with strong emotions. If you don’t write it down, you will forget.
And then, my other most-used tip when it comes to writing emotion, is Go where the emotion in the story takes you. Sometimes while you’re cackling evilly, your character will be dealing with tragedy, and you don’t want your emotion to transfer to your character. Perhaps, instead of your emotion transferring to the character, you might consider letting the character’s emotion transfer to you? Turn off distractions. Pound away at your keyboard (carefully; I got a new computer primarily because my keyboard was in pieces), stepping entirely into the character’s head. Focus on their heartbeat until your heart is beating in time with theirs and then, when you’re done with the scene, you may be absolutely exhausted and wonder if you’ll ever get out of the character’s head again, but when you look back over the scene, you’ll find that the emotion of the character might just shine through better than you expected it to.
How do you find ways to write convincing emotion in your stories? Are there any ways that you’ve found to be uneffective? Comment below!