Emotion: do you need to have it in your writing? If you’re writing fiction, the answer is almost always “yes.”
But that doesn’t mean that your characters are weeping and moaning, wringing their hands, or talking in tirades on every page. It doesn’t mean that you must keep them on a perpetual “high,” piling conflict upon crisis until they have a nervous breakdown.
It does mean that you take the time to reveal your characters’ emotional states. It means that you show us their reactions to events in their lives. When you do this, you involve the reader emotionally as well. We want to care about the characters. We want to cheer for them, or curse them, or fall in love with them. We want to miss them when the story’s through.
So how can you achieve that? Well, here are 4 tips I’ve found helpful in my own writing. Do you have others? Leave a comment and let me know! (And remember, if you leave a comment, you're automatically entered into a drawing to win a $5 Amazon Gift Certificate!)
1. Follow dialogue with action. Often, you can signal characters’ emotion through the words they speak:
“Oh, God. How early was she? How are the babies? I had no idea Marilee’s pregnancy was so risky.”
“What do you want from me, Bryan? What? I can tell you a thousand times I never cheated on you, but you’ve already made up your mind.”
We can sense tension and emotion in both examples above. Sometimes, though, it can help to add an action to emphasize a character’s emotional state. Is your heroine nervous? Have her play with her hair as she speaks. Is your hero frustrated or upset? Maybe he paces, or pulls books off a shelf and hurls them across the room, or clenches the back of a chair so tightly it splinters. Consider these revisions:
“Oh, God.” Dave swayed in the doorway and reached for something to hold himself up. “How early was she? How are the babies?” He pulled at his collar, as if trying to let in a little more air. “I had no idea Marilee’s pregnancy was so risky.”
“What do you want from me, Bryan? What?” Jane sank to a seat on the edge of the sofa. Her fingers tightened into tiny, white fists in her lap. “I can tell you a thousand times I never cheated on you, but you’ve already made up your mind.”
2. Insert involuntary physical sensations. You can also use actions that the characters are not necessarily aware of committing but that signal heightened emotion to the reader. Consider the following:
Her stomach twisted
His voice turned ragged
A flurry in her chest left her weak
She could feel her pulse skip at the base of her throat
The color drained from his face
His fingers twitched beneath his coat sleeves
Her heart thudded behind her breastbone
Tears welled to the surface
Her cheeks pinked
His jaw clenched
3. Manipulate your sentence length. In scenes of heightened emotion or tension, sentences should be short and terse. In scenes of indecision, they can be halting, perhaps punctuated with ellipses or em-dashes. In scenes of courting or lovemaking, on the other hand, they might be longer.
4. Let your characters interrupt each other. A wonderful way to show emotion is to allow your characters’ dialogue to overlap. What’s more realistic than two people who are so angry, or so excited, or so in love, that they rush to speak without waiting for the other person to finish?
“Did you hear?” Janet shot into the room and flung her purse into the closest chair. “I got the—“
“The job with Parker and Lowenstein?” Annie clapped both hands together. “I knew it, I knew—“
“That’s not the best part,” Janet went on. Her cheeks flushed as she paced back and forth inside the tiny apartment. “They’re giving me a relocation allowance. A huge one.” She paused and turned to her roommate and best friend of almost twenty years.
“Relocation…?” Annie sank back into her chair. “But I thought—“
“It’s with their foreign branch. The one in Hong Kong.”
Finally, I always recommend sharing your work with someone else for feedback. Often, an external reader can point out areas that fall flat in terms of emotion, or areas that lack specific character reaction to a pivotal moment in the story.