Three Ways To Evoke Emotion In Your Stories
Every time I sit down to write I know I want my story to evoke emotion in the reader. Not just overall, but in every scene. I want them to read that book and be able to visualize everything that’s happening on the page, as if they are watching a great movie or TV show.
Whatever emotion I’m trying to achieve with each scene—excitement, sadness, shock or anger—can be achieved by improving certain aspects of your writing.
Here are three ways I ensure the stories I’m writing will make the reader experience emotion:
Show vs. Tell.
I’m sure most writers hear this one all the time. I can’t stress how important it is to show something and not just tell it. It took me a while to fully understand the art of showing versus telling. When I worked in film, this was especially important when a director was dealing with an actor. You wouldn’t merely tell an actor to act or be sad. You needed to give them something more specific to work with, because sadness comes in many forms, just like any emotion. It’s not one size fits all. So you might tell them to act like the family dog of twelve years just died, or they just broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. You get the picture.
It’s the same in writing. It’s not enough to tell the reader that your character is sad or angry.
You must show them if you want the reader to feel deeply invested in your story. Here is an example of telling:
Mary couldn’t believe Scott was breaking up with her, here in the coffee shop. She was furious.
That’s rather boring and bland, and if you just left it at that, it doesn’t make for a scene where the reader is going to feel anything. Here’s an example of showing:
Mary was like a volcano waiting to erupt, as her gaze darted around the crowded coffee shop. Her nostrils flared while she endured the sting of unshed tears. Had anyone near them overheard Scott break up with her? The jerk chose a public place so she wouldn’t make a scene. She ground her teeth while furiously tapping her right foot. Shredded bits of napkin littered her lap. When he began his ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ speech, she’d grabbed one to keep her hands busy. If not, she would have slapped him for being a coward.
Not once did I have to tell you she was angry. Her reactions and actions showed her emotion. Showing versus telling help makes the character and their situation more relatable. At some point, we’ve all been broken up with. Seeing her reaction creates more depth to the story and now we don’t have to imagine what she’s doing, because you’ve told us exactly what she’s doing.
There is an exercise that I still practice today, that I find helpful in writing show vs. tell. Go sit in a coffee shop or the park and take a notepad, tablet or whatever you want to take notes on. Sit down and observe people. Study what they do when they are talking and interacting. What gestures, body movements or facial expressions are you seeing? Write them down.
Give Your Character Quirks, Flaws and Backstory. Make Them Human.
There is nothing worse than reading flat, undeveloped characters that aren’t memorable. Giving your characters personalities and a backstory are so important to having your audience rooting for them and caring what happens to them. Think about Harry Potter. He’s a young boy with a mysterious scar; who lives with an aunt, uncle and cousin that treat him horribly. When he finds out he is a wizard, we cheer for him because by getting away from them and going to Hogwarts he’s going to have a better life. Later on, we find out he had two loving parents that died to save him from He Who Must Not Be Named and we root for him even more. Without the rich backstory and character development, the Harry Potter books wouldn’t have been as popular. Take time to develop your characters, so they will resonate with your reader long after they finish your book.
As an exercise, take time before writing to think about who your characters. Who are they? Build them like you would build an avatar on a video game. In some video games they let you go in and completely build your character, from face shape, body type, hair, clothing, etc. Except for your character, go deeper than just the physical. What are their likes and dislikes? Do they speak with an accent? Where did they grow up? How many brothers and sisters do they have? Or are they an only child? Are there any events or tragedies that happened in their past that shaped who they are today? Do they have tattoos, a limp, bad acne, etc.? What’s their job or career? Do they play an instrument? Do they have some crazy quirk like they always have to have milk with their pancakes or they have to sleep with a nightlight even though they are grown? Maybe they have a flaw, like being too judgmental, or flaky, or not dependable. Do you see how thinking about all this when developing your character makes them infinitely more interesting, and helps tell a more emotional story?
Get Friendly With Your Dictionary and Thesaurus.
When I write, I keep dictionary and thesaurus websites open in my browser so I can easily look up synonyms to words. I try to make sure I’m not constantly using the same words repeatedly. It can make your writing stale. Diversify your word choice. There’s usually more than one way to say something. Some writers have a tendency to use the words ‘very’ and ‘really’ in front of their adjectives instead of finding similar words that convey the level of that emotion.
Ex. Instead of saying, really excited, try using words like elated, thrilled, or exhilarated.
Better word choices add more character to your story. An exercise that can help you select words is to create some lists of your own. In a document on your computer, whether a spreadsheet or Word document, add words like sad and happy. In a column, under each word, add similar adjectives that will help color your writing and give it a bit more life. This way you can refer back to these lists when you want a replacement word.
The tools I've discussed, I use when drafting all of my stories. These are things that help ensure the world(s) I’m creating for my readers will be immersive, and keep them turning the page.