Emotions In Writing: How To Make Your Readers Feel – Jericho Writers
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Emotions In Writing: How To Make Your Readers Feel

Emotions In Writing: How To Make Your Readers Feel

When it comes to writing, people often focus on plot, character, and setting, but the emotional landscape you create in your story is important too.

In this guide, you’re going to learn ten ways to convey emotions in your writing, so you can create unforgettable characters and delight your readers, immediately drawing them into your stories.  

You’ll get a set of practical techniques to use, whatever kind of story you’re telling, many of which I didn’t know about when I wrote my first two novels.

We’ll look at why characters are key when it comes to writing emotion and achieving emotional mastery, then I’ll answer three of the most frequently asked questions about emotions in writing.  

Why Are Emotions Important In Writing?

As story creators, we want readers to identify with our characters and immerse themselves in our story worlds, so they get hooked and keep reading. We do that using emotion.

Emotion also helps readers gain understanding and perspective from different viewpoints, as well as providing an opportunity for them to escape from the ‘real world’ for a while.  

There are three types of emotion in writing:  

  • Emotion experienced by you, the writer
  • Emotion experienced by the character  
  • And an emotional response from the reader

These are different things. For example, you might feel impatient to finish writing a scene, while your main character is in love, and you’re aiming for the reader to feel suspicious. Or perhaps you’re in love with your characters, your point of view character feels guilty, and you want your reader to be desperate find out what happens next

Consider your own emotions and whether they are ending up on the page.

Here’s a fairly common example: a writer feels bored and therefore writes a scene where the characters are bored, which will bore her readers. I’m using a negative to make a point – so bear with me! 

You can address how you are feeling by using Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, and by learning self-care for writers; both of which are outside the scope of this guide. Or see our article on writing and burnout for more self-care tips.

There is a way of using your own emotional experiences to your advantage when writing emotions, using a theatrical technique called ‘emotion memory’ – more on that later. 

Going back to the example of the bored writer writing a boring scene that bores the reader, the solution to this problem is to consider upfront what emotional effect you want to have on your reader, asking: 

What do you want your reader to experience?  

The best way to create an emotional response in your reader is to have them identify with your characters and fully immerse themselves in their world.

If you’re telling any kind of story, whether you’re a playwright, a screenwriter, a memoirist or a novelist, the steps are the same:  

  1. Decide what you want the reader to experience. 
  2. Get the reader to identify with your main characters. 

Easier said than done, right? Keep reading! 

emotions-and-writing

Focus On Your Characters 

We’ve established that, when conveying emotion in writing, the most crucial thing to consider is how to get readers to respond to your characters. Here’s one way to do that. I call it the C.A.S.E. method for short, which stands for contradictions, action, sympathy and empathy: 

  • Well-rounded, authentic characters, just like all human beings, will have contradictions. Contradictions make characters seem real and therefore relatable. 
  • Readers like characters who take action, and who do something about the dilemma they’re in.   
  • Initially, readers will sympathise with the main character, and want to know what happens next.  
  • As the problems deepen, readers empathise with the character and wonder what they would do in the same situation. Empathy happens as a result of the first three. 

Here’s an example from the psychological thriller Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister (2022): 

  • The main character, Jen, feels guilty about not being a good mother, but at the same time, she’s prepared to do anything to help her son. (Contradiction)  
  • Jen tries to solve the seemingly impossible problem she faces. (Action) 
  • We feel sorry for her because of what happens at the beginning of the book and as a result – I won’t give it away. (Sympathy)  
  • We can stand in her shoes and see the world through her eyes because of the vivid detail McAllister uses and because of the compelling dilemma Jen faces. We wonder what we would do in a similar situation. (Empathy) 

Character contradictions, action, sympathy and empathy work together. If one is missing, it feels like something is wrong!

All four will affect your readers’ emotions and elicit a response in them, leading to emotional engagement – and they’ll want to keep reading.  

How To Convey Emotion In Writing  

So you know you need C.A.S.E., but also, in order for readers to engage, the emotions your characters experience must seem authentic. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked!

Here are ten ways to convey emotion in your writing. You can use: 

  1. Observation from life 
  2. Emotion memory 
  3. The body  
  4. The whole message 
  5. Emotional leakage 
  6. Idioms 
  7. Imagery 
  8. Form 
  9. Emotion encyclopaedias 
  10. The objective correlative 

1. Use Observations From Life

During your day-to-day life, observe how you and others experience and exhibit emotions. What goes on in your body and mind and in your environment? What behaviours and words are associated with the emotion? If you work with other people, this technique is particularly useful. Take a breath, observe, and note down what happened later.

Over time you’ll create a resource you can draw on when you’re writing. There are instances where it wouldn’t be appropriate to step back and observe in the moment, of course, but you can still make notes later. I’ve put observation first because it’s the most important. 

2. Use Emotion Memory

Emotion memory is a technique developed by the theatre director Stanislavski, where actors recall experiencing an emotion to enact it authentically on stage. It’s where method acting comes from!

There’s a section on Stanislavski in Dramatic Techniques for Creative Writers by Jules Horne (2018) in case you want to follow this up.

Here’s how to use emotion memory in your writing: 

  • Recall a memory in as much detail as possible, using the senses.  
  • Start small: use the memory of leaves falling from trees in a park or the hottest day in summer or your earliest memory of the festive season, for instance.  
  • Don’t do this with troubling memories at first, and if you do want to explore more difficult or intense emotions, have someone around to talk to, plus the support of a writing group.  
  • Now imagine you can connect to a character’s (made up) memories in a similar way. 
  • Use memory in your writing to convey the feelings that came up as you or your character remembered the past. 
writing-emotions

3. Use The Body

Both observation from life and emotion memory will help with this one.

Write about internal and external bodily sensations.

When your character is angry, for example, where in their body do they feel it? If someone slaps them across the face, they might feel pain from the slap, and a hot sensation in the chest, or they may experience tunnel vision. Hint at these bodily experiences during the relevant scene.  

For example, in the opening sequence of The Namesake – depicting the birth of the main character – Jhumpa Lahiri shows us Ashima’s emotions using:  

  • Her contractions,  
  • The people around her,  
  • Her memories.  

In fact, Lahiri uses observation from life, emotion memory, and the body both to show us how Ashima might be feeling as she goes into labour, and to evoke an emotional response in the reader.

There’s only one paragraph where we’re told directly how she feels – ‘astonished’ and ‘terrified’ – and even that’s in the context of a recent memory.

In other words, the opening of The Namesake is also a good example of communicating emotion using show not tell. You can read the opening via the ‘look inside’ feature on online bookstores. 

4. Use The Whole Message  

In his book Persuasion: The Art of Influencing People (2013), James Borg discusses research by sociolinguistics experts that shows:  

“a [spoken] message could be classified as 55 per cent visual (non-verbal), 38 per cent vocal (such things as tone or voice, rhythm, inflection) and 7 per cent verbal (meaning the actual words used).” (p. 58) 

Only 7% of spoken communication comes from the meaning of the words! When we hear people talk, we are all used to looking for clues from other sources. Your readers will do this too and will bring some of that experience to bear on your story.

This means that using a character’s tone of voice and behaviour to show that they are angry or embarrassed – or even using body language instead of dialogue – will work much better than simply telling us about it. 

5. Use ‘Emotional Leakage’  

Related to the idea of using the ‘whole message’, James Borg also tells us that we communicate in intentional and unintentional ways. This is good news for fiction writers, because unintended ‘emotional leakage’ (body language, gestures, fleeting expressions) can give away how a character is feeling inside.

For example, body language might undermine what a character is saying, showing us how they are truly feeling. Because we’re used to looking for the 93% of a message that isn’t verbal, we’ll attribute more meaning to body language than to the words a character speaks.  

James Borg has also written another book, called Body Language (2008), where he explores this idea further.  

We communicate through context, too: through personal circumstances, social status and presentation, through clothes, hair and personal grooming, for instance.

In a story, if a character’s presentation is out of the ordinary for the situation, or conflicts with their supposed social status, this immediately causes intrigue.  

For instance, when a character who looks as if he spent the night under a hedge turns up as the replacement vicar at a wedding service, the reader will wonder what’s going on and why.

Your character’s thoughts and contexts can usefully contradict other aspects of what they say and do, so you can use context and ‘emotional leakage’ together. For example, if a character turns up to her daughter’s wedding with two black-eyes and a hangover and tells everyone she’s fine, the reader will know that’s not the case.  

Agatha Christie frequently uses emotional leakage to indicate how her characters are really feeling, but also to trick us with misdirection and red herrings.  

For instance, near the beginning of Sad Cypress (1940), Mrs Welman’s two nurses are talking over tea, and we get a scene involving mainly dialogue. We learn that “Nurse O’Brien pursed her lips and put her head on one side” and a few lines later “over their steaming cups the women drew a little closer together.”  

A few paragraphs further on, we hear that Mrs Welman woke in the night asking for a photograph of Lewis, a handsome man who was not her husband. Christie tells us that “Nurse Hopkins had a long nose, and the end of it quivered a little with pleasurable emotion.” 

The two nurses are acting as if they are proper while we know they are gossiping. What’s more, the reader is listening in, sharing in the gossip.  

emotions-in-fiction

6. Use Idioms

Used sparingly, idioms are a handy shortcut: readers will know what you mean.

‘Her heart sank’, for example, lets us know the bodily sensation and the emotion in three words.

More interestingly, you can play with idioms. Rewrite them. Invent your own. Write the opposite.

However, don’t rely solely on idioms to convey emotion, and avoid using idioms repeatedly.

Some emotional idioms are so well-worn they’ve become clichés: a ray of light representing hope, for instance.

Generally, if it’s difficult to imagine it happening to you or in front of you, or if it doesn’t communicate what you want to say in enough depth, it’s probably a cliché, so is best avoided.  

7. Use Imagery

What is the emotion like when it happens to you or your character? Observation from life and emotion memory will help once again.

For example, in my first novel I described a character feeling mortified by saying she ‘went cold slowly, like someone was pouring cold custard over [her] head.’ In the same novel, I described emotional pain which was ‘like a stone in the middle of [her] chest.’

In both of these examples, I was using an image to describe the bodily sensation experienced by the character, which would then (hopefully) convey the emotion to the reader without naming it.  

Years after my second novel was published, I realised I was far too fond of using balloon images. For instance, ‘Alex felt as deflated as a popped balloon’, and ‘Mrs Brown’s face [hovered] in front of her like a balloon’, and ‘the words bursting out of her mouth like balloons.’  

Unfortunately, when I want to convey emotions, I immediately think of cold custard, stones, and balloons, like I’ve invented my own personal clichés! So be aware that you may have to ‘murder your darlings’ if you grow too fond of particular images like I did. In my current work-in-progress, I’m having to edit for internal stones and balloon images – I managed to avoid the custard! 

Ask yourself how deep you want to go: to convey deep emotion, use your own imagery. To avoid slowing the pace, use quick idioms, but do so sparingly.  

8. Use Form  

You don’t have to be writing concrete poetry or avant-garde fiction to use form to convey emotion. This simply means invoking an emotional reaction in your reader – usually to illustrate how a character is feeling – using the shape of the writing. You could create a fast pace and short clipped sentences to show anger, and give us poignancy and sadness using a slow pace and long sentences, for example.  

At the beginning of Jośe Saramago’s novel Blindness the dialogue isn’t punctuated, creating a sense of confusion after a character goes blind. Saramago replicates what it would be like to suddenly go blind – to hear voices but not know who is talking – so that the reader’s confusion matches the character’s. 

emotion-in-writing

9. Use Emotion Encyclopaedias

I’ve left emotion encyclopaedias and resources until near the end of this list of techniques because you need to use at least a couple of the others in conjunction with them. However, doing some research is useful, especially if your POV character is experiencing things that you never have, and if they are very different to you.  

You can find lists of emotions online. For example, google ‘emotion wheels’ or ‘feeling wheel’ and you’ll likely find a diagram you can download and put up on the wall in your writing space. You can use the emotions on the wheel to brainstorm how a character experiencing that emotion might behave or what body language they might display or what bodily sensations they might notice.  

Emotion reference books for writers include: The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman (2019), Body Beats to Build On: A Fiction Writer’s Resource by April Gardner (2019) and Character Reactions from Head to Toe by Valerie Howard (2019). 

10. Use An Objective Correlative

The objective correlative, or what we called the OC where I used to teach, was made famous by T.S. Eliot. In fact, Eliot said the objective correlative was the only way to communicate an emotion to a reader, which is why I’ve left it till last. There’s no need to read up on literary the theory unless you want to; as readers and viewers we’re used to seeing this technique in action, especially in films.  

It’s where a writer uses a thing – an object or a place or event (even the weather) – to invoke an emotional response in the reader, and therefore, in a story, to demonstrate how a character feels, without mentioning the emotion. Earlier I said that using a ray of sunlight to suggest hope is a bit of a cliché. It’s also an example of the OC. Watch a few Hollywood blockbusters and see if you can spot some more over-used examples of the objective correlative! They are often weather or nature-related. 

Here’s another example. If I tell you that a character walked home in the rain, got soaked by a passing car, only to discover they were locked out of their house, you’ll probably assume they feel miserable. There’s nothing intrinsic about water or losing your keys that means you have to feel miserable. The OC works for two reasons, because the reader or viewer: 

  • Puts themselves in the character’s shoes almost automatically – we ask how we would feel if the same thing happened to us. 
  • Assumes that you’re showing us this rain-soaked character for a reason, otherwise why would they be there? Elements of a story are supposed to communicate something – so we attribute meaning to them. 

Notice how, for the OC to work, you have to use show rather than tell. In fact, the objective correlative is, at least partly, a formal way of saying ‘show don’t tell’. Conversely, if you’re not sure how to show instead of tell, then try the OC. Use a thing to represent an emotion. 

Emotional Writing: Top Tips 

Here are three top tips for conveying and evoking emotion in writing: 

1.  If you try any of the above techniques, make it observation from life. Stepping back and observing the life around you will help more than anything else.  

2. Remember that your emotional response, your readers’, and your characters’ are all different, but will have an impact on each other.  

3. As with all things in writing, conveying emotion is about balance. Think about whether you want the pace to slow down or speed up, for example, when editing a scene.  

emotion-in-fiction

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section I’ll answer three of the most asked questions in relation to emotions in writing:  

  • How do you show emotions in dialogue? 
  • What are emotional beats in writing? 
  • Why is emotion important in literature? 

How Do You Show Emotions In Dialogue?

When writing dialogue it’s often better to show your reader your character’s emotions by embedding small details and actions between the lines of speech. The scene from Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie that I mentioned earlier is an example of this. You’re also giving the reader the chance to visualise where the characters are in space.

By the way, it’s usually better not to use adverbs after speech tags, which are a ‘tell’ rather than a ‘show.’  

Embedding a lot of action and detail in dialogue slows the pace, so consider how fast you want the scene to move and vary the pace across the story as a whole.   

Occasionally use the following during the dialogue to show us the emotion: 

  • body language,  
  • facial expressions,  
  • interaction with the environment 
  • internal bodily sensations (quick ones, from the point of view character)  

What Are Emotional Beats In Writing? 

Embedding small details and actions between the lines of speech can be described as ‘adding emotional beats’ to your dialogue. That is, moments of pause where you show us your character’s feelings and what they’re experiencing, even when it’s only a raised eyebrow.  

At a structural level, emotional beats are the moments when a character has an emotional response to an event, and it motivates them to take action. Emotional beats are, therefore, like the character taking a breath before continuing to solve the dilemma set up at the beginning of the story.  

You’ll want a character to be doing something active during the emotional response. Being overcome by grief or realising they’re in love while working on the checkout at a supermarket or arranging flowers in a hospital, for example, works better than the same thing happening when they are lying in bed or watching TV.  

Why Is Emotion Important In Literature?

We turn to stories to entertain us and also to help us to make sense of the world. Emotions are important in literature because they help us to understand people better, enabling us to practise empathy and problem-solving through reading. In fact, researchers have proved that literature graduates are more empathetic! Deep emotions transport us into the world of the story, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves and escape our ‘real world’ problems for a while.  

From a writing point of view, we can use emotions to draw readers into the story and keep them hooked. If your story lacks emotional impact, it’s likely you need to work on the characterisation and on ‘show not tell’. If you want to learn to evoke emotion, start there.  

And Finally…

I hope you have enjoyed this guide and that it will help you to develop the confidence to try different ways of expressing intense emotion through your writing. It’s such a thrill to hear a reader say that your work has affected them.

Remember that characterisation and achieving an emotional impact on your reader are key to conveying emotion, so put aside some time to try out the ten techniques listed with this in mind. 

Don’t forget – the emotional effect you want to achieve will come through redrafting. So keep going!  


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