Friday, July 15, 2011

Writing with Emotional Power

Not long ago, Jonene Ficklin did a post on avoiding trite emotional language. Thanks, Jonene! But it left me wondering - if I can't tell the reader that hearts are pounding and faces are flushing, how do I write about emotions?

To find my answer I went back to the very first book that made me cry, way back in high school. I could barely read the last page, my eyes were so blurry. It was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. How could something written so long ago and translated from some other language move to tears a cool and calculating teenage brainiac who disdained emotional schmultz of any kind?

To answer this questions, I opened Les Miserables somewhere in the middle and looked for phrases that described emotion. There weren't very many. Instead of telling the reader how the characters felt, or describing their physical emotional sensations, Victor Hugo showed how they felt by the choices they made, the actions they took. He didn't need to tell me Marius was grieving for his father's death - it was enough to show me that he was slipping away from his grandfather's house and taking an overnight coach to Paris just to visit his father's grave. I could tell how powerful the emotion was by what it made the character do.

So in order to write with emotional power, I need to give emotions the power to move my characters. Emotions should move them to action, affect their decisions, become an integral part of the plot, and have far-reaching consequences. So much more than a little throat-tightening or palm-dampening.

I think that using emotional descriptions like those Jonene warned us against isn't really showing. You might as well say "He was scared" as "His heart pounded." In fact, it might be better to say, "He was scared," because it's less ambiguous. Any number of things can get your heart rate up. Instead, show what the character does because he's scared. What choices does he make? What power does it have over his actions?

Want to move your reader with the emotional power of your story? Then give emotions the power to move your characters.


  1. While I read this, it occurred to me that this is how the best mystery writers mislead as well. They let you fill in the details and connect the dots, only to reveal one new detail that flips everything on its ear. I guess I knew that, but perhaps not as consciously as I do now.

  2. Good advice! I'm writing one of the big scenes in my story right now so this is perfect timing! thanks :)

  3. I loved Les Miserable! You know, writing without those physical prompts IS like writing in a new language. When I was a child and read Bridge to Terabithia, I cried - hard. Yet there were no 'damp eyes' or 'gut-wrenching sobs' written anywhere. Still, the power of the MC's actions and choices made me overwhelmingly sad and impressed by his grief. I want to write like that when I grow up!

  4. Awesome post. I want to write like that now, forget when I grow up. I'm the impatient sort and unlearning is hard.

  5. This is terrific! And so hard to do. I'm writing a first chapter right now, and need to focus on putting all those thoughts into action, so thanks for the reminder! *she walks away, scratching her head*

  6. The power of showing instead of telling! Love it and good example. :)

  7. Great observation and advice. I love how you chose to go to the first book that affected you emotionally to see how they did it. Very clever!


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