How To Nail The Hardest Part Of Writing A Novel: Emotions


Emotions, while not a building block of a story, are more of a seasoning that should be all over the story, novel or screenplay. As much as possible, the reader should be aware of what the character is feeling.

But when writing, the challenge is how to convey them on the page in a way that they impact the reader.

Now one way to do that is by describing the physical responses to an event. Let’s say your character went to watch a late night movie and now he’s coming back to his car in a deserted parking lot.

As he is about to sit in his car, someone sticks a gun to his head from behind and demands to hand over his wallet and other things.

Would the character experience some emotions? Yes. Of course. A mix of fear, worry and anger perhaps. But how would you put those in writing?

Just naming the emotions – fear and worry – will not have a deep impact on the reader. This is because you’re telling, not showing.

A better way to show those emotions may be to write about the physical responses caused by the emotions – a knotted stomach, pounding heart, shaking hands, dizziness or sweating.

This is a significant improvement, but still not the best. Physical expressions work to an extent, but the problem is that they are’t unique enough for each character.

Imagine a story where every character got scared the same way, no matter who he or she is or what the cause or situation that triggered the fear. Not a very compelling story is it?

If you rely only on physical changes, you’re leaving the opportunity to peek deep inside and reveal more of your characters. So you need something else – something more personal and expressive. But what?

The answer is his thoughts, dialogue, actions or all of them. While in a novel you have more freedom to go deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts, a TV or film script will rely more on physical expressions, dialogue and actions.

Consider the gunpoint example again. When someone sticks a gun to the character’s head, the thoughts appear first: Oh shit! I am going to die. He thinks. And these thoughts are what you need to capture on the page for your characters.

What reveals more about a person – how his body works or his mind? A character can think in limitless ways, but he can “sweat” only in a few.

In reality, everything happens fast. As soon as you sense a gun to your head, the fear and the response will strike in. But the trick with fiction writing is to slow the moment down and capture it step by step so the reader can experience it with the character.

Showing Emotions With Thoughts

Let’s go over to the gunpoint example again. One emotion that may go on in the mind while the gun sticks to your head is anger. How can you possibly capture this through the character’s thoughts?

The character can think, “This man with the gun is making me so angry.” But that won’t give the reader a real sense of the anger that the character is feeling. Anger is just a label, not an experience. Here’s an alternative:

This sick bastard. He thinks he can just put a gun on anyone and get whatever he wants. Oh God just a chance. Just give me one chance and I’ll take that gun and whip him with it to death.

It’s obvious that the character is having angry thoughts. Yet the label angry or anger has not been used.

Okay. You try the next one. Same situation. The emotion is fear. How would you express in on the page. See what thoughts you can come up with to express fear.

It’s surely tricky the first few times. It’ll take time and practice to get right. But keep in mind that it’s already there in you. You need to be patient and you’ll eventually get to it. There are limitless ways in which this could be done. Here’s one alternative.

Oh my god, I’m about to die. No I can’t go yet. It’s too soon. Things barely came on track. Who’ll take care of my family. Oh god please.

These are many sentences, but they can cross someone’s mind in an instant. It’s a lot better than saying “He was feeling fear,” or “His hands started shaking.” Thoughts are powerful because they can reveal the specific layers behind the fear.

Let’s keep playing. What about hope? After feeling fear, the character may try to feel hope. Here’s an example.

Okay. Calm down. Get a grip on yourself. There must be some way to get out of this. You’ve got to do this.

There are various ways in which a character may react emotionally to an event. The more you write, the more you can practice on coming with with more.

When something happens to a character, just focus on what he could be thinking  and you can get to expressing his emotions.

The mind is a dramatic space. A lot can take place in the mind before we see a physical gesture or action. If you’re struggling with expressing your characters’ emotions, don’t panic.

When Feelings & Actions Aren’t The Same

A character’s actions and his inner thoughts may not always be the same. If the actions are different from inner thoughts and feelings, you can capture both at the same time in a short story or novel.

In a screenplay, you’ll have to think of some other way to reveal, for example, that the character is being polite to someone’s face while secretly despising them.

To understand this better, here’s an example of a scene without capturing the thoughts going on inside the mind of the character.

“Hey Bob. How are you?” I said.

“Thanks,” said Bob, extending his hand. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, shaking Bob’s hand. “Glad to see you Bob. Look, I’ve got to go for an urgent meeting. Catch you in a bit okay?”

Didn’t get much out of it, did we? Now let’s try the same including the mind.

Oh my god, Bob’s here. “Hey Bob. How are you?” Look at that booze nose, alcoholic flush, dirty clothes and oily hair. As always, he isn’t very clean.

“Thanks,” said Bob, extending his hand. “How are you?”

Good Lord, now I’ll have to touch his hand.”I’m fine,” I said, shaking Bob’s mushy and slimy hand. Who knows where those hands have been? “Glad to see you Bob. Look, I’ve got to go for an urgent meeting. Catch you in a bit okay?”

See the difference? Is there any other way to convey a clear idea of a character’s emotions on paper than his thoughts?

The character can feel a number of emotions while appearing totally calm on the surface. And by describing what’s going on inside his mind, we can have both happening at the same time.

Thoughts can be very revealing. Thoughts are almost like a private, secret life we live inside our head. Thoughts let us express our character’s internal conflicts, which make them more complicated than they are on the surface.

If the readers can see both – what the character is thinking and what gets filtered when he speaks – they can experience the character on a deeper, multi-dimensional level. The complexity makes the characters more real and authentic human beings, and therefore easier to identify with and care about.

Many great stories use this method to express internal conflicts of their characters. That’s not to say that capturing thoughts is the only way to get the emotional aspect right.

It’s great, but not absolutely essential. You can choose not to do it if you know what you’re doing. There have been works of fiction which ignore this rule altogether. They don’t go into the mind as much, and are still great.

When the thoughts are not being expressed, the character conveys his emotions through dialogue, actions, facial expressions or in some other way.

A character who is angry inside but calm on surface, for example, can later vent out his actual feelings to another character in another scene.

No matter how it’s done, the main thing is the readers should be aware of the character’s emotions at most times. If they don’t know what’s going on with the character, they won’t be able to identify or relate.

Emotionalizing Your Draft

This is usually the last part of editing your draft, given how difficult and tricky it can be. Each time you sit to rework on your manuscript, you’ll get something new to add. And you’ll get there bit by bit.

Anyone struggling with a threat will be afraid and worried of what may happen, and hoping something can be done to overcome the problem. As you go through your story, try to figure out at every important moment what your character’s worries, fears and hopes are.

On each successive version of your draft, you’ll keep getting deeper into the character’s mind. And you’ll see that you’ve gotten to his thoughts, and therefore emotions.

When you do, see if you can remove the physical changes. That should only be used if it’s really essential and conveys something important about the character not possible to express in some other way.

In a novel, whenever stuck with what the character is feeling, move to his thoughts. Try to figure out what’s he thinking. What’s he worried about? What scares him? What he hopes to make happen?

That’s where the ultimate connection and identification happens, when the reader becomes the character he is reading about. Otherwise, the reader will just detach from the experience. Like everything else in creative writing, it’ll take practice.