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

A story should allow the reader to experience what the character goes through. You have to get the reader into your character's skin.

If the audience aren't feeling anything, they're not going to keep reading or watching.

Therefore emotions, while not a building block of a story, are more of a seasoning that should be all over the story, novel or screenplay. They let the reader feel what the character is feeling.

As much as possible, the character should have an emotional response (internal or external) to what's happening, and the reader should be aware of what the character is feeling. The audience feel what the character feels.

Triggering Emotions

When writing a story, the first challenge is to make sure the character feels something at every possible turn and twist. This is done by having every part of your story stick to the big picture.

Everything that happens in your story should have some kind of impact on your character, his goals and inner issues. Plus, it should contribute to the theme and overall plot you have in mind.

The reader should know the character's specific expectations, so he could tell when they're being satisfied or not, and understand why the character feels the way he does.

If Ned goes to a party and is upset because he's not having a good time, the reader should know that he went to the party hoping for a good time, and what specifically needed to happen for him to have a good time.

You can't assume that readers will know this already. In fact, they should be somewhere near the point where they were already anticipating the emotional response that the character expressed.

When the events of your story affect the character, the character will have emotional reactions to those events. There must be a causal link between the event that happened and the way your character reacts.

If an event doesn't have any impact on the character and the plot, it has no place in the story, even if it's the invention of wheel or industrial revolution.

Conveying Emotions

The 2nd challenge is to convey your character's feelings on the page or the screen in a way that they impact the reader.

In every scene you craft, the character must react in a way that the reader or viewer can understand.

One way 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?

Get Specific & Personal

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 - you need reactions that are more specific, personal and expressive.

Plus, you need reactions that affect whether or not your character will be able to resolve his conflicts and satisfy his motives.

But how? The answer is through his thoughts, dialogue and actions.

For internal reactions, you'll go inside his mind and reveal his thoughts and memories. For external reactions, you'll rely on dialogue and actions.

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 up 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.

As you go through your story or scene, try to figure out at every important moment what your character's worries, fears, expectations and hopes are.

Let's work on one more example to see these techniques in action.

It's the final game of hockey championship, to win the prestigious Stanley Cup. The arena is crammed with excited fans, cheering for their favorites.

Goalie Eric looked at Charlie from the opposing team, who's coming towards him with the puck. Woah, these childhood rivals have come a long way. 

Charlie is about attempt a score while Eric waits, crouching in front of the goal.

Did the scene excite you? Maybe a little bit, but not a lot, which is strange. After all, it's the final game for the Stanley Cup.

The major reason it falls flat is we don't know how much winning matters to Eric. We don't know how he feels about the cheering fans, the fact that his team is in the final game, and that his lifelong rival Charlie is onto him.

To make this piece better, the writer needs to show what Eric feels, as well as why he feels those emotions. Let's take a look at the same scene, but re-written and improved.

When the puck skidded and landed right next to Charlie's stick with just a few seconds remaining for the game, Eric had a smirk on his face, as if he knew this was going to happen.

Of course, Charlie would want to take the last shot. Of course Charlie would give him that hostile look, before trying to score.

It was Charlie vs Eric one more time. Though this time they weren't the same as when they played their first game at 10, or when they played against each other in high school. 

This time they were competing for the Stanley Cup - the biggest honor in hockey - and the world was watching. As Eric crouched, every muscle in his body got tense. This time, he won't let Charlie score, at any cost.

How was it? Aren't you desperate to know what happened next? Did Charlie score? Or did Eric stop the puck?

And while we're at it, what's the deal about their rivalry? Because it felt like beating Charlie meant more to Eric than winning the Stanley Cup. And that is what kept you reading.


Each time you sit to rework on your manuscript, you'll get deeper in your character's mind and find something new to add in terms of hopes, fears, worries and expectations. And you'll get there bit by bit.

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.

Your Turn

Now that you have an idea of how to make the reader feel the emotions your character is going through, practice with the sample below.

Kate, Adam's daughter, is walking elegantly to the altar. Adam is watching her, remembering the day she was born. Now she was about to tie the knot. Then he glanced at Bruce, waiting for Kate on the stage with a frown on his face. 

Standing next to Adam was his wife, about to burst in tears. He gently squeezed her hand.

That's when he hears someone shout from the back of the room. It's Gustavo, Kate’s first love who vanished without a clue two years ago.

Improve this piece by showing the reader how the character is feeling about what's happening. Don't shy away from rewriting the entire scene from scratch if you have to, with as much background as you like.

Try to give the reader a clear idea of how Adam is emotionally processing everything that's happening.

Hitesh Sahni

Hitesh Sahni is a freelance writer, educator, consultant, marketer, and web designer helping people and businesses grow.
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