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Today I’m going to show you how to infuse emotion into your writing and why that’s so important. Ultimately, having emotions in your story is how you get your reader to care about and relate to your characters. And it’s not your character’s emotions that matter the most—it’s your readers’!
So before I dive deeper in to that, I’m going to tell you a story. Try to imagine this as if it were happening to you.
It’s about 4pm. You’re driving. The day is fading quicker than usual for early autumn because a storm is brewing. Picture the darkest clouds you’ve ever seen. Swirling, tinged with green, spewing out rain so thick and so fast, you can barely see the road in front of you. The wind is picking up, making your vehicle bounce. Your grip tightens, trying to keep it steady. Gusts blow branches around like tumbleweeds, and the trees wave their branches, giant sentients waving silent and unheeded warnings of what’s to come.
You’re driving on a 2-laned, twinned highway, so there’s a big, grassy median between you and the opposing traffic. It’s not so bad. But you know this road. You normally like driving this road—it’s a beautiful route. But you know that as soon as you round the next bend, you’ll be merging onto a huge, 6-lane highway. As you suspiciously eye the clouds again, your heartbeat quickens, your stomach turns. Your breathing gets heavy and shaky. It’s not your driving you don’t trust; you’ve driven in every type of precipitation imaginable—except, of course, for a supercell storm. But it’s the other drivers that are cause for concern. Scary weather can make people act irrationally when behind the wheel. They become more reactive and less proactive.
The weather worsens by the minute. Rain is teeming down from the heavens. The sound is almost deafening as it pelts against your vehicle. You switch the wiper blades to high speed, but it’s still not enough. You’re in a cocoon of wild elements, a giant bubble of a storm. You look out to your left and swear you can see a funnel dropping down from the sky, obliterating everything in its path.
There’s nowhere to get off the highway; it’s too late for that now. You’ve entered the mass chaos that is an Ontario 400-series highway during rush hour. Traffic is everywhere. You’re surrounded. Cars are hydroplaning in giant puddles on the road. You’re boxed in by a massive transport truck nudging you closer to the cement wall on your left. A car is in front of you, and some impatient jerk is on your tail. There’s no escape, and the pressure is building.
Your knuckles turn ghost white as you grip the steering wheel harder. The bones in your palms start to ache as they press into the rubberized mold. You want desperately to get off this road, but you can’t. Where are you going to go? You can’t even get over to the right lane, let alone find an exit—you can’t see that far ahead. And you think: it’s not a looming tornado that’s going to kill you—it’s driving on this damned highway.
Breathe, you tell yourself. But it’s not going over so well.
First, it’s your arms. They get tingly. It runs down into your hands, stiff from holding the steering wheel so tight. Then the numbness wraps itself around your chest like tentacles, or a python squeezing the life out of its captured prey. Taking air into your lungs is a difficult task when they don’t seem to want to expand under the weight of anxiety. The very thought of this drives your fear even deeper and intensifies the tingles.
It spreads down to your legs and feet, and up to your face—even your eyelids go numb. Your whole body feels anesthetized, and the more you think about it, the worse it gets. You pry your hands from the steering wheel, and they look like cramped talons. The panic that’s settling into the back of your throat and the pit of your stomach brings quick, shallow breaths, and tears well up, blurring your vision—as if the rain wasn’t doing a good enough job of that already.
Breathe, you fool.
Your eyes scan every green sign hoping for an exit, but they’re too hard to read through the deluge. And what are you going to do, anyway? You’re stuck, remember? On a highway, in rush hour, in the far lane.
No, no. That’s it. You shake your head. You have to get off this road, whatever the cost. It’s the only option. Your instincts are telling you staying here means certain death—especially if you can’t control your limbs. What happens if you have to think fast and move fast to avoid another driver?
You frantically search for a hole in the traffic to your right—just big enough for you to squeeze into. Your eyes flit up to the rear-view mirror, then jet over to the right-side mirror. Is there room? Yes. There has to be because you’re going.
You flip your signal on and dart over to the next lane. Whew! You made it. Now, over to the next, and the next. There’s a big sign up ahead—3 km to the next exit.
3km! How are you gonna make it that far? You’re about to pass out! You’re never gonna make it. You’re gonna lose control of everything, and you are going to be the reason for a twenty-car pile-up on the 400—not some idiot who doesn’t know how to drive in bad weather. YOU. You’ll be jackknifed by the transport truck you only just got in front of, and you’ll be squished to smithereens.
You just have to get through the next three kilometres, and you’ll be safe.
Two and a half.
One and a half.
Half a kilometre. You can do this. It’s just up ahead.
But when you start to see orange pilons lined up along the shoulder, the false hope drops away like a torpedo from a bomber. The ramp is closed due to construction. You can’t exit the highway.
You know this is bad news. You can barely hold on to the steering wheel now, let alone control it. If you don’t get off this highway RIGHT NOW, you’re going to die. And who knows how many other drivers you’ll take out with you.
In a bold and urgent move, you whip over to the right, onto the shoulder, and into the construction zone. You step hard on the brake pedal, skidding to a halt, and shift into park. Hunched over the steering wheel, you breathe hard, shaky breaths, waiting for this attack to subside. You crack the window just enough to let in some fresh air. Your breaths still don’t come easy, and the numbness is driving you crazy. But you’re safe now. You’re safe.
So… in that situation, what feelings and emotions can you feel? What can you infer about what’s going on, or what the character thinks is going on? What words come to mind?
Worry. Fear. Anxiety. Desperation. The character feels like they’re in so much danger, they’re going to die if they can’t escape it. Trapped. Stuck. Responsible for the potential death of others.
Can you think of other situations where some of these feelings might apply? It could be any number of things. An airplane with a failing engine. An illegal boxing ring where the character is being forced to fight. Someone who’s being kidnapped. Someone who’s just been given news of a terminal illness. The guy who’s driving the bus in Speed. It could be anything.
The point is, you can take a personal experience and use it in your writing. You don’t have to be writing about the same type of incident. All you need to do is reflect on how you felt during a certain circumstance and apply those feelings to the physiological response of the character. The more visceral you can make it, the better.
So, let’s say your character is having a shitty day at work. Joe. We’ll call him Joe. Joe works on the top floor of a huge office building. Nothing is going right. And finally, the end of the day comes. He just wants to get home. Normally, he takes the stairs because he despises small spaces. But today, he just doesn’t care. He has no energy for the stairs. He steps into the elevator, presses the ground floor button, and sighs tired relief out of his lungs as the doors start to close. Then, a sudden, “hold the elevator!” comes—it’s the voice of the person your character loathes. It’s Bob, the jerk from accounting. Now Joe is going to be stuck in the cold, metal box with Bob. Great. Just what he needs. He slides over to the furthest corner from Bob, offering a sneer for a smile. The doors close, and the elevator starts descending… and then it stops. Nothing happens. Eyes are flitting about the small, enclosed area, over to Bob from accounting. It’s silent. Your character presses buttons on the panel, but nothing is happening.
Oh—and remember, he’s claustrophobic.
What do you think he might feel in those moments when he first realizes he’s stuck in the elevator? What might be going through his mind? He’s afraid it’s going to plummet to the ground. He’s afraid he’s going to die.
Have you ever felt those things? Even if you felt them in a completely unrelated situation, you can still apply them to this scenario. Of course, this is an extreme scenario. I don’t know how many of you have ever felt like you’re going to die. But if you have, you could use those feelings in this situation.
And just a quick note about writing about scary or tough experiences—it can be cathartic. It definitely has been for me. Know that it’s ok if there’s a particular experience you don’t want to write about. Do what feels comfortable for you. But don’t be afraid to dig deep into that bank of emotional experiences because it can really help take your writing to the next level.
Instead of just saying, “Joe was afraid the elevator would plummet to the ground, and he would die,” give deeply personal details of how he feels, and what it’s doing to his body.
When you give authentic details about what happens physiologically when someone is feeling something emotionally, it adds depth to the character—AND it makes that character more relatable to the reader. It doesn’t have to be a scenario the reader has personally been through. It’s not the thing that’s happening to the character—it’s how the character feels about the thing. Describe those feelings with authenticity and specificity, and you’re golden. This provides tension, and tension is what drives the plot forward and what’s going to make your reader keep reading.
The reason I chose to tell you the story about driving on the highway in a supercell storm is because it’s something that happened to me recently. The physiological responses that occurred in those moments were reactions to the emotions surging through me. At first, I was a bit nervous about driving through a potential tornado—and yes, there was one confirmed just east of where I was driving—right where I saw the funnel. But as I drew nearer to the busy highway, I realized I was stuck. And then, when I’d become engulfed in the traffic, it became less about the tornado, and more about other drivers. It was a dangerous situation to be in, but no one could do anything about it. You can’t just stop in the middle of a highway, whether you can see in front of you or not. You have to keep going.
So everything I was feeling, I tried to translate into words and put on the page here. And, as a matter of fact, I have used that situation in a story that I’m working on and it’s not exactly the same situation but the feelings that I felt in those moments, I’ve been able to use to describe a situation that my character’s going through.
So here’s what I’m suggesting you do. Create a bank of personal experiences. These can be anything. Happiness, sadness, crushing despair, excitement about meeting someone famous. The pride you felt when your eldest child graduated from college. The mixture of happiness and sadness when your youngest moved out of the house or got married. How you felt on your wedding day. If you’ve ever been in a near-death incident. All of these things will fall under a blanket emotion.
And when your character is experiencing one of those blanket emotions, you’ll want to describe their physiological reactions to what’s going on. Show the reader how those emotions are affecting them.
Now, as with anything else, don’t spend too long on these descriptions. There are some places when you want to go into great detail, and other places where you should just describe it in a sentence or two. It’s all about balance.
If you have a bank of personal experiences to draw from, you can even expand on those feelings and reactions by brainstorming other words that come to mind when you think about them.
So these are great little exercises to do to help you infuse emotion in your writing. And when you start your novel, you want to have emotion on the first few pages. That’s how you’re going to hook your reader and keep them turning the pages. So put your character in a situation where there’s some kind of action, something going on, something happening to your character, and their resulting emotions and how those feelings are physically affecting them.
Something you’re going to want to remember is to vary your descriptions. This is where your brainstormed lists of words for those emotional experiences will come in handy. You want to be as specific as possible. So when you’re talking about a character crying, for example, you might say something like, “her eyes filled with tears.” Or, “the tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks.” But instead of saying something cliché, instead of telling the reader that your character has tears running down his face, go deeper. Is there a lump in his throat as he watched the love of his life walk away? Is his vision blurred with the onset of tears his father taught him never to let fall? Does his hand reach up and wipe away the wetness under his eyes? Look for different ways to tell the reader that your character is crying without using those cliché statements. You want to put your character in situations where they’re going to be impacted greatly. So when something really big happens that affects them, make sure you go deep into their psyche.
When your character’s emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions mirror the reader’s, it’ll be more relatable and believable. If your character experiences a range of emotions, it’ll make them more believable, too. You want a range—and you don’t want it to always be bad, or always good; you need some of both and something in between as well.
Another tip: just do a google search! You can do a google search for emotions in writing, and you can look for charts that will help you expand on the words you can use to describe tone, body language, facial expressions, etc. And these are the types of things that will help you translate the emotions into your writing.
For example, what happens when a character is impatient? What kind of body language do you see? What do you see when they’re jealous? These are the kinds of things you’re going to want to write on the page instead of just saying the character is jealous or impatient or possessive or manipulative. What kinds of things give that away? If you’re looking at that character, what do you see them doing? What non-verbal or visual clues do you see them doing?
Last tip: read The Emotional Thesaurus. Highly recommended for helping you write emotions! This is a craft book that helps you to convey emotion in a variety of ways because, remember, you want to show the character’s emotions in detail. So this will help with body language, the build-up to what happens with the character’s emotions, non-verbal cues, etc.
I hope you found this post helpful. I’m really excited to get into the author interviews on the podcast and bring you all some interesting chats and personal experiences that other writers have had that might help you on your writing journey. In any case, they’re sure to be fun! If you’re a listener, I’m going to be pausing episodes over the holidays because it’s going to be chaotic here with five kids! And I’m sure many of you will be busy as well with your families and friends. But be ready to tune in on Tuesday, January 4th, when I’ll be talking about the importance of the writing community and how it can help shape your writing career. And I’m so excited because I’ll be chatting with my first guest writer! Interviews are now booking into April, and I can’t wait to share all the excitement with you!
Happy holidays and keep being badass!
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