Words, Concrete, and Stacking Stories: 3 Tips for Writing Emotion in Fiction

Great writing has emotion. It's about being human in the most basic way.

Simple enough, right?

The tricky thing is that writing emotion well is really hard. We've all read badly written descriptions of emotion. (Just think back to angst-ridden high school poetry or second-rate romances---heck, even some first-rate romances).

But why are badly written emotional scenes so painful to read? Why do they make us cringe or roll our eyes or even sometimes...gasp!...stop reading?

Because the reader feels that something is being forced on them, and people as a general rule don't like that.

With that in mind, here are three tips to keep in mind when trying to write an emotional scene.


1. Don't use emotion words.

One of the facts of being human is that we can only connect to other humans through the physical world. I mean that there is no way (currently, at least) for me to hook up my heart to yours and have you experience exactly what I'm feeling. We have to use physical actions or words to try and communicate it.

So we've all agreed upon some words describing emotion that mean a general range of things. But words like "love" or "anger" or even more specific ones like "loneliness" or "rage" have dozens of different meanings, depending on who you talk to or what situation you apply them to.

There's no way for me to know exactly what you mean when you say "love" or "fear." Sure, just naming the emotion does some of the work---it narrows the possibilities from thousands to a few dozen, but I'll never know exactly which brand of "love" or "fear" you mean. Just naming the emotion isn't always enough (although there are exceptions).

A good strategy is to fall back on the basic medium humans share: the physical world. In other words, I need to...


2. Use concrete details (and dialogue).

Part 1 of this tip is avoiding cliches whenever possible. Cliche's often don't make literal sense and are thus hard to interpret. People's hearts don't literally "melt" or "soar" or get "ripped out" of chests, but we hear those phrases all. the. time.

The physical world is amazing and infinite, and so is language. Try inventing your own metaphors for emotional reactions.

Part 2 of this tip is focusing on the result of the emotion rather than the emotion itself. Don't say someone's angry, show what they do or say when they're angry (which also helps with characterization).

Create a scene where I, the reader, am a third party observer in the corner and, without hearing any character thoughts, can get an idea of what everyone in the room is feeling.

I'll borrow an example Craig Nybo brought to my attention during a presentation at LTUE (Life, The Universe, and Everything Symposium for writing science fiction and fantasy). Orson Scott Card has an alien race in his Speaker for the Dead series whose faces do not express grief. When a member of this race learns that someone close to him has died (I think...it's been 10 years since I've read the books, okay?), he wanders around the room silently touching object after object, an action I find perfectly poignant and simple. As a reader, when I read that, I feel a pang of sorrow that I wouldn't get if the author just said, "He felt a pang of sorrow."

Part 3 of this tip is use dialogue. This obviously works well to show emotion in relationships between people as they're talking, but it also can work well if a characters is talking to himself (or herself), which is done brilliantly in Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path." Dialogue is quite a versatile tool!


3. Stack your stories (use symbols).

Symbolism can help you fit a story within a story within a story!

Symbolism can help you fit a story within a story within a story!

Everyone experiences the same vague, deluging experience of being human. Of being sad, angry, lonely, jealous, hurt, in love, whatever. Those feelings are universally human, overwhelming, and,  to use an earlier metaphor, can feel a lot like drowning.

But if you try and describe that drowning all at once, you'll end up with washed-out, diluted words and a reader splashing half-heartedly in the little puddle you've made, wondering what you were getting at.

Any head-on description of something as primal and powerful as emotion is going to feel like using an eyedropper to simulate a hurricane. It's best to come at it sideways instead. You need to write something that will make readers feel the emotion rather than just think about it.

And what better way to get a reader to feel an emotion than to tell them a story! This sounds a little recursive, I know, but hear me out. I'm talking about putting tiny stories in your bigger one.

There are stories in the smallest details of living, and those stories are the ones you want to point out to the reader to make them feel something.

In the midst of drowning, pause to note a translucent jellyfish that rises to the surface or imagine a microscopic glowing amoeba in its final year of being swirled and ripped by the dark currents.

Making symbols out of objects that already relate to the story can do a lot of the work of emotion for you.

And finally, remember: words were first used to name physical things, and that will always be where they are most precise and most powerful, even when they clearly allude to something immaterial and immortal.

Are there others tips you know of that I didn't mention? Comment below to let me know what I missed!