Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Eliciting Emotion in your Characters and Your Reader

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.
Back in Jan 2018 I wrote a post here on Seekerville about a workshop I was developing on the subject of evoking Emotion. It was just a rough outline at that point with a few of the bullet points filled in. Well, last month, I along with two other authors, gave that workshop at RWA Nationals in New York so I thought I’d do a follow up post with the other elements I developed for the presentation.

So here it is:

One of the ingredients that will take your story from good to great is the infusion of organic, realistic, believable emotions. It’s what causes the readers to care about your protagonists and what draws them into the story and turning the pages.
Marion Bauer put it this way: "People read fiction in order to feel, to have strong feelings in a context of safety. The thrill of danger without the threat of harm. Cleansing tears, but without loss. Even laughter, dignity intact."

What I want to do today is give you a few tools to use to effectively evoke emotion

Before I start, though, I need to say that most of the examples I’ll be using here will be from my own work, not because I think I do it better by any means, but simply because I knew right where to go to pull specific examples.

The items I covered in the January 2018 post are:
  • The Senses
  • Internalization
  • Body Language
  • Tells

Though I expanded a bit on those for the workshop, I won’t repeat them here. Instead, let’s move on to WORD CHOICE.

Focusing in on specific key details with your Word Choices can indeed affect mood and emotion.

Consider this bit of description from my book A Matter Of Trust:
The heat of the day was softened by the dappled shade of the woods.  She and Toby were out to enjoy  an afternoon of picnicking and berry picking.  Lucy stepped over a knobby root and paused while Toby studied a shiny beetle lumbering up the side of a hickory tree. They’d been strolling along this leaf-carpeted trail for about thirty minutes now, and the creek crossing was just past the bit of leafy brush up ahead.  Some of the choicest blackberries in the county grew there. And Toby deserved to have a bit of fun today.

Now see what happens if I had made some different word choices

The hot summer sun slashed down through the spidery shadows of the too-quiet woods.  She and Toby hoped to spend the afternoon gathering the blood red berries that grew near the old creek.  Lucy stepped over a gnarled root and paused impatiently while Toby eyed a large beetle fleeing up the side of a dying tree. They’d been picking their way along this twisting, rocky trail for about thirty minutes now - thank goodness the creek crossing was just past the clump of thorn bushes up ahead.  Some of the best berries for making her potion grew there.

Though on the surface these are two views of the same scene, just by the word choices made I’ve set two very different moods, evoking different sets of emotions. 
In the first version, the reader will assume that the characters are enjoying themselves and that the outing is a pleasant one. In the second example, the reader sees this as a much more ominous experience for our characters and will feel some level of anxiety about what comes next.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this dramatic. Simply describing someone as crying as opposed to bawling with gut-wrenching sobs, or a sky as cloudy versus one that’s ominously overcast will elicit different depths of emotion from your reader.

Another way to heighten emotion, is to sharpen and focus it for the reader. You can do this by OBJECTIFYING and CONTRASTING the emotion.

To objectify an emotion, you either give it a physical manifestation, such as:
  • His words brought the heat to her cheeks
  • At the sight of his injury, the bile rose in her throat

Or you can use metaphors and similes
  • The look she gave him made him feel like a low down skunk
  • The little girl was like a kitten, all soft and playful

Comparing the emotion is just what it sounds like, you compare the emotion the character is feeling to other times when similar feelings arose
  • This was more embarrassing than when she walked out of the dressing room with her skirt hem tucked in her waistband
  • She was happier than the day her crush had asked her to the prom

You can also contrast the character’s emotion toward a particular person or situation at this point in time to their emotion to the same or similar situation earlier in the story. This would be a good way to show emotional growth.

The next thing I want to talk about today is CHARACTER EMOTION vs READER EMOTION

A well-crafted scene will evoke emotion of some sort, both in the characters on the page and in the reader. 
But, these won’t necessarily be the same, and that’s ok, as long as it’s deliberate.  

A good writer will choreograph her scene to tease the emotions she wants from both the characters and the readers.

This next example is pulled from The Unexpected Bride. The set-up is:  The heroine Elthia and her pet Yorkie have just arrived at her destination via stagecoach and is about to disembark.

She picked up the basket that served as Poppy’s carrier, tightened her hold on her parasol, and shifted forward.  Moving to the door as if it were heaven’s gate itself, she barely avoided a tumble when the coach lurched and then stilled again.
She turned to apologize to the passenger she’d inadvertently jabbed with her parasol.  “Mr. Jenkins, I’m so–-”
“Watch out!”
Elthia pivoted, this time carefully pointing her parasol toward the floor.  “Oh dear, Miss Simms, I didn’t mean–-”
The matronly woman gave her a tight smile as she straightened her tipsily-angled hat.  “That’s all right, dear.  This is your stop, isn’t it?  You just go on now.  Don’t want to keep whoever’s meeting you waiting.”
“No, really, just go on.”
Elthia looked around.  Several other passengers were enthusiastically nodding agreement.  Really, this was just the nicest group of people.  Especially considering the fuss Poppy had made with his yipping eagerness to get to know the other passengers this past hour.
She gave them all a big smile, then stepped through the coach door, ready to begin her new life. 

Now we have quite a range of emotions here:

  • Elthia is eager to start her new life, is apologetic to the passengers and thinks everyone around her is feeling friendly towards her. 
  • The other passengers, if you pick up the subtext here, are irritated and glad to see the last of her and her troublesome dog.
  • The reader, if I did my job right, is feeling a bit amused and sympathetic toward our clueless, rose-colored-glasses-wearing heroine

The key here, is to make certain you are aware of these dual perspectives and that you are deliberate in how you nurture them.

What you DON’T want to have happen is to inadvertently craft a scene that you intended to be dramatic but that causes your reader to roll their eyes or snicker, or to craft one you intend to be comical but that falls flat or outrages your reader.

A few final things to consider:

  • Deep emotion comes from Character rather than plot. You need to dig deep into your character’s backstory and fully explore their goals, motivations and pain points to find their emotional triggers and to really draw out emotions that feel organic and realistic.
  • Authentic emotion also comes from the writer. You need to draw on the emotional landscape of your own life. Remember your first crush, your last big breakup, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, that time you were alone and the lights went out. Try to remember what your physical reactions were as well as your emotional ones.
  • Keep in mind that no emotion is singular. Instead they are a complex blend of several reactions, feelings and perceptions. For example, a student going off to college for the first time might feel eager, anxious, excited, adrift and adventurous all at the same time. 
  • And of course, it is always better to show rather than tell. Don’t just say he’s scared, show me the tremble of his hands, the widening of his eyes, the nervous glances he casts over his shoulder
  • Make sure there is an appropriate balance of light and dark emotions. Even in a heavy gothic, horror or thriller, there should be some light moments to provide relief and contrast to the heavy grimness that the story requires. And just so, a romantic comedy should have at least a few serious or somber moments.
  • Take a look at your story stakes – the higher the stakes, the deeper and more profound the emotions will (or rather should) be
  • Ultimately, your reader can forgive many craft and plot issues if you can tap into their emotions with your story. And conversely, you can have a perfectly constructed story from a craft and plot perspective, but if you don’t make your reader feel, if your story is emotionally barren, you will leave them dissatisfied.

There you have it – my take on how to effectively evoke emotion in your writing. Did any of this resonate with you? Do you have some insights or tips that I missed - please share!

Leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for winner's choice of any book from my backlist.

Award winning author Winnie Griggs has written both single title and category romances. She has published with three different houses since her debut in 2001 and has 25 books (and counting) in print.  Her work has won a number of regional and national awards, including an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award. 

Winnie is the wife of a rancher and the mother of four exceptional children.She has a BS in Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science, as well as an advanced degree in the art of procrastination. Winnie is also a list maker, a tea drinker and lover of dragonflies.


  1. Well, can't believe I'm the first one to comment. Coffee is on the sideboard along with tea and an assortment of cookies (I'm cleaning out the freezer). Winnie, this is so true and a good checklist. And something I'm constantly working on. I'm New England so I tend to evoke emotion with trembling hands or longing glances, but it's better than not evoking it at all. Early in my career I tended to go too far in the other direction, my people were way too stoic, but I've come a ways as life has impacted me more.
    BTW and FYI, I got the cover yesterday for my third book with Pelican, and my second full novel, the sequel to "Westward Hope." Things are moving fairly fast. I can chalk up my productivity to two things I learned in Seekerville. Ruthy tells us to write every day, and though I'm still far from 1K, I do write something every day. Mary tells us to Be Ready. I had the sequel to "Westward Hope" done BEFORE "Westward Hope" was accepted. Wouldn't do it with every project, but I believed in that story and knew it would find a home somewhere. These are two concrete examples of how Seekerville helps writers.
    Busy times for me. I feel so inadequate, but what the hay, who ever really IS adequate?
    Your D-list celebrity

    1. Yay! Getting the cover for your book makes it so real, doesn't it?

    2. Yaaayy on getting your covers - such a fun moment for any author. And yes, feeling inadequate is built-in to the writer psyche, but you are obviously more than adequate with three books accepted for publication!!

    3. Yeah, point is, I did it with stuff I learned HERE. Yay you.

  2. These are great tips, Winnie. Working on emotion in my writing is something I strive for so I will use your suggestions. Please put me in the drawing.

  3. Enlightening to read. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Happy is the writer who can make the reader feel as though they're the character in the story! That's the ultimate goal for all of us. I'm not there yet but these are wonderful points and I enjoyed your examples, Winnie. And thank you for linking back to your previous post!

    1. That is absolutely the ultimate goal. If you can make the reader feel the emotions your characters are feeling then you more than likely made a fan who will keep coming back for more

  5. This was great, Winnie! I'm sure your workshop attendees loved it, too!

    One of the points you mentioned was that deep emotion comes from character rather than plot. I agree whole-heartedley! It's that connection to a well-crafted character that causes the reader (and us) to resonate with the character's emotions.

    I'm going to keep these points in mind as I work on my WIP!

    1. Thanks Pam! This is a topic I struggle with and usually have to come back and layer it in during second or even third passes through.

  6. "You can also contrast the character’s emotion toward a particular person or situation at this point in time to their emotion to the same or similar situation earlier in the story."

    I love that idea! Great insight in this post--thank you so much. :0)

    1. Hi Samantha. Yes, that little nugget is a great way to show character growth (or also lack thereof) without getting heavy handed or author intrusive. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Winnie, thanks for this great post! I'm glad you also shared the link back to January's post.

    I really loved your example of the Elthia getting off the stagecoach. So cute! But I love how you wrote it so the reader feels like she's in on something funny with the secondary characters. A great tool! I really appreciate you showing it so well.

  8. Oh Winnie, this is so good. I am forever trying to become a better writer when it comes to drawing out both character and reader emotions. I am working on how to convey many emotions in one scene, because as you said, no emotion is singular. It's a tricky business. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this subject! I'm coming back to re-read as I edit my MS.

    1. Thanks Jeanne, glad you founds some takeaways you can use in this post.

  9. Such a great posts! Emotion is something I really struggle with and these are great tips!

    1. Thanks LeAnne - it's something I really struggle with as well. I tend to start out just naming an emotion and have to remember to go back and change it to a more engaging 'show'

  10. Wonderful post, Winnie! As a reader, I enjoy learning more about the writing process.

    1. Thanks Caryl! And as a writer we really value your opinions and support!

  11. Winnie, such a wonderful blog post, as always! Great explanation and fantastic examples. You're an excellent teacher, and I always learn something new from your blogs!

    1. Thank you so much Debby, I appreciate the kind words

  12. What an in-depth and well presented post! I wish I could have sat in on your class at RWA!

  13. Really good stuff here! I do not consider myself a particularly emotional person and I fear sometimes that I'm not exploring my character's emotions enough to give readers what they are looking for. These are great things to keep in mind. Thank you for sharing!

    1. You're quite welcome Glynis! Glad you find this helpful

  14. What a terrific post, Winnie. I purchased the recordings from the conference, so I'll have to go listen to the rest - after I meet the current deadline (in under two weeks! Eek!)


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