Writing Emotion

This post is more questions than answers.

I’ve been thinking about what makes some fiction so much more satisfying to read than other fiction, aside from factors such as story elements one loves, a well-constructed plot, and elegant prose style.

At bottom, I think emotional resonance is the most important element. Some characters, some stories, reach deeper inside me as a reader than others, and it isn’t always the ones that are most original or best-written.

For me, characterization is probably the most important element in “feeling” a story. The elements of characterization to which I react, however, can be unpredictable. Something that works for me in one book might leave me cold in another. I hesitate to quantify what it is that hits me on an emotional level. If I identify those factors, will I be unable to enjoy them?

But I also need to understand how a writer might produce such effects on her readers.

Can an emotional effect be created technically? Is some emotional investment on the writer’s part required, or even valuable, in accomplishing it? What causes the writer to become invested in a character? What causes the reader to become invested? Where does it happen? On the page, in the reader’s mind, or some combination? Or does it happen in some liminal, subconscious way?

Can a writer who feels a deep emotional connection with her character transfer any of that attachment onto the page? Is a certain level of technical skill necessary to make the writer’s feeling evident to the reader? Can a certain level of technical skill surmount lack of feeling on the writer’s part? Can a writer who deliberately keeps his or her distance from the characters make them seem alive?

Can these questions even be answered? Is a moose going to run over my head?

Related Posts:
Learning Who Your Characters Are.
Caring About Your Characters – Or Not.
Kinesics in Fiction.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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11 Responses to Writing Emotion

  1. carabristol says:

    Interesting question. I've found that when I can get fully into my characters' heads and feel what they feel, my readers will feel it, too. If it makes ME laugh, cry, get angry, I somehow manage to transfer those emotions to the page.

    I remember a short story I had written about a woman whose husband had died and she was having to dispose of his things. I cried the entire time I wrote that story. My husband looked at the pile of used kleenex on the desk and said, "this can't be fun! Why do you do this?" When I read the story aloud at a writer's league meeting, many people in the audience cried. The story won first place in writing competition and was published in a regional magazine.

    I think a writer CAN convey emotion to the reader even if she isn't feeling it, but it's harder, much harder.

  2. Mima says:

    First of all, I couldn't get past that mag cover for at least a minute. FREAKING HYSTERICAL! I love that the first headline you see is "Secret Love Life of Juan" with that picture.

    2nd of all, I'm convinced that many authors are deeply invested in their characters, but that never transfers to the reader. The writing isn't there. But just because it takes some technical skill to share that inner connection, doesn't mean the converse is true. If you set out to write a moving character with a strong story, and have the technical chops to do it, I think you can without ever being invested. I'd LIKE to say "this can't be done. the result are those cold paint-by-numbers formulaic books we all loathe." all I know is that there is no way I can disengage my imagination to that extent. If you gave me the tritest scenario with the most cardboard, annoying character outline ever, and I was forced to write that story, I'd find a way to love the character.

  3. Victoria Janssen says:

    Cara, it sounds like it works for you. I'm always wondering if what I feel while writing while be dead, dead, dead on the page. But I have no way of telling.

    Mima, I got that cover from Book Scans.

    I think you're right, a certain level of technical skill is required. But I also think you don't have to be the Best Prose Stylist Ever – sometimes, I think, fancy prose can get in the way just as much as clumsy prose.

  4. Jeannie Lin says:

    Ditto on the awesome magazine covers!

    This is very hard for me as it gets into the alchemy of writing. I very much work at this and study scenes as you do, since I don't consider myself a natural writer. I'm working really hard at trying to relax the prose and deeper get into character.

    In a sort of Zen/Taoist way (sorry, my research for my current book has made me sound even more philosophical) I almost feel like you have to learn enough technique to then let go. In each book I've written, there's one scene that I consider the emotional core of the story. It's usually a scene that gets into the final version with few edits because I'm afraid to touch it and ruin it. It comes to me vividly and I write it in one sitting. I'll get comments on it that nag about little line edits and things to fix, but I also get comments from readers I trust that the scene affects them viscerally. It's total superstition, but I'd rather have that scene raw like that then touch it up.

    Now if I felt like that about all my scenes, the book would be complete jibberish. Maybe part of developing technique is developing that instinct of when to step back.

  5. Victoria Janssen says:

    the alchemy of writing

    I like that phrase a lot. *discreetly steals, puts in pocket*

    Maybe part of developing technique is developing that instinct of when to step back.

    I think that's deeply, deeply true. And not at all easy to learn.

  6. Jeannie Lin says:

    I actually stole "alchemy" from Stacia Kane off a post somewhere. Just to show there's honor among thieves.

  7. Kate Pearce says:

    I think you have to be brave and let yourself really feel the emotions-rip off the band aid and probe the places where you and your characters really don't want you to go. I think it takes courage, because sometimes what you find out isn't what you thought your character was all about.
    Well that's what I do :)

  8. Victoria Janssen says:

    I think you have to be brave and let yourself really feel the emotions-rip off the band aid and probe the places where you and your characters really don't want you to go.

    Yes. Sometimes I don't realize what I've really written about until months later.

  9. Savanna Kougar says:

    Great topic. That COVER is too good. I have to filch it.
    For me, I find it to be a balancing act. I want my writing crafted well enough that the emotions of my heroines and heroes are shown, experienced.
    Technique alone, imo, will only get you so far. Look at that the novel, Love Story. I read the novel and saw the movie. I cried buckets during the movie. The emotion of the novel moved me.
    But all the following knock-offs were hollow, stupid, an emotional rip off. What was that sort of recent one? some on a boat thing by a guy author they made a movie out of… all I can say is ICK… I couldn't get past the first page.
    To be honest, one my big complaints about some romance novels is that the emotions make no sense because the story to back them up isn't there. They're hollow. I don't care how good the rest of the story is, or how trendy, or how well written.
    She's sad. Okay, so what? Why? What brought her to this emotional state? Just talking about it doesn't do it for me. I want to FEEL why, or, at least, know her real memories.
    To the best of my ability, I write what my heroines and heroes are feeling, their true emotions. Yes, my style of writing isn't for everyone. That beig said, I don't MAKE UP what my heroines and heroes are feeling. I'm writing them, their story.
    Okay, which do I want more? Virtual chocolate (virtual emotions) or real chocolate (real emotions) that I'm eating, tasting. Well, honey, it ain't the virtual chocolate.

  10. Victoria Janssen says:

    the emotions make no sense because the story to back them up isn't there.

    So there has to be enough on the page for the reader to feel.

  11. Savanna Kougar says:


    Say the heroine is feeling down, perhaps it's as simple as stating she hates Mondays and it's Monday, then add some color to her emotion… Monday's meant she never got enough sleep, or something way more imaginative…

    Or, she could be feeling down for a much more complex reason. Her mother is arriving in town and she doesn't know how to tell her some deep dark secret… her thoughts, feelings around that secret and having to tell… I think makes the connection, rather than … Jill sighed. Her mother arrived and she couldn't tell her about getting fired… at least, not for the reason she was fired…
    There has to be more detail, more depth than that for me to connect with Jill.

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