19 Emotion

Description of character, actions and events is normally something writers find easy to understand, once the basic elements have been explained. However, weaving emotion into your novel, with being able to fall back on TELL (he was sad), is no easy task.

The key to understanding the best way to deal with emotion is to revert back to the principles of Show, Don’t Tell. The fundamental concept of the system, is that if you are able to provide a truth description of a character’s words and actions, this will stimulate an emotion in the reader.

At the most basic level TELLING the reader someone is sad will do nothing, but SHOWING the reader someone is sad, by describing the actions of a sad person, will stimulate a level of sadness in the reader.
If we are able to SHOW the reader an emotion, describing them in a way that triggers their own internal emotions, we are going to produce a far more powerful reading experience than one in which we TELL the reader how to feel.

Deep stuff!

Once again this is the Show, Don’t Tell methodology at work.

Here’s an example:

John cried with sadness.

This is pure TELL. We are TELLING the reader John is sad. This is emotionally sterile. We don’t want to reader to know John is sad we want them to feel his sadness.

Try this example:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body shaking sobs wracked through John’s body, each coming in a wave and with each sob he let out a low whimper.

In this example we SHOW the reader John is sad. We are not TELLING the reader what John is feeling, we describe John’s sadness. In the process we create a narrative space. Since we don’t tell the reader what John is feeling they are forced to try and work it out. It is this narrative space that the reader will fill. They try to match John’s actions with actions they have seen or experienced. In the process they trigger that same emotion within their own mind.

Your job, and perhaps the most difficult part of writing, is to write descriptions of action that are truthful reflections of the way a character would act whilst experiencing a certain emotion. The more truthful your description, the deeper your understanding of human nature, the more powerful your writing will become.
Now imagine this same example at the end of a scene where John has just returned from hospital after identifying his 5-year-old daughter’s body following her death in a car crash!

Hold that imagine in your mind and read the example a second time:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body shaking sobs wracked through John’s body, each coming in a wave and with each sob he let out a low whimper.

Now that’s power – ‘John cried with sadness’ my backside!

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