People sometimes talk about emotion in fiction like it’s some discrete quantity you can just dial up in your prose—like perhaps if your novel is too plot-heavy, or too cerebral, you can just turn a few knobs here and there and wind up with an emotionally affecting story.
The most obvious indicators of emotion are found in scene, so this is where newer writers tend to focus in their quest, interlarding their scenes with the body language associated with emotion—the pounding hearts, the sweaty hands, the chills up the spine—along with overt statements of emotion (“walking into the meeting, he felt nervous”) and a preponderance of adverbs (“she snarled angrily”).
The body language of emotion is important—and certainly, there are times when overt statements of emotion are called for. And personally speaking, I’m not in the “no adverbs” camp (though I do think they tend to backfire in the hands of less experienced writers). But these are just the most obvious techniques for generating emotion in fiction, and relying too heavily on them tends to have the opposite of the intended effect, coming across as cartoonish, exaggerated, forced.
There are techniques that are subtler, less obvious, and they work best in tandem with one another. Because the truth is, emotion is an emergent property of fiction, a sort of alchemical magic generated by the synergy between multiple elements of the story; to create it in your fiction, you need to approach the challenge from more than one angle.
1. What’s at stake?
When we talk about what’s at stake in a story, we’re talking about what the protagonist stands to gain or lose, and in stories with strong emotions, both of these possibilities hold a real emotional charge for that character.
What does your protagonist stand to gain if they achieve their goal? If it’s a large sum of money, for example, that goal will have more emotional stakes if the protagonist is on the verge of dropping out of college because she can barely afford her tuition.
And if failing to achieve that goal means not only losing that large sum of money, it means losing her scholarship to her dream college, the one her folks were so proud she got into? So much the better.
When you up the stakes in your story, you dial up the emotions involved.
2. How close is the relationship?
Interpersonal conflicts are one of the hallmarks of effective fiction. But conflicts with friends matter more than conflicts with strangers; conflicts with close friends matter more than conflicts with acquaintances; and conflicts with family members tend to matter most of all.
If you find yourself struggling with how to strengthen the emotional quotient of your story, take a look at the primary relationships in it. Is there a way you can make one or more of those relationships closer?
Sometimes it’s just a matter of making a friend an old friend—one who was there for the protagonist at one of the toughest moments of her life. Maybe the neighbor lady, the one who’s dying of cancer, is actually the nanny who helped to raise the protagonist. And maybe that conversation with the old man in the park should actually be a conversation with the protagonist’s dad.
When the relationships are closer, the emotions involved tend to be stronger.
3. What’s the backstory?
Backstory is a big part of the emotional power conflicts hold in a story, because it’s a big part of what those conflicts mean for the characters going through them. Backstory also helps the reader put herself in the character’s place, giving her the background info necessary to understand and sympathize with those strong emotions.
For instance: A conflict between a mother and her teen daughter will be more powerful if the mother had strong conflicts with her own mother as a girl. A conflict between two brothers will be more powerful if one of them has always dominated the other. And a conflict between two friends over a new love interest will hold a lot more charge if the one who’s fallen in love has a history of falling for abusive men.
For any given scenario, an emotionally charged backstory will increase the emotional quotient—so a key strategy for generating the sort of emotion you’re looking for in any given scene or conflict is to first set up the backstory to support it.
4. What does the character say?
Scene is the place where the emotions of the novel are at their strongest, but as I noted at the outset of this post, newer writers tend to rely too much on the most obvious markers of emotion here, which tends to make those emotions feel forced.
The stronger strategy with scene is to sharpen up the dialogue until the words themselves carry the charge of strong emotion, without the author having to employ a whole lot in the way of stage effects, so to speak, to alert us to the fact that the characters are feeling things.
A useful technique in this regard is to strip the scene down to just its dialogue. Can you tell what the characters are supposed to be feeling? And can you tell where the emotions shift?
If so, you can rely on that dialogue to do a lot of the heavy lifting, in terms of carrying the emotions, in a way that will be largely invisible to the reader.
5. What does the character do?
A character who’s paralyzed with fear over the revelation by a family member of some long-buried secret might find herself suddenly making a wrong turn on her familiar commute to work.
A character overwhelmed with jealousy at the revelation of his best friend’s upcoming nuptials might find himself at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon on a Tuesday night.
A character whose parents have just announced they’re getting divorced might immediately book a flight home to try to talk them out of it.
As writers, it can be tempting to wax eloquent for paragraphs of summary that detail exactly what the character is feeling and why. But in keeping with the old adage “show, don’t tell,” there’s often more power in just having the character show us what they’re feeling by actually doing something.
6. What are they thinking?
Finally, one of the tools I consider most central to emotion in fiction is one I think a lot of newer writers overlook, and that’s what the character is actually thinking.
Think of your actual experience of emotion, in real life. If body language is the first thing that tells us what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking tends to come next. As in “Suddenly, my face felt flushed. Why were all of these people looking at me? What had I done wrong?”
Compare that to a more overt statement of emotion: “Suddenly, my face felt flushed. I was nervous I’d done something wrong.” Not only is the POV closer in the first example, the emotion feels more vivid and real.
None of the techniques I’ve detailed here will, in and of itself, generate emotion in a story. None of these techniques will, in and of itself, cause the reader to bite her knuckle, lean forward, and maybe even feel some unexpected wetness in her eyes.
But taken together, these techniques can do just that—and that, you’ll have to admit, is magical indeed.