Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aspiring Advice: Evoking Emotion

Last week, I brought up some thoughts on scenes that "hold fast," or rather, scenes that aren't easy to forget and how to go about making your own. The open-ended question received some great responses and "emotion" popped up the most. I sincerely agree. Emotion is something that I often associate with "character." I may be on left field here, but for me, emotion is (for a better sense of the word) a sensitive subject. When I browse books or DVDs, I occasionally read this little descriptive phrase in one form or another - "filled with (honest) emotion." This makes me shrug. I then say, "okay," and put it back on the shelf. Every story should have elements that make your audience feel emotion. Anything that goes out of its way to tell you something is full of emotion is only trying to sell you something.

(warning: "filled with emotion" may kill query letters)

My personal thought on the matter is that stories are not full of emotion. The audience is. It's the writer's job to fill their story with the right elements to draw in its audience and effectively evoke their emotions. Do that and people will reflect on the story and remember it.

Something else to keep in mind is that emotion is a vast ocean. Millions of people can watch the same movie or read the same book and get something different out of it. Someone will love what is generally disliked and someone will always hate what is generally admired. The Bell-Shaped Curve. It applies to everything. For example, one of my favorite shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender was brought up in last week's comments, about how a particular scene moved them and brought them closer to that character. I love the show, but for me, that instance was filler and the character deviated from her established arc in a way that deterred from advancing the plot. Again, that's just me. If that scene evoked strong emotion from someone, it did its job. I look forward to Legend of Korra in the near future.

Now, about evoking emotion. How do you do that? The first step I use is giving the reader a scene where they are immersed, using whichever of the five senses that will work best. Then, I give my characters a situation, a response and consequences (more importantly, I give them a history before I write the book, which then gives me insight into how the character will react in a given situation). Paramount to all else is giving your character weaknesses. We all have them. Weaknesses help us relate. Admitting one's weaknesses opens a lot of doors and makes us care about them more. A small dash of the unexpected (Luke's chopped hand/Joker's pencil trick) also makes for a delectable, memorable brew.

The rest is application, something to be practiced rather than taught, but I can suggest that you move your scene along and not get too hung up on the details. 

I'm currently writing a scene for my WiP that moved me in a very unexpected way. I'll admit it--I shed a tear. What made the scene so moving was the culmination of two characters, realizing what's important to them after 200 pages of growth and development. No. It was not a kissing scene. This isn't a kissing book--for the most part--but it made me cry. That's saying something.

Even us tough guys have feelings too, you know?

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Click here for an older post on the intensity of feelings. 

How do you like to evoke emotion from your audience?

I'm David, and it's--sniff--kinda emotional in here.


  1. LOL! Kinda emotional here? Like you, I see emotion with character, and it can be very subtle or in your face. It depends on the character. If a character is shy or timid, this will be shown in their actions, dialogue, and how they face certain conflicts in the book.

    If a character is outgoing, they will respond to challenges and conflicts in a different way - most likely in an all guns blazing kind of way.

    However, our job as the writer is to ensure that whatever personality traits our characters have, they still struggle with that conflict, and it isn't solved easily. That's what makes it interesting, right?

    Emotion can be shown with body language and dialogue, and these are often the best ways to do it. Not easy, but it sure makes a novel and character stand out.

  2. I'm really trying here (this could be my fuzzy, medicated head!) to say something original and thought-provoking, but all I can think is that you've said it all already and yes, I agree with you!
    (And I'm not sure I've ever consciously tried to write something with the purpose of evoking emotion... I just put my hands on my keyboard and stuff comes out!)

  3. This idea that the key emotional scene has to be followed by kissing is slowly denting my wall with how many books are being thrown at it. I'm not sorry for saying it, but not every book has to be a kissing book (now I really want to go watch the Princess Bride).

    Great selection with the video too.

  4. "My personal thought on the matter is that stories are not full of emotion. The audience is. It's the writer's job to fill their story with the right elements to draw in its audience and effectively evoke their emotions. Do that and people will reflect on the story and remember it."

    Brilliant! Great post, David.

  5. Excellent post, and I definitely agree with you on the ways to invoke emotion.

    It's interesting the way people interpret something all different ways, even though it's the same scene.

  6. Love this post! As an extension of the whole "weakness" point, it's important to let characters fail. Failure, or at least how characters react to and deal with it, develops characters and can really encourage readers to connect. And besides, thinking in simplest terms, your MC only hast to succeed once.

  7. Excellent post. I don't have much to add except that, like you, I try to make sure that the characters stay true to themselves. Even in a highly emotional moment, you may have a character that will hardly react to it outwardly at all.

  8. Great post dude. You're getting so many followers and becoming such a great source for writing advice with your blog. Great work!

  9. You're so right. It's how the reader interprets your story and uses their own experiences and emotions to feel the way they do about the book. That's why they always say this business is so subjective. Agents and readers alike will interpret your story in so many different ways.

    And as far as our own emotions shaping our writing- that's a big part too. I wrote a scene in which one of the main character's brother dies while she's watching, powerless to do anything. I actually cried. Not because he died (he was a douche) but because of what she felt losing her brother. Because I thought of how I'd feel watching my own sister die.

  10. I loved this post.
    I agree that every reader brings their own perspectives and emotions into the mix, and that is one of the most exciting things about writing.
    As the author, we give the audience the tools to tap into their own wellspring of emotion and decide how something does (or doesn't) speak to them. Brilliant!

  11. I love giving my characters history which affects how they'll react, and something that will allow the readers to understand them, hopefully evoking emotion. Awesome post! :D

  12. This is really great advice. I think a lot of evoking emotions comes from the old, show don't tell advice. You can tell your audience that a character feels a certain way but showing them through their actions is usually much more powerful.

  13. Sweet! I'm completely blown away by all of your responses and comments. Maybe I'm not the only one in left field when it comes to emotion after all! Thank you, everyone! :)