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Posted by Priscilla on June 3, 2013

My mother used to say she couldn’t sustain any emotion for more than twenty seconds. My friends—both wife and husband—cried when they said goodbye to their firstborn at college.  Is it true, then, that some people are emotional and some are, well, not? Is it true that some are warm while others are cold?

I think not.

All humans have emotion.  Even sociopaths. Emotions are an essential part of any human decision-making and planning. They are an essential reaction to some form of internal or external stimulus. Because we are homo, man, we experience emotion.  But we are also sapiens, rational. This means that we can experience our emotion through our cognition.

So my theory is that some people mediate emotion through the mind first, while others experience it more directly.

Is one way better than the other?


Not necessarily. Both have drawbacks. Those who touch emotion only when it has passed through the mind can often be surprised by the power of grief or sadness or loss. The emotion can blindside them because they didn’t expect it.  Those who “wear their emotions on their sleeve” can often be blown about from one emotion to the next. Both have strengths as well. I admire the stability of the more cognitive. I admire the potentially deep understanding of those whose emotions are more obvious.

One thing I want to make clear, however:  whichever category we find ourselves in, we all feel.  Most of us feel deeply. The trick is to know ourselves well enough to be able to read those feelings and know what to do with them.

Now.  What does this mean for the writer?

Writing emotions is one of the hardest tasks a writer will face. Our difficulty is that most of us don’t think through our emotions enough to understand them. We don’t grasp from whence they arise. So we are tempted to rationalize our character’s reactions and not include enough emotion, or we are tempted to spill too much emotion without the necessary scaffolding.

To wit: if I write,

Karen burst into tears. She was so angry that her mother talked over her all the time. “You never listen,” she screamed, heaving great sobs between every word.

I am guilty of both sins. I have announced the emotion—too rational, and I have gone overboard. How can I make this better?

Sol Stein, author of How to Grow a Novel (good book, btw), says, ‘in fiction, the supreme function is not to convey emotions but to create them in the reader’ (his italics). A good writer can do that whether he is the rational/super-cognitive type or the spill-his-guts-and-tears type.


1. Identify the emotion you want the reader to feel. In the above example, I want to reader to feel frustrated anger at the mother.

2. Identify what makes you feel frustrated anger. Is it when things don’t go your way? Is it when someone tries to control you? Is it when you are falsely accused?

3. Think back to an actual time when something happened that made you feel frustrated anger: remember and write down what the other person said and did, what you thought, what you felt, how your body reacted inside (did you have pain? Where was it? Did it move?), what kind of words you spoke, what tone you used, what your arms, legs, hands and eyes did, and how the other person reacted to you in that state.

4. Use your own past emotion as a blueprint for writing emotion into your story.

5. Provide the scaffolding:

a) Slow the action down. Emotion arises as a response to an internal or external stimulus. If Karen is angry with her mother, then we need to see and hear her interaction with her mother. We need to become angry at the mother before Karen begins to cry.

b) Use the setting to provoke dis-ease in the reader. Does the mother not pay attention to Karen because she is distracted? Perhaps they could be talking in a room that is full of clashing shapes, patterns, colors, noises and urgencies.

c) Use particulars, especially about what Karen sees, hears, and feels.

6. Write your scene or mini-scene without telling us what emotion Karen is feeling.


What do you think?


Posted by Sarah on
Feel- Focus- Process

Feelings well up from the heart and letting them flow is, in essence, sharing one’s heart; I think this is something that creates connection in one who tends to keep to themselves-or- in those who over-share, chaos. Feelings must be balanced. There are times we are expected to have an emotional reaction and there are times despite expectations we should honor our emotional reactions. Writers can play on this tension of emotion and expectation in our characters.

If emotions are processed through the mind, one can reason and then restrain those emotions. The trade off is not really allowing oneself to feel the emotions (which often fuels the creativity process) or focus on the truth of what one is perceiving (to gain wisdom and understanding) or process that which the emotions have brought to the surface (to grow). I’m growing my protagonist by applying your scaffolding so that the character’s emotions can contend with the thoughts that have dominated my manuscript.

I’ve realized there can be a double blessing: feel emotions and then process them. I’ve been taught emotions are a signpost to be taken in and then processed. I’ve learned they do not need to be spewed or even shared for them to be embraced. Hold the feelings in the heart and let the mind perfect the art of speaking them in due time is the adage I’ll adopt.

Again, thank you for your timely words for musing and the forum to exchange ideas. Your posts have been a source of inspiration for me to dig deeper into the manner of many matters.
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