Monthly Archives: July 2024

How to use emotion in stories.

Generating emotion in readers and audiences.
Generating emotion in readers and audiences.

Emotion can make or break your story. Robert Frost, highlighting the importance of emotion, famously said: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.” This is a phrase that bears much repeating.

Although Frost was referencing a specific feeling—sadness, it applies to the range of emotions solicited by great writing – compassion, awe, elation, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and the like.

Stories that evoke a range of emotions, emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience, catapult the reader or audience into the story through identification, sympathy and empathy.

Accomplished writers understand that novels and screenplays that take advantage of this are difficult to ignore. The reader or audience is compelled to keep turning the pages or watching the screen in order to discover how those emotions play out.

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Animals, in particular, generate deep feelings in us—love, joy, despair and the like.

In setting up a scene to deliver compelling emotion it is important to have established the context, the backstory elements, that will allow the emotion to be unleashed.
Who can forget the anguished cry of devastation that Perry utters in Dead Poet’s Society, upon discovering that his son, Neil, has shot himself. We are reminded of his suppressing of his son’s desire to be an actor, and this provides the context for the scene. His son’s suicide has unleashed devastating pain, guilt, and regret in Perry.

Feelings of loyalty and appreciation are generated when Keating’s students risk being expelled by the conformist principal, stand on their desks, and proudly declare: “Oh, Captain my Captain!”

The context here is Keating having told his students how to address him in an earlier scene, and how to adopt different points of view by seeing things from a more ‘areal’ perspective. Addressing him as ‘my Captain’ affirms that, for some of the students at least, Keating’s influence has had a lasting impact on their lives, and will remain their ‘captain’ forever.

As a further example, consider this passage, taken from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, in which a character, Violet, tries to come to terms with the death of her beloved dog, Carey. Instead of the writer describing Violet’s feelings of sadness directly, she lets us experience these emotions vicariously through the of show-don’t-tell technique:

“When the vet had gone, Violet knelt down on the worn rug beside Carey’s basket. His was still, his mouth slightly open, one ear bent over like a rose petal, revealing the pink skin inside. He smelt a little. Nothing bad, just the way you’d expect an old dog to smell. […]

The detail revealed in words and phrases such as ‘mouth slightly open’, one ear bent over like a rise petal’ and ‘old dog’ serve to increase our felt experience of the moment.

The story continues:

In the end, she […] went to run a bath. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. She’d always believed that. When the bath was full, she went back to Carey, gathered him in her arms, and gently, carefully, lowered the stiff little body into the warm water. It was, she reflected, the first time that he hadn’t struggled.”

That last line in particular is a real tear-jerker, summing up all the years of love the Violet has felt for her dog in one heart-breaking moment.

We note that there is no abstract description of the character’s sorrow, her sense of loss. Instead the writer deploys a show-don’t-tell technique to have us experience the event viscerally, in close-up as it were. This gives us direct access to Violet’s emotions, and perhaps reminds us of a time when we too lost a beloved pet, making the character’s loss, our loss.


Use visceral emotion, steeped in context and backstory, to draw readers and audiences into your stories.

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