Emotion and Story Engagement

EmotionAS my mentor, the veteran South African filmmaker Elmo De Witt used to say, if we don’t feel emotion for our characters then we won’t care about their stories.

And if we don’t care about their stories we won’t care about the ideas behind them.

It is as simple and as complex as that.

Simple, because once we come to feel for the characters we will come to care about their fate and its meaning. Complex, because it takes great skill to find the words to make it so.

“The point is that emotion prises us open like an oyster. It shines a light on ignorance and prejudice. It discovers that precious and timeless wisdom residing inside the most shuttered heart.”

Primarily interested in communicating lofty, existential, philosophical concepts about the nature of reality and the human condition? Go write for a philosophy or psychology journal. Don’t focus solely on making your characters vehicles for conveying ideas. If you do, be prepared to have diminished success.

The Primacy of Emotion

Emotion that supports profound insight, however, makes a story unforgettable. Consider the following passages:

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.”
― Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not

“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Moving, insightful, stuff and a reminder to writers that insight and emotion go hand in hand.


Use emotion to force your readers and audiences to care about characters and ideas.

4 thoughts on “Emotion and Story Engagement

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    I get it. Emotion is what defines the human experience. That’s what stories are , aren’t they – they are metaphor for the human experience.

    The South African film Jerusalem by Ralph Ziman is very powerful when we see the hero’s mother emotional reaction as he comes home with groceries for his children. She knows that her son is a criminal , but what else can she do? . Criminals are people to. We all have to put bread on the table , however does this justify criminal actions?

    In Disney’s Zootopia the very clear message of social tension among pray and predators is synonymous with our own situation. However this clear emotional message of accepting those who are different from yourself borders on the line of preaching , making the film a emotional main field.

    Summary : It’s important to have emotion in your story to get your message across. However be careful not to preach.

  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Which reminds me of that famous Robert Frost quotation, Stephen: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

  3. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Oh, yes – Stavros. I’m with you all the way. I sometimes cry – or laugh – when I write. A few days ago, my wife asked me why I was so teary, and I mentioned that one of my characters was having such a tough time.
    And I really appreciate your examples here.


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