Emotions Bind Us to Stories

EmotionsROBERT Frost, highlighting the importance of emotions, famously wrote: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.”

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

The Importance of Emotions

Stories that evoke a range of emotions – emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience – bind the reader to the characters of a story by soliciting identification, sympathy, and empathy in the reader.

Accomplished writers understand that such novels and screenplays are difficult to put down. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages in order to discover how those emotions play out.

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Consider the following 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 technique of show-don’t-tell:

“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. […]

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 genuine tear-jerker, compacting all the years of love for her dog in one distinguishing moment.

Significantly, there is no abstract description of Violet’s sadness, her sense of loss. What we have instead is a concrete and specific scene that conveys immediacy by granting us access to Violet’s direct experience. Our hearts and minds jump back to a time when we, perhaps, had lost a beloved pet, helping to make Violet’s loss our loss.

This technique lies at the heart of creating deep and genuine emotion in the reader and is one of the secrets in welding the reader to the characters in our stories.


Use emotions to bind readers to the characters in your stories.

2 thoughts on “Emotions Bind Us to Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    I get it , it’s the small jesters that spell out the big emotions. In Victor Hugo’s original novel of The Hunchback of Notre dame the protagonist ( Quasimodo) witness the burning ceremony of his new found friend(Esmeralda) for her crimes of witchcraft. The final image is grim and dark as it describes how Quasimodo’s skeleton intersects with the skeleton of Esmeralda on the very spot where she was burned before Quasimodo starved to death. ( There souls bonded for all eternity – Thank God Disney got the rights and wrote a much better ending.)

    In Film American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old advertising executive who has a midlife crisis. Throughout the film Lester is tagged as a loser by his wife. In the Climax Lester’s wife is ready to kill him only to find that Lester is already dead. The final scene of Lester’s wife is especially powerful as she hides what would have been the murder weapon and starts crying uncontrollably as she presses herself against her dead husbands clothing. It’s moving because it’s a realization of what has been lost and what could have been.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      True, Gerhard. Although I’m not sure there was much wrong with the original ending in your first example!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *