Robert Frost, highlighting the importance of emotion, 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.
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.
“Emotion can make or break your story, if poorly rendered.”
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 emotion to bind readers and audiences to the characters in your stories.