Have you ever had that happen to you? You’re going along, calmly minding your own business when *ding* you get an email or text message from your friend or relative. You grin, humming the tune to “You’ve Got Mail,” and click on the message.

HELLO!!!!! HOW ARE YOU?????!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 😛 😉

The rest of the email/message continues in like fashion, written in all caps and punctuated liberally with enthusiastic emojis (just in case you missed the gist of their response the first time). If you’re like me, the immediate response is to cover your mental ears and shut the email immediately. I MEAN, NO ONE WANTS TO FEEL LIKE THEY’RE GETTING SHOUTED AT, RIGHT?

Right. That includes readers. But I can’t tell you how many books I’ve edited (or, worse yet, read) that subject their readers to emotional whiplash, conveying the depths of human emotion with the subtlety of a jackhammer (or your friend conversing in all caps or emojis). They seem to subscribe to the Winston Churchill philosophy of communication: “Hit it once, hit it twice, and then a third time, a great whack!”

While that might work well when making inspirational speeches, readers demand much more subtlety from their fiction.

I get it. Writing emotion is HARD. (See what I did there?) It’s a delicate balancing act that is extremely subjective and notoriously complicated to pull off, because–wait for it–people are complicated. And human relationships are even more complicated. 

So, here’s your first order of business. Let your characters’ emotions be complicated. People are rarely just angry, or just sad, or just happy. They can be both angry and hurt, both happy at a new relationship and sad about old ones that will change as a result. Overly simplistic and one-dimensional emotions do your characters a great disservice.

But even though emotions are complicated things, just like people and relationships, your character’s emotions should also make sense. If you haven’t set up a compelling reason for your character to feel a certain emotion, just telling your reader that they’re angry won’t cut it. A reader must be able to identify with your character’s emotion. If they can’t identify with the character’s emotions, they won’t identify with your character. And that’s one step closer to them shutting the book.

Just as people’s emotions are very different, so are the ways different people express their emotions. Some people grieve by throwing themselves into activities or shopping sprees in a desperate attempt to forget. Others withdraw into themselves, becoming a bit of a hermit until they can work through the emotions on their own. Some personalities find it very easy to set aside their emotions to get a job done, while others find it practically impossible.

The best way to convey emotion in fiction is through dialogue subtext and body language, sometimes called action “beats.” 

After all, your friends and family don’t go around saying, “I’m so sad” or with angsty thought bubbles, but you still know when they’re upset. How? Their behaviors change, in different degrees of subtlety. I love writing body language (more on that in another post) because studies show that 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. This means that you can convey your character’s emotions, and make the reader mirror their emotions, without the reader ever realizing you’re doing it.

Note also that I said “dialogue subtext.” Some authors are intimidated by subtext, since it’s a combination of tone, word choice, and character actions, but it’s really not that complicated. Subtext is simply when someone means something different or deeper than what the words communicate at face value. Think about your grandmother’s “grandchildren” guilt trips and you get the idea.

Sometimes beginning writers try to communicate emotion through dialogue directly, and without fail it turns out teen-angsty or heavy-handed.

When writing emotion in fiction, as when shopping for lingerie, subtlety is key and less is always more.

Beware of the amateurish tendency to over-compensate by throwing all the emotions at the screen and hoping something sticks. This results in a character that is up and down from one paragraph or chapter to the next, overly dramatic and reactive. This, in effect, gives your reader emotional whiplash. If a reader doesn’t know what to feel, or is having trouble following your characters’ mood swings, they will emotionally disengage and eventually put down your book. And that’s the last thing we want!

The key to fixing this issue is consistency. Make sure your character’s emotional reaction is a) consistent with their personality, b) consistent with their career and personal experience, c) consistent with the depth of the incident or offense, and d) consistent throughout the course of your book. If your character hits the roof upon being served Mac ‘N Cheese (which they hate) in the first scene, and takes it in stride in scene 8, there’d better be a very good reason for it.

Emotion are complicated. People are complicated. And writing both can seem impossibly complicated at times. It’s a balancing act that you’re never quite sure you got right.

But on the times you do–when your reader writes you a letter saying they laughed and cried through the whole thing–it’s worth the extra effort to convey emotion in an authentic, genuine, and realistic way.

What are the challenges you’ve encountered when writing emotional scenes in fiction? Share what you’ve learned and your success stories! 

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