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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Emotion Behind Story

by Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL
 ©Stina Lindenblatt

Story isn’t about plot. It’s about emotion. It’s the element that leaves your body tingling in fear or anticipation for what will happen next, and what readers want from the first page to the end. But how do you bring in emotion to add maximum power to your story? 

Universal Theme

Universal theme will help your readers connect to the characters and emotions in the story. These are themes that everyone can relate to, even if they can’t relate to the specific circumstances of the story.  For example, how many of you know what it feels like to have the mob kill your family? None of you, I hope. Now, what if you wrote a story about how your protagonist’s best friend tells her uncle, who happens to be the Godfather of the local crime family, that she suspects the friend is the estranged daughter of the family he’s been salivating to kill, after her father turned state evidence on his former boss? Depending on how you set up the story, you can choose to focus on the universal theme of betrayal. At one point in our lives, we’ve all experienced the feeling of being betrayed. Now we can relate to the character and the emotion of the story, even though we have never, thankfully, gone through the same experience.

Character Wounds

Another word for character wound is backstory. This is where you create the most painful past possible for your character, and let it guide your character’s actions. The type and depth of wound will be dependent on genre. The wound then plays a part in determining your character’s fears, and it is the wound and fears that make the character vulnerable. Since he doesn’t want people to know his vulnerability (especially the antagonist), he creates a persona that protects him from being hurt. For example, you could have a character who lost his parents due to an accident and is bounced around the foster care system. He ends up in the worst of homes, where the foster parents only care about the money. He’s neglected and abused. He learns not to trust adults, and because he’s bounced around so much, he learns not to develop attachments to other people. He becomes the bad-boy loner, complete with tattoos. Inside, he’s still the caring individual he was before his parents died, but he refuses to let people get close enough to discover this. That is, until he finds the right girl. 

Naturally, you would not dump this information on the first page. Write the backstory down in a separate file, and fit slivers of it into your story. Start with the small stuff, hinting of the possible wound, and as the story progresses, hit your reader with the most emotional, gut wrenching parts of your protagonist’s past. Your reader will keep turning the page, because she wants to find out what really happened X number of years ago. It’s a great way to build emotional suspense. 

Showing verses Telling

The first thing you want to avoid when writing emotion is telling.

“Go away,” he said angrily. 

In the above sentence, the writer is telling the reader that the character is angry. We don’t get to experience his anger. You can switch ‘said angrily’ for yelled, but there’s a stronger way to show emotion.

He gripped the ends of the armrests and took a long, slow breath. “Go. Away.” The two simple words, meaningless on their own, held a dangerous edge when spoken without his usual warmth. He could only hope that Lydia was smart enough to understand what he was really telling her. She was a b**** and a traitor, and he would rather spend eternity in hell than spend another minute listening to her heartbreaking lies.
In the first example, you learn nothing about the character. By showing the emotion through action, dialogue, inner thoughts, visceral reaction, setting (more about this in a moment), you reveal characterization. One character might scream and hurl breakable objects at the wall when he is angry. Another character might speak in a calm yet deadly tone, and reveal his anger through body language, like in the second example. Same emotion. Two different ways to show it.

Go Deep

Words are powerful, but only if you pick the right ones.  Use words in an unexpected way to add emotion to the sentence. These are typically your theme words or scene-related ones (i.e. if your scene deals with death, your power words would be related to death).  For example, ‘He watched the light bleed slowly out of day . . . . ‘ (Whispers by Dean Koontz). Notice the difference, emotion wise, between that and ‘He watched the daylight fade . . . .’ The former sentence was created to give you the shivers. Try this trick to add dimension and emotion to your setting. 

Use words to show a shift in emotion and mood in the scene. The scene could start off with words like ‘skip, sunshine, rose-scented’, but as the mood and emotion change, you weave in words like ‘trudge, stench of rotting corpses, spiraling down’. For the most impact, figure out what emotions you want to show in the scene, brainstorm verbs and nouns that best convey them, then slip them in as needed. This is a great way to add imagery to your writing. 

Study Study Study

The best way to learn how to put emotion in your story is to study your favorite novels (or short stories, if you write them). Pick ones similar to what you want to write. For example, if you want to write a tear jerker, then that’s what you should study. Rip them apart and examine how the author approached the above elements. Then apply what you learned to your WIP. I’ll be talking more about analyzing stories in an upcoming post. 

Do you make sure that your story is rich with emotion before you write the first draft and while editing?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes young adult and new adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog.  


Heather Marsten said...

excellent article on showing emotion. I'm still learning to effectively do this. Will keep this article in my file to refer to in the future.

Mart Ramirez said...

Another awesome post!

Kittie Howard said...

I devoured this post. So much there. I'm still learning to express emotion. I'm basically a shy person.

Unknown said...

This is great help. Thank you.