How to write prose that tugs at the reader’s heart strings
When writing fiction, there’s a good chance that you’re hoping to get the reader to feel something: happy, sad, fearful, panicked, lustful (or, if you’re like me, all of the above). Personally, I get a weird twinge of satisfaction when someone tells me my writing has made them cry.
And no, it’s not because I am a terrible person who wishes to inflict anguish upon my readers. We want our readers to have an emotional reaction in order to develop a stronger connection to the story.
Evoking emotion in writing can be tricky. Unlike in television or film, writers don’t have audio and visual cues telling the audience how to feel (no sweeping orchestra here). A writer has to rely entirely on their words and the imagination of their reader to trigger an emotional response.
1. Empathy is key
When writing to evoke emotion, you’re banking on the reader’s empathy to stir up that particular feeling. Trust your own feelings and use your experiences. While you might not have gone through the same trauma as your protagonist, you have felt joy, anger, and sadness. Use it!
“What comes from the brain, goes to the brain. What comes from the gut, speaks to the gut.”Dereak Murphy, The Creative Indie
The reader is along for the ride with your character. Understand exactly what emotion your character is feeling in a given scene, and strike upon the reader’s empathy.
2. Keep the emotion authentic
For us humans, our emotions are our basic truth. The more realistic, the more relatable.
“Every action has its equal, opposite reaction”Newton’s Third Law (or Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton)
Don’t fail to provide an emotional stimulus (action). Ensure that the reader understands why the character is feeling a certain way (reaction). There should be causation behind every emotional response. It should be earned and genuine, i.e. it should match the weight of the emotional stimulus (equal, opposite).
3. Keep the emotion consistent
Align the character’s emotions with the goals of the scene. If something sad is happening, you probably don’t want to have the character laugh. If someone close to the character is dying in front of them, don’t have them think about what they ate for breakfast.
Similarly, the character’s emotions shouldn’t change on a whim. If the character constantly shifts their feelings, you run the risk of giving your reader emotional whiplash.
*Caveat* Drastic shifts in emotion can create dramatic contrast, i.e. the character is at their happiest just before a tragic event destroys their life, thus sending them to their lowest low. Emotional variety will add depth to your character, but make sure that it makes sense within the context of the scene.
4. Raise the Stakes
The stronger the reader’s familiarity with the stakes of the story, the more emotionally engaged they will be. Increasing tension and elevating the stakes helps to earn empathy points.
Clearly establish character goals and bump up the tension by adding conflict to keep them from achieving their goals. Readers tend to automatically route for the main character. They connect to the actions and choices of the protagonist.
5. Show, don’t tell
Show, don’t tell is an effective writing rule for many reasons, and can not be overstated.
Simply telling a reader “the character felt sad” does very little to convey the true feeling behind the emotion. Physical reactions do a little bit better of a job, i.e. a muffled sob or brushing a tear away. However, the most impactful will be through the internal thoughts and reactions of the character.
Think about it, our emotions tend to live tucked up in our brain noggin. While we do show them through physical expressions, we feel emotions on the inside.
BONUS TIP: It’s easiest to provide a view into the character’s head by using first person point-of-view.
6. Don’t write stage directions
Plays have actors to covey the emotion onstage, and so scripts don’t need to show the emotional response, novels do.
Readers tend to skim when the narrative becomes too description heavy, and description doesn’t only mean the scenery. A blow-by-blow action sequence does little to convey emotion.
The reader needs that peek inside the character’s head, a little context to surround the emotional stimuli, in order to invest their interest into a scene.
You might be writing stage directions if you…
- Neglect to layer in inner reflection of the protagonist.
- Focus too much on the mechanics of movement and blocking.
7. Use pacing to your advantage
Utilizing scene-sequel structure is the principal way to control pacing in a story and can be used purposefully to control emotional resonance.
Some scenes may require more time dedicated to the reflection and processing of the protagonist. Or you might want to pack and emotional punch by keeping things moving fast.
Sentence length and structure can also be used strategically to influence pacing and the emotional response. Brief sentences are quick and active, while longer and lyrical sentences are reflective and contemplative.
8. Use powerful word choice
Try using vivid words that align with the intended emotion and evoke the five senses. By tapping into the reader’s senses, you can better connect them to the story and tug at their empathy.
Keep the reader as close to the story as possible. Get rid of “filter word” i.e. she touched, he saw, they felt, as these words are distancing. The reader should be right there alongside your character.
9. Save the melodrama for the soap operas
Be careful not to lay the emotion on too thick.
This is essentially the opposite of giving stage directions. If you spend too much time reflecting on a specific emotion, you can end up with a slow-moving pace that trudges through the trenches of melodrama.
Often when you over-describe a physical reaction, i.e. laughing hysterically or sobbing uncontrollably, it weakens the impact on the reader.
10. If the characters cry, the readers won’t
Watch a sappy film and ask yourself, is it more emotional to see someone sobbing or to see someone fighting back tears? That little bit of restraint twists the heart strings and is more accessible to the human condition.
We tend to hold back from over-expressing our emotions. We don’t roll on the floor laughing at every joke and we don’t clench our fists and shake every time someone makes us angry.
Especially in a crowd, we tend to not show our vulnerabilities. But we might show our emotions in other ways. For example, if someone is depressed, they might neglect their appearance, they might sleep more than usual, or they might not want to reach out to friends. These subtle notions will lead to a stronger emotional payoff.
Instead of an emotional display, consider adding in body language, an impactful memory, or a reactionary line of dialogue.
A random list of things to keep in mind:
- Don’t stay stuck in the same emotion. Use appropriate emotional stimulus to vary the character’s feelings and prevent the reader from becoming numb.
- What’s interesting to the reader isn’t exactly what the protagonist is feeling, but how they cope and react to the emotion and situation that is causing it.
- The Emotional Thesaurus is a great resource for understanding emotional reactions and pinpointing how to convey them in writing.
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