6 Tips to Write Deeply Emotional Fiction

6 Tips to Write Deeply Emotional Fiction

In the tumultuous sea of storytelling, where the tides of emotion ebb and flow, writers get to discover the profound art of learning how to write deeply emotional fiction. Emotions are the vibrant threads that weave a connection between characters’ souls and readers’ hearts. To navigate this intricate terrain, let us uncover six tools to infuse your fiction with an emotional resonance that lingers.

Every once in a while I share a post that elicits an unusual number of heartfelt personal emails from readers. A post from last October—“‘There and Back Again’: The Lord of the Rings and the Power of Despair in Fiction“—was one of those posts. In it, I shared my own powerful and deeply personal connection with this beloved classic and was honored to hear from so many of you who had experienced something similar either with Lord of the Rings or with another equally important story. Amongst those emails was the common query, “How do I write those deep emotions in my own fiction?”

Lev Vellene wrote:

I would like to ask you this one thing about your recent blog-post about despair vs hope, (and you already pointed to some ways of not doing it the wrong way, anyway!): How can any of us who never really experienced personal despair describe, or transcribe, that to others? I went there in my own way long ago, and being male, I never (of course!) talked about it (naturally… 😉). But that was my subjective experience, after all. Do you feel there is a common feeling of human decency that we will all tap into, when we read moving novels/stories?

In response to this question, I initially posted a short video on YouTube, talking about the subjectivity of writing with emotion:

However, I received the question from so many of you that I decided I would offer a full post, digging into some tools and methodologies that can help writers tap a deeper emotional level in their stories.

The Challenge of Learning How to Write Emotional Fiction

But first, why write emotional fiction?

The short answer is simply that fiction is inherently emotional. Even when that emotion is just a feeling of baseline satisfaction, audiences want to feel something. Indeed, back in the olden days, plays originated specifically as a way to create a remedial experience of catharsis in viewers. This means stories are designed to help us feel our feelings. For most of us, when we think of the stories that have most powerfully impacted our lives, it is the emotional experiences they gave us that make them so memorable and meaningful.

As writers, it behooves us to ask these questions about how we can create stories with the potential to emotionally impact our audiences. But, as the questions themselves indicate, this isn’t always an easy proposition.

The kernel of truth at the heart of the common bit of writing advice to “only write what you know” really comes down to “only write your emotional truth.” But the very power of emotions means they are not always easy to write about, much less access. Only recently has modern recognition of the dangers of repressing emotions become prevalent, which means many of us have had to do a little work in order to write authentically even about our own experiences. Even amongst those writers who are emotionally savvy, learning to translate those feelings into drama requires technical mastery.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

The good news is that because fiction is an inherently emotional experience, it is well-suited to helping us access and process the very emotions we’re seeking to convey in our stories. As someone who has had to do her own share of emotional un-repressing, I recognize that my lifelong love of stories has certainly been influenced by their cathartic power to help me feel things in a safe container. For both readers and writers, stories offer the scientifically proven opportunity to expand the nervous system’s capacity to feel and process emotion—and, by extension, to experience life more expansively.

6 Tips, Tools, and Methodologies to Help You Write Deeply Emotional Fiction

Writing emotional fiction is both an art and a science, requiring a delicate balance of authenticity and technique. In the following exploration, we will uncover six tips, tools, and methodologies to guide you in crafting fiction that transcends mere words to touch the very soul of your audience.

1. Cultivate Your Own Emotional Intelligence

It all starts here. You can’t write what you can’t feel. I titled my LOTR post “There and Back Again” for a reason. This first tip is the “going there” part. For starters, we can, of course, use the act of writing our fiction to discover our feelings. But we can also go much deeper, and the deeper we go, the better our fiction has the opportunity to become.

I did not start out as an emotionally intelligent person. Just the opposite. It was a point of pride up through my 20s that I never cried. Then life happened, thirty years of repressed emotions exploded out of my shadow, and I turned into Aunt Bea crying at the drop of a hat (Opie: “It’s the roast. She looked right at it and cried.”). I had to take a crash course in emotional intelligence—one I highly recommend to anyone creating art.

For me, one of the biggest revelations was that emotions are something that happen in the body. I’d always sort of imagined them as ephemerae floating around my head somewhere, rather than as physical sensations (which shows you how disconnected I was). Indeed, one of the reasons we often don’t want to feel our feelings is because they literally hurt in the body. When we talk about being willing to feel our feelings, we’re talking about feeling tension trapped in the body which can only be released when we are willing to feel it.

One of the easiest ways to do this is “body scanning.” When you sit down to write an emotional scene, take a moment to close your eyes and scan your body from head to toe, noticing and naming any sensations you feel. You aren’t necessarily looking for emotions; rather, you’re trying to raise consciousness around physical sensations. If you’re cut off from emotions, it’s because you’re cut off from your body. The act of vocally naming sensations helps promote a mind-body neural connection that makes it easier and easier to raise real-time emotional awareness. This process might sound something like this, “I feel cold in my toes, tingling in my knees, lots of energy in my belly, tension in my spine, lightness in my chest, pressure in the crown of my head.” Don’t worry if you don’t have exactly the right words, since the whole point of the process is to familiarize yourself with sensations that may feel very unfamiliar.

From there, you can move on to other exercises, such as the one I often talk about as embodying emotions. Imagine yourself feeling a certain emotion. Or imagine the emotion you know your character needs to feel in today’s scene. How and where in your body does this show up for you? think of it as research. When you “tell” readers your character is angry, how might you “show” them instead by describing how this emotion shows up for you as physical sensations?

Another useful exercise is that of emotional pendulating. This is particularly useful when you encounter a difficult or traumatic emotion that is too painful to stay with for very long. You can grow your capacity to handle the difficult emotion in a safe way by feeling into it as deeply as is comfortable, then pendulating out of that state into one that feels pleasurable or safe. For example, if you need to tap your character’s grief but it feels too overwhelming, stay in it for as long as you can, then pendulate into joy or gratitude or excitement. If you’re working through your own difficult emotions, this should be done with care and, if necessary, in the presence of people who can support you. As you get comfortable with the practice, it becomes an incredible tool for accessing your characters’ emotions whenever you need to.

2. Move Beyond a Mental Approach to Writing Emotions

Some people’s challenge with emotions is that they’ve habituated themselves into stuffing them away, so they feel nothing—in which case it can be difficult to tap those emotions on command when you need to write about them. Other people’s challenge may be that they can’t shut the emotions off—they feel everything and feel it too strongly to bear—in which case it can be difficult to control how those emotions show up in their writing.

The key is to make sure that, as a creative, your approach to emotions accesses the full trifecta of your intelligence centers: mind, heart, and body.

For those of us who are heavily mind-identified, the challenge can be that we tend to write mechanically about emotions. We mentally understand what it is to feel love or grief or joy or anger, but we aren’t actually feeling. We’re just thinking about what it feels like. There is a visceral difference, and readers will notice.

Equally, however, those who are comfortable with feeling all the feels in their heart centers may find it difficult to shift out of the drama of all that emotion into a rational space that allows them to carefully craft the emotional experience that should be showing up on the page.

and-the-Writing-Life.jpg?resize=175%2C255&ssl=1″ alt=”Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life” width=”175″ height=”255″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/Write-Away-One-Novelist’s-Approach-to-Fiction-and-the-Writing-Life.jpg?w=237&ssl=1 237w, https://i0.wp.com/www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/Write-Away-One-Novelist’s-Approach-to-Fiction-and-the-Writing-Life.jpg?resize=205%2C300&ssl=1 205w” sizes=”(max-width: 175px) 100vw, 175px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />

Write Away by Elizabeth George

To write deeply emotional fiction, we have to be able to access the wisdom of both mind and heart—and the best medium between the two is the body. Even back at my most emotionally unintelligent, I always knew I could identify my best story ideas by how viscerally my body responded to them. In Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George speaks to her own experience with this:

Writing is not only an intellectual endeavor for me, it’s also very much a physical one. When I’m onto the right story, the right location, the right situation, the right theme, my body tells me. I feel a surge of excitement in my solar plexus that literally sends the message Yes yes yes! to my brain.

3. Examine Your Story Idea for Pertinent Emotions

Emotions should never be copy/pasted into a story. The most resonant stories are those that create their own emotions. Most of the time, we will begin a story with an idea about character or plot or theme, and pertinent emotions can arise from there. Occasionally, we may start with an emotion (e.g., “I want to write a story about grief” or “I want to write a story about falling in love”). In those cases, it is imperative we shift into the mental space long enough to carefully choose and craft plots and characters who would naturally generate these emotions.

In order for readers to feel what your characters are feeling, the emotions must arise naturally. Simply telling readers that a character is “sad” or “madly in love” will never achieve the desired effect. For emotions to be powerful, they can never be on the nose. This is why I have often used the personal mantra “never name an emotion.” This isn’t meant to be taken literally; sometimes you have to call out what a character is feeling. But naming an emotion should be a last resort. Instead, your character’s emotions should be deeply and achingly obvious from the context of their actions and the subtext of their reactions.

More than that, it is important to remember that, in real life, emotions are almost inevitably quite complicated. The more (realistically) complex a character’s emotions, the more layers are available for readers to work through. Some of the most complex emotional opportunities in fiction arise from complicated consequences generated by the characters’ own choices.

4. Mine Your Own Subjective Emotional Experiences

At the top of the post, I quoted a question about whether or not a writer’s subjective emotional experiences can translate into a shared universal experience with readers. The answer, simply, is yes. This is because emotions are not subjective. They are objective in their universal applicability to everyone. We all have the capacity to experience the full range of human emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Subjectivity only emerges in the story’s specifics of what prompts these emotions for the characters.

In my post about Lord of the Rings, I spoke about how deeply it touched me and helped me work through feelings of despair. Despair (like hope) is an objective, universal emotion. You and I can feel it just as much as Frodo and Sam. The subjectivity of Tolkien’s story—in which despair is evoked by the Ring’s apocalyptic powers and the characters’ struggles against orcs, trolls, and sorcerers—isn’t something I experience in my life or can relate to. But that doesn’t stop me, and millions of others, from being able to apply the underlying emotion to events that are specific to us.

This is the magic of fiction. We are transported into worlds that look nothing like ours and entertained by characters who do things we would never do, and yet we are still able to feel everything they are feeling. That is catharsis.

As you seek how you may evoke universal emotions in your readers, ruthlessly mine your own subjective experiences. For instance, perhaps you have lost a parent, and you can evoke that same grief in writing about a character losing a comrade in battle. Not everyone reading your story will have gone through these same personal losses, but that doesn’t mean your experiences as translated through your characters can’t help readers tap their own truth.

5. Imagine Your Physical Reactions in Your Character’s Shoes

When you’re ready to evoke your characters’ emotions on the page, start by imagining what physical reactions you would experience were you in your character’s shoes. Perhaps your character is going into battle for the first time or about to get engaged or attending the funeral of someone they didn’t like. Whatever the case, and no matter how different it is from your own lived experiences, use that writer’s imagination of yours to put yourself in this situation.

For just this moment, you’re not asking how your character would feel or what your character would do. You’re asking yourself what you would feel in this situation. What physical sensations arise for you? Emotions in you inspire emotions in your characters inspire emotions in your readers.

Dreamlander (Amazon affiliate link)

I have a visceral memory of the first time I consciously did this when writing my protagonist’s first battle scene in my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I had written a first draft of the scene that had fallen flat. In trying to write a more authentic scene the second time around, I asked myself what I would feel in his shoes and came up with what is still one of my favorite and most-commented-upon scenes in all my books. Try it!

6. Plan Plot and Characters to Create Deep Emotions

Now that you have some ideas for how to access the emotions you want to portray in your fiction, you have to bring those emotions to life on the page with well-executed techniques.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The most important technique is simply this: sync the plot to the character arc.

At the core of your character’s arc are all the emotions you could possibly need for your story. But the only way to tap the richness of your character’s inner conflict is to craft an external plot that harmonizes with that inner arc. I’ve talked about this elsewhere (in all my books and specifically in Writing Your Story’s Theme), but the nutshell is that plot, theme, and character are not separate pieces. In a cohesive and resonant story, one naturally generates the other.

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

They also generate authentic emotion. When the events in the plot prompt the character’s arc, and the character’s inner struggles then influence decisions in the plot, the only emotions that will show up on your page are those that are inherent to the story and just begging to be dramatized through the plot’s actions.

As you dig deeper into the interpersonal emotion that shows up between your protagonist and the supporting characters, look for ways you can raise the emotional stakes. Don’t allow characters to feel just one emotion for each other. Make things complicated and messy, just like they are in life. Love and hate, joy and disappointment, excitement and fear—all of these emotions exist together. As you craft your characters’ relationships, look for ways to create tension between their need for connection and the resulting conflict. As your characters pendulate between the two, your opportunities to write deeply emotional fiction will grow with every page.

***

Learning how to write emotional fiction is, at its core, a journey into the heart of our shared humanity. It is not just an artistic endeavor; it’s an exploration of the human experience. The power to move readers lies not just in the narrative but in the authenticity of its emotion. This foray into the tools of cultivating and sharing emotional intelligence on the page is an invitation to delve into all the richness that is available in the human psyche. As writers, we navigate the sea of emotions, charting a course that offers the potential to leave a lasting emotional imprint on readers’ hearts—a legacy of words that linger, evoke, and, above all, make us feel more profoundly. May your narratives become beacons, guiding readers through the storms of their emotions and leaving them changed by the transformative power of deeply emotional fiction.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your most powerful experience in learning how to write deeply emotional fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast, Amazon Music, or Spotify).

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