The goal of any serious writer is to create stories that develop long-lasting and meaningful connections with their readers.
Stories have the power to transform the way readers think and to give them insights into human nature that is impossible with any other form of art.
Your role, as a writer, is to connect with the reader by providing truthful experiences that stimulate emotions within the reader.
If you write with truth, honesty, and authentically, you have the power to create truly great stories.
In this article, you’ll discover how to stimulate emotions within the reader, creating a powerful reading experience in the process. You’ll find out that there are six key emotions, but these emotions hide a range of additional feelings. You will also find out how to create characters that truthfully show these emotions. This will leave you with the ability to write stories that will live in the mind of the reader long after they have finished reading.
History of Emotion
For most of human history, people didn't experience emotions, they tended to feel ‘things’ such as ‘passions’, ‘accidents of the soul’ or ‘moral sentiments’. No common language existed that grouped these feelings into universally accepted terms.
The first reference we have to the concept of ‘emotion’ dates back to 1579 when it was adapted from the French word émouvoir, which means ‘to stir up’. However, it was not until the 1800s (around 1830), that people started to commonly talk about the idea of experiencing emotions.
However, the idea took hold and the 1800s saw writers, artists, and thinkers began to move towards the idea that humans experience a universal group of feelings, which we would later understand as emotions. In 1821, French artist Charles La Brun created a work that showed the faces of these commonly experienced ‘emotions’.
It is interesting to note that from the very start of the study people were interested in how emotions made people act; the visible expression of emotions.
The most likely explanation for this approach is that we are hardwired to be able to ‘translate’ another person's facial expressions and body language into emotion. We have been doing it for the duration of the human race. It's easy to see how it benefits us from an evolutionary standpoint to be able to understand when a member of our tribe is happy, sad, or angry.
Emotions Create Reactions
Though the existence of emotions is not under question, over the years, scientists have struggled to find a universally accepted definition of emotions. However, several factors are agreed to appear in all emotions:
- Emotions are made up of strong feelings.
- Emotions have a range of feelings.
- Emotions produce observable reactions, including ‘verbal, physiological, behavioral, and neural’.
Of these three elements, the one that is of the most interest to writers is the idea that emotions produce observable reactions. This means that when someone experiences an emotion they display a reaction that is recognizable as matching to a specific emotion. For example, laughter equates to happiness and crying with sadness. Of course, it's not that simple. Happiness can bring tears and fear can produce nervous laughter, but the basic idea that certain reactions match certain emotions holds true.
This is great news for writers. It means that if you, a writer, can successfully describe a character acting in a way that is true to an emotion, then the reader will recognize that character as experiencing an emotion.
Six Key Emotions
Since the study of emotions began in the 1800s, scientists have taken huge steps towards first recognizing that distinct universal emotions exist, and then grouping reactions to match these emotions.
However, perhaps surprisingly, it was not until recently that we finally agreed upon a universal set of emotions. In the 1960s, American psychologist Paul Ekman studied the link between facial expressions and emotions. As a result of this work, Ekman concluded that there existed six primary emotions:
These primary emotions remain the foundation of our understanding of the way people feel and react.
There has been little question over the six primary emotions, though several scientists have built on Elkman’s work. Daniel Cordaro and Dacher Keltner suggested that there was evidence (mostly facial and vocal expressions) for several lesser emotions, including:
Psychologist Robert Plutchik further developed this work. He suggested that there are eight, not six primary emotions, these include anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. However, perhaps most interestingly, Plutchik argued that within these primary emotions are several lesser emotions, which are examples of the primary emotion being experienced to a lesser or greater extent. For example, anger can be experienced as annoyance on one end of the scale and rage at the other.
Plutchick created a handy chart of these emotions and their variants.
Yet, the research has not stopped there. Today, you can find numerous examples of more complex emotion wheels. Below is another example.
Showing not Telling
To truly understand just why the ability to show readers a character's emotional state through describing their actions is just so important, we must consider the concept of showing, not telling.
‘Show, don’t tell‘ might be the most overused phrase in writing!
For some, show, don’t tell has become a cliché with little value, but as a professional editor, I’d insist that showing, not telling is the most powerful tool a writer can use. Utilizing this technique will make you a better writer overnight.
After all, clichés are clichés for a reason and there’s a strong element of wisdom behind the well-worn phrase.
I've edited more than 500 manuscripts and one of the advantages of editing so many books is that you start to see trends. You learn the most common mistakes that writers make and discover what advice will have the most impact.
I’ve discovered that by far the most common mistake writers make is that they tend to tell rather than show.
The impact of telling is that readers become bored as you produce unengaging prose and two-dimensional characters
In short, failing to show is killing your book.
Creating Boring Books
One of the most common reasons a reader stops reading a book is that they become bored. The reader will start with the best of intentions, but if the plot is weak, the characters are undeveloped and the writing is not fully engaging, the reader will turn off.
We’ve all done it, just how many books have you started and never finished?
Your role as a writer is to keep the reader engaged. Fortunately, this process is not too difficult.
When reading a book, the reader must feel part of the story.
They must feel as if they are ‘in’ the narrative, experiencing what is happening.
The best way for this to happen is for you to treat the reader as an observer to a scene. A reader must ‘see’ the scene as it unfolds in front of them.
They must be able to picture the location and characters, visualizing the action as it occurs.
They must be able to picture the location and characters, visualizing the action as it occurs.
This means that you SHOW the reader all that is happening, not TELL them.
For example, if you were to write:
‘The woman was happy.’
This would be TELLING.
You are telling the reader the woman’s emotion; she’s happy. The reader is left with no wriggle room. The emotion has been defined as happy. There is no room for one of the twenty-seven variants suggested by the emotion wheel about.
They are left with no work to do and don’t need to engage. They don't 'see' a happy woman, they must trust the narrator.
However, if you wrote:
‘The woman laughed and jumped in the air, clapping her hands.’
This time you are forcing the reader to do work.
They need to picture the scene and the woman. You are leaving some narrative space for the reader to lean into and add their meaning.
Is the woman happy? Ecstatic? Something else?
It’s now the reader’s job to engage with the story and add the meaning. There is more room for interruption. The more truthful your description, the more likely the reader is to ‘feel’ the experience you're trying to reflect.
This is SHOWING.
You are describing the woman’s actions. The reader remains part of the scene and, hopefully, the character’s actions trigger an emotion in the reader.
By showing, not telling emotions, plot, and back-story you are forcing the reader to ‘lean into’ the book.
This keeps them engaged and part of the process.
Each time you tell the reader something about the story, the reader is pushed onto the back foot and disengages, too much telling and the reader gets bored and stops reading.
The aim is to create a narrative space between the character and the reader.
By showing the reader what is happening, but not telling them, you force the reader to work out the reasons for the character’s words and actions.
This way they must build their picture of your characters.
The Role of the Narrator
Once you switch your thinking to the need to show, it soon becomes clear that the role of the narrator alters.
If you are telling, then the narrator is doing all the heavy lifting.
They are the reader’s direct route into the plot.
The narrator is spoon-feeding the reader the story, leaving the reader with no room to build their narrative.
This means that when showing, the role of the narrator changes.
The narrator is now there to describe characters, their actions, the locations, and, on occasions, the thoughts of characters.
They are not telling the story, they are describing it.
This does produce one issue.
If the narrator is describing the actions and words of characters, how do you pass key plot points to the reader?
If you can’t have the narrator tell the reader, how do you pass back-story for a character and key plot information? How do you let the reader know how a character is feeling? How can this be done if not in the narration?
The answer is simple; you do it via dialogue and description.
If you want the reader to know something about the character’s background or a key plot point, you do it in a conversation between characters.
If you want the reader to know a character is happy, you describe them acting in a way that people do when they are happy.
This way the reader remains an active part of the story process. They will ‘discover’ the plot in the words of the characters, rather than have it passively spoon fed to them via the narrator.
For example, if you are writing a novel in which a key plot point is that the main character must be able to fly a plane, you would not put this information in the narrative, you would put it in a conversation.
The wrong way to do this would be for the narrator to tell the reader the character could fly a plane. The correct way would be to show the reader by having the topic come up naturally in conversation and then have the character admit they can fly a plane.
Let’s look at another example…
If you want the reader to know your main character is an expert in hand-to-hand combat then you are presented with two options.
The first would be to tell the reader. This is the wrong way to pass the information.
John had grown up in a tough city, where survival was more important than education. School life had been problematic and fights were part of everyday life. However, after one fateful day, when he had returned home with a black eye, John’s father had insisted his son should toughen up. From that day on, John attended the local karate dojo training each day until he was an expert.
The second would be to show the reader. This is the correct way and leaves the reader engaged and active.
’You look pretty good, do you keep in shape?’ said Paula, eyeing John’s well-formed torso under his tight t-shirt. John smiled.
‘Yeah, but I am not a gym rat,’ John replied.
‘No? You must lift weights or something; you don’t get a body like that eating pizza and watching TV.’
John smiled. There was a pause. ‘I think the whole pumping iron thing is a bit weird.’
Paula’s eye scanned John’s body. ‘So what’s your thing?’
‘Ohh.’ There was a tone of surprise in Paula’s voice. ‘You any good?’
‘Yeah. Pretty good.’
‘How long you been training?’
‘Since I was a kid.’
John shifted in his chair and stared at Paula for a moment, his fingers touching his face. ‘I grew up in a bad area,’ John’s voice was almost a whisper, ‘there were fights at school every day. One day a gang of lads jumped me. I didn’t stand a chance; I was a wimp at the time. I was beaten up pretty badly. When my old man saw the state of my face he didn’t say a word, he simply grabbed me by the hand and took me to the martial arts dojo on the corner of our street. I had never been in before. My old man took me inside, had a quick word with the guy who ran the place and left me there. For the next ten years, I went every day after school. In the end, I even started to enjoy it.’
‘Well, I never came home from school with a black eye again.’
This example contains some backstory. The way John whispers the reply shows he is not comfortable with his past. I had decided his father had beaten John and John didn’t like talking about his past. I have added pauses to reflect John’s internal voice as he ‘filters’ what is said to Paula.
However, the reader is shown the words and there’s no further explanation.
The reader is forced to add their own meaning, becoming engaged in the process.
To suggest that writing emotions using this approach is a simple task is a lie. Writers spend years of their lives trying to write scenes that show characters acting in a way that is reflecting true emotions.
The problem is that not only is there no handy list of physical reactions to emotions, but everyone’s reaction to emotion is slightly different. The emotion a person feels in any given situation differs. It's easy to imagine a person that is petrified by the very sight of a spider and another that is nonplussed.
This is what it means to be human.
The greatest and highest calling for a writer is to be able to reflect human emotion truly and honestly.
This is what Hemingway meant when he said, ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’
A ‘true sentence’ is one that reflects the truth. This is not factual truth, this is actions that truthfully reflect emotion. One that shows a character acting in a way that is true to their emotions.
Though there is no universal list of actions and emotions, we can turn to our understanding of body language as a starting point. In an excellent article, Amanda Patterson, sets out a detailed list of body language that can be a starting point for writers. The tables below can be used as a jump-off point for creating characters that act in a way that shows emotions to readers.