BrianWFoster’s Sixth Law of Writing

Sixth Law: Add Emotion

Writing that doesn’t contain emotion feels flat and uninteresting.  Including it is crucial to engaging your reader. 

Unfortunately, there are no slam dunk great tips for how to add it, and going too far with it can be just as bad as not going far enough.  Hyperbolic emotion seems melodramatic and induces eye.

I do have some suggestions.

Deliver the Right Amount of Emotion and at the Right Time:

Tip 1 – Make the emotion proportional to the event.  A character going into a hysterical fit over spilling a glass of milk is going to annoy your reader unless you’ve established a good reason for it.  If the milk is a $100 a glass bottle of wine, then breaking the bottle may justify more of a reaction due to the financial loss.  Breaking a glass may elicit a huge emotional response if it’s the only thing remaining that belonged to a deceased parent.

Tip 2 – Showing strong emotions too early in your work doesn’t have as much impact as the same emotions shown later.  As the reader follows your character’s development, they become more invested in that character and begin to feel with that character.  If you show a devastating scene – a death, divorce, etc. – in the first chapter, it’s simply not going to deliver the punch you might be hoping for.

Tip 3 – Find good beta readers and trust their input.  You’re so close to your work that it’s hard to step outside it.  If a reader is telling you that your writing is flat or that it is melodramatic, strongly consider stepping up or ramping down the emotional content respectively.

How to Add Emotion:

Tip 1 – Filter scene details through the character.  Show us what things mean to your protagonist.  To the reader, that fact that the room is sparkling clean may not mean anything.  Show the POV character clenching his fists as it reminds him of his mother.  That’s some great emotion and a fantastic way to reveal character.

Tip 2 – Use the things your character observes to show the reader his emotional state.  If he’s mad, he’s not going to take time to notice how pretty a rose is.  He might, however, notice things that are red – the rose, a blanket, etc.  Since the color red is associated with anger, mentioning these things provides a wonderfully subtle way of indicating his emotion to the reader.

Tip 3– Use feeling words.  This technique is another good way to subtly indicate the character’s emotions without going over the top.  You can find a list here.


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