Packing emotion into a tight space

Mastering Storytelling: Emotions in Writing

Being able to convey emotions in writing is a storyteller’s dream.

Kate Rusby is an English folk singer-songwriter whose songs sometimes make me laugh and sometimes make me cry.

I typically write and edit in long form – novels, not short stories. So I’m always interested in how writers manage to tell stories that evoke emotions in many fewer words than I ever use.

Rusby’s folk songs almost always have an immediately identifiable situation: the wife is cheating on her husband, the lovers are being parted forever, the husband thinks he works harder than his wife.

These situations resonate with our deepest instincts: we want our spouses to be faithful, we don’t want to be parted from our loved ones (whether through death or distance), we want life to be fair.

how to put emotions in writing

Violating these deep basic urges creates emotion in the listener/reader, because the listener/reader is always identifying with the main character of any story, whether or not they share many (or any) traits with that character.

If a writer starts with a situation that is not immediately understandable, it’s harder for the reader to invest in the story/make sense of the story. If we spend the first five chapters following Edgar around his boring day job as an insurance actuary without understanding what in this situation matters to the plot, we’re going to lose interest.

This affects genre, too. If I’m reading a romance and the two main characters still haven’t met halfway through, I doubt that I’m in the hands of a good storyteller because a good storyteller would know that the central concern of a romance is the development of the love relationship between the two main characters.

But if I pick up a romance and immediately read about Martha the homeowner getting into an argument with George the contractor, I know exactly what the situation is (enemies to lovers) and I settle in for the long haul.

Similarly, it’s hard to evoke emotion in a reader when the basic conflict of story is not about the deep basic urges and needs that humans have. If it’s not about loyalty or love or fairness, then we don’t really care that much as readers.

That’s why a story about a kid who gets Bs and Cs in high school and goes on to a state college and does pretty well except for that one economics class and gets a job running a real estate firm after graduating doesn’t interest us.

But a story about a kid who cheated his way in does (provoking outrage) or a kid who has to fight against a sexist teacher to earn a coveted art scholarship will engage us (anger at unfairness; satisfaction at justice prevailing).

Looking at other forms of storytelling can tell us a lot about how to write a story.


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