I think emotion is probably the hardest thing we face as writers. We all know emotion done well when we read it. That moment of gut-wrenching, swooning, heart-pounding emotion–otherwise known as the feels.
But how do we create that? How do we effectively translate emotion to the page, and make our reader truly feel? There is a delicate balance between emotion and melodrama, or emotion falling flat altogether.
This is partly because emotion is such a complex, abstract thing. Human beings have such an amazing capacity for emotion–both high and low, and everywhere in between. How is a writer supposed to capture something like that into words?
I think the first key to making emotion effective is remembering that characters are people. I have said this before, but I will say it again. When you remember that characters are human beings, emotion becomes a lot easier. This makes it easier to avoid both flat emotion and melodrama.
For instance, you might overplay emotion for dramatic effect. But when you examine the person who is experiencing that emotion and their situation, you might rethink that. Instead of bursting into tears or collapsing from shock, they might experience denial, or show their emotion in more subtle ways, such as a wavering voice or a clenched hand.
How would that person really feel in that moment?
On the other hand, you might downplay or even forget emotion in lieu of plot and action, or throw it in as an afterthought, and the emotion falls flat completely.
I think that is the second key, matching every instance of action with proper reaction–and emotion. I think emotion is the true heart of action and climax, but in order for it to truly be effective, there also needs to be the effect of that.
This is something I have to be conscious of. Sometimes, it can seem like there is emotion in the action, and that that is enough, but it is still not in order to be effective. For example, in Nightfire, when Kera sees her mother ripped, she becomes very emotional and lashes out. But after that, she doesn’t have a personal reaction. She goes right into searching for her sister. Yes, there are scenes later where she considers her mom and feels sad and everything, but she never really grieves, and never initially deals with it.
So, I added a scene after the attack where she is laying with her mother while the others are asleep, and she tries to process and come to terms with this new reality she has been thrust into. Though her mother is still alive, her mind is not there, and whoever she was is gone. So Kera has to grieve for that. And this is also the first time she realizes the ramifications of not having her mother–things as small as not hearing her sing all the time, or as big as her not being there to help look for Hana, when Kera needs her most.
I realized how much more powerful her mother’s loss is when the emotion goes further and deeper than the initial reaction and scattered sad scenes. There had to be that first reaction. The girl holding her mother against her and pleading with her to wake up, to come back, though she knows she can’t. A girl who has been surviving her whole life but for the first time faces the world on her own, and is scared and uncertain. That is what makes the loss powerful, not her initial scream and shock.
So, which side do you lean towards–melodrama, or flat–or have you achieved a balance? How do you best capture emotion in your story? How do you make readers feel?