To Build A Story: The Feels

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?

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16 thoughts on “To Build A Story: The Feels

  1. Hi. I notice that many YA novels tend to focus on angst. Since you are a YA writer, I wonder how do you decide on the amount of angst? I believe that too much angst makes the character intolerable & whiny e.g. Caulfield Holden.

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    • I don’t think there has to be angst per say, just raw and depth of emotion. Because I don’t think YA is for teenagers, it is about teenagers. So you have to consider your character–again, characters are people. I’ve read books where the characters are pretty whiny and angsty, but given their lives and situation, it fits. For instance, the daughter of a wealthy family with a cushy life who is thrust into bad situations. But in my WIP, Kera–though she is 16–has spent her life surviving in the harsh wilds. She does not have room for whiny, or angst really. I think the closest she gets to teenage angst is conflict with her mom, but for the most part she has a strong head on her shoulders. That’s not to say she isn’t full of emotion–though she doesn’t always show it–she can be very unsure of herself, and anxious about situations, and feels very strongly about anything related to her family. Sorry for the long reply haha, but I would say it all comes down to your character. Does it fit them? Would that person feel or react that way? I think really understanding and seeing them as people helps with a lot of character and emotion issues in writing. Hope this helps. Good luck 🙂

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  2. This was a lovely blog. Really interesting thought, emotion is a very difficult thing to capture. It’s also a difficult thing to spot in your own work because you know it so well, and what might be emotive to you may not be clear to a reader. In my current work I only have one scene that needs to be properly emotive and its how a character reacts to a speech – it’s so tough! The rest of time I can lean towards melodrama on purpose and make it funny but honest emotion is so much harder.

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    • Thank you so much! Yes, it really is, and exactly. I think that’s my struggle, because I see it in my own mind and feel it because I know this world and these characters so well, but how do I make sure my readers feel the same thing? I think you have a good point too, that melodrama is easier–and there is definitely a time and purpose for it–but honest emotion is what really makes our writing powerful, and that is the hardest to do effectively. Thank you!

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  3. What a great post, and very thought-provoking!

    I tend to find I write different characters reacting differently with their emotions. It’s fun to play around and see how each would react, but I hope that each perspective makes the reader feel 🙂

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    • Thank you so much 🙂 Yes! Being true to the character helps a lot with making emotion feel honest and real. It can also be fun to test characters in different situations and see how they react and handle things. 🙂 I find that’s when I get to know them the most. Thanks for reading!

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  4. I have a tough time with deciding how much emotion to put in the START of stories. There are always certain scenes that have peak emotions and those are pretty straight-forward. Before they are presented in the story, I think of it like a steady climb… but steadily involving strong emotions (like love, hate, rage, depression, etc.) in a measured way can be tough…
    It’s so easy to want to rush ahead to the good part when writing because the less dramatic can feel so boring at times. Still, I like to think that makes for a better read than no climb at all and suddenly smacking readers with EMOTION in the face, so to speak.
    It’s, also, really hard to predict emotional reactions of readers to particular scene-work because a reader’s emotions are going to be manipulated by their surroundings. Which as a writer, we will never, ever know where or when a reader will choose to read the story.
    If a person just lost their job, then reads the story, they might feel there are stronger emotions in the piece than they would have if they’d read it over the course of a regular lunch. Maybe this is why YA has to be dramatically angsty? Because YA readers tend to have straight-forward lives with sprouting emotions and developing understanding, so they need that extra push of dramatics to empathize… while an adult reader – whose emotions have already bloomed and their understanding is, more or less, developed – can empathize much faster with subtler presentations of emotion. It’s the “I understand” effect.
    I never really thought about it before, though.
    So far, the best technique that I like to use to invoke emotion is to interweave a character’s thoughts with their dialogue, while something external is occurring to them or someone they love. Interweaving internal dialogue with external dialogue, off and on, escalates the dramatism of an emotional scene. Theoretically, less interweaving of the two would mean less dramatism. Hmm… I’ll have to give this some more thought. Great post!

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    • Yes! I think you’ve made some really good points here. The subtle emotion is what’s difficult, and I think part of what I was getting at with what I said about melodrama. It might be easier to say she burst into tears or collapsed from shock, but would that really happen in that moment? A lot of times it’s a lot more subtle, but that is also difficult to capture and do effectively. And I like what you said about build up vs smacking the readers because A it’s funny 🙂 and B so true! I think that’s another reason a lot of emotion doesn’t feel genuine. A good example would be some YA romances, insta-love. There is nothing wrong with loving someone fast, but when there is literally no build-up, and they go from hating each other to making out, it’s like a smack in the face, and leaves the reader kind of reeling and unsure what to do. Which can be good, but in a lot of cases, not so much. It makes it feel flat. And a good point about not ever being able to know our reader’s situation, which is another one of our challenges–writing something that can be interpreted by everyone, and still be effective. I think that contrasting both inner emotions with outer reactions and action can help to show emotion effectively, because when we do feel emotion in real life we are doing both. Thank you so much for reading and commenting 🙂 Great thoughts!

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      • Yup! You get what I’m talking about. 😉

        Funny you bring up insta-love. I like to mess with character love developments because it’s one of the most illogical/emotional scenarios ever (which doesn’t mean insta-love, but does mean that characters can get up to all sorts of crazy things they wouldn’t otherwise do!).

        I have two fantasy series I’m currently developing and in both of them, there is a love story arc, but the pacing and development are different. For one, I’m practicing drawing out the process of love over the span of a series of novellas so that it won’t be fully realized until the very last book (I’m thinking trilogy). For the other, I’m practicing a satirical version of YA insta-love romances, but over the course of the story it will be up-down roller coaster type of pacing.

        The YA-one has been the harder to write so far because I gotta squint to find the thin, thin line between dramatic and ridiculous… so to speak.

        Great take-away. Now, I feel inspired to develop the love arcs in my projects tonight.

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  5. Wow, thanks for this awesome post. There’s so much information that I need to go over it again. I really enjoy writing heavy emotion, and this will most likely prove helpful when I feel I’m getting too dramatic.

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  6. I honestly have no idea how I do in the emotions department. I’ve been told I do it well, but I don’t really know how. I just tend to picture how a real person would react to something like that particular situation in the parameters of their characterization – everyone’s different. Some characters are flatter with their emotions.

    Some are more melodramatic with theirs. Some are balanced. Everyone’s different.

    And I at least think I bring that to the table with each of my characters without diving too much into their psyche and breaking perspective.

    It’s all that, you know – perspective.

    ;]

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  7. I never gave much thought to emotion until I started writing Diabolic Clockwork which is pretty much based on emotion. It really helped me find a balance between melodrama and flat emotion because it consisted of both. Since the main character isn’t supposed to feel emotion, it falls flat at times, while at others she wants to rebel against the rules that bind her and the emotion is so intense it’s almost indescribable. Playing around with really flat or melodramatic moments emotionally helped me to see just how important emotion is in a novel.

    Now, whenever I write, emotion is what I tend to focus on, especially in the early stages of character development. I find that ‘interviewing’ your characters and getting to know their personalities helps later on because you know them as a person and it’s easier to picture their reaction to certain events. (Also, it’s like you have a whole crew of imaginary friends).

    Though initial reaction is important, I think the lingering feelings after an event like a death or terrible accident are vital too because it shows that the character continues to be human throughout. It’s nice that you mixed the two with Kera when she loses her mother, makes her more believable.

    Awesome post, it’s motivated me to go back to my writing! Thank you 🙂

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  8. This is great advice Victoria. We find that noting the subtle changes in the person’s tone or body language or verbal responses is effective. Describing the environment as deeply and thoroughly as possible, really helps to capture mood and emotion.

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