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Thursday, April 1, 2010

An Emotional Connection

I believe that in order to understand how to write emotion, we must first understand why we read.
Goodness, Cat, I can hear you all saying, there are any number of reasons a person might read. To learn, to fall asleep, to pass the time on a bus.

My response to that? Those are the superficial reasons we read. The deeper, underlying reason we read (or at least the reason we read fiction) is to feel. We want to feel, to experience, to escape. But we can't do that if emotion isn't present in the writing.

In order to write emotion that will cause a reader to feel, there are a number of things we must do, not the least of which is gain an understanding of what our character is feeling.

One way to do this is to step into the character's shoes for a bit, live his life, experience life through her eyes. Essentially we, as writers, have to feel the emotion that the character is feeling. We have to live it, in order to understand it enough to write it.

While you're in that emotion, pay more attention than normal to your body. Has the pace of your breathing changed? What about your pulse? Are you shaking or still? Are your muscles taut or loose? Are you taking long breaths, deep breaths, shallow breaths, rapid breaths? How does your stomach feel? Emotions create physiological changes within a person. In order to accurately convey an emotion, we need to understand what happens to the body.

Another option is to go people watching. Take a pen and notebook with you. Find a couple at the mall, or a mother and child at the park, and watch their interaction. Don't get close enough to hear their words. The words are superficial. Pay more attention to their facial expressions, their body movements, the way they touch each other. Based on those things, decide what they are feeling. Love? Anger? Betrayal? Frustration? Contentment? How did you decide what emotion they were feeling? Was it the particular turn of his lips, her energetic tone of voice, the way she crossed her arms over her stomach, or maybe how he had a certain glint in his eyes? Write down notes for yourself, so that you can remember later.

Now that you have a better sense of what happens when you feel a particular emotion, it is time to convey that within your writing. For a reader to fully understand what a character is feeling, the writer must attempt to make them feel the same thing. Simply stating, "He was happy," is not enough. That, my friends, is what is termed
telling. We have to show the reader.

It is also not enough to simply list the things that are happening to the body. "Her pulse increased to a roar, and her muscles felt ready to snap."

Who cares? I know, I know. I already told you to have an understanding of the physiological components involved with emotion. You do need to include these things. They are essential. But they are only part of the whole. We also have to include Deep POV.

In my opinion, Deep POV is one of the most difficult concepts for a new writer, and even for many experienced writers, to grasp. We think that if we are sharing our character's deepest thoughts, we are attaining Deep POV. But often, those thoughts are shared in a manner that tells, instead of shows.

So how can you tell if you're writing in Deep POV, or if you're telling? Look through your work in progress for the following kinds of phrases: he saw, she noticed, he heard, she thought. If you have phrases like these anywhere near those deeper, internal thoughts, then you are likely not achieving Deep POV.

To illustrate, here is an example.

  1. Marcus saw Lady Helene walking towards him, like Athena floating across the ballroom floor. He noticed her eyes were filled with laughter, glinting in the flickering candlelight. He liked that. In fact, he felt his pulse quicken and thought he might stop breathing.
  2. Lady Helene walked towards Marcus like Athena floating across the ballroom floor. Her eyes glinted with laughter in the flickering candlelight. Good Lord, she was enticing. His pulse roared through his veins. The simple act of breathing might kill him.
These two passages are very similar, and they attempt to convey the same thing. But which one is more engaging, more effective to you, as a reader?

By eliminating phrases like he saw, he noticed, and he thought, the focus of the sentences shifts to settle on
what he saw, what he noticed, and what he thought. In the process, the reader is better able to connect with Marcus. We experience alongside him, instead of watching from a distance as he experiences. In essence, we are able to hear Marcus's true voice instead of hearing his voice through a filter.

Another way of looking at these examples is from a grammatical standpoint. In the first example, look at the subject and predicate of each of the sentences. Marcus saw. He noticed. He felt. In this circumstance, Marcus is focused on himself, when he should perhaps be focused at least somewhat on Lady Helene. However, in the second example, the subjects and predicates are: Lady Helene walked; Her eyes glinted; His pulse roared. In this way, the reader's focus is drawn to the same things as the POV character.

This is certainly not a comprehensive explanation of either writing emotion or creating Deep POV. So tell us: how do you enhance the emotion in your writing? What things to you look for as signposts that you weren't writing in Deep POV?

Catherine Gayle, Baroness Blithe


  1. LOVE IT! I tend to play a movie in my mind with myself as the MC. Then I feel what she does, see what she does, etc. It's not always easy but (hopefully) makes for a more authentic scene.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Candyland. I love the idea of having a movie play out in your mind. That's a great way to be able to view a scene before you write it and feel with your characters.

  3. Cat,
    Great explanation of deep POV. About a year ago it clicked with me. It was a wonderful epiphany. It is good you mention phrases to look for that may be filters, because sometimes it is easy to miss. Another one I don't think you mentioned but that trips me up occassionally is "he wondered". I also think "he watched" can be a filter, but I notice when my work is critiqued sometimes people add it. What are your thoughts on "he watched"?

  4. Thanks for commenting, Samantha. I agree with you on both he wondered and he watched. They tend to put the focus on the POV character and take it away from WHAT he is wondering and WHAT he is watching. Watched and saw are pretty much equivalents. "He watched as she walked across the ballroom" puts the focus on him and watching, instead of her and walking. I do think there can be instances where I would leave in a wondered, though. However, they would be few and far between.

  5. Great post, Catherine! I got a critique once that said I should take out "he thought" because it took the character out of deep POV. Oh, I thought ;) Now I get it! LOL! It's made a huge difference in my writing, I believe. I still use them, but very sparingly. Wonderful explanation!!

  6. Aha! See someone listened to me about my need for a post on writing emotion!!! Yay! Someone listens to me!! LOL. I am so glad you posted this Cat and it dinged for me I think. I don't know I'll have to test it and see if it works. I'll be sure to send my rewritten chapter your way so you can point out to me if I did it right LOL. <3

    This is exactly what I needed and you did so well breaking it down for me. Thanks, okay off to clean the house so I can go practice writing emotion now!

  7. Jerrica, I used to get those same kinds of critiques, and they always left me scratching my head. So I researched and researched and researched Deep POV until I finally had that kind of aha moment.

    Melissa, YAY!!! I'm so glad this helped! I wrote the post because you asked and I thought maybe I could help, so I hope it works for you. If not, don't worry. Just keep plugging away at it. Like everyone else (because no one does this perfectly all the time), even though I have a better understanding of it now than I used to, I still fall into the old traps that pull my writing out of Deep POV.

  8. Great post, CG. Indeed, that is the most prevalent comment I have gotten from my editors thus far. Deeper POV. I've struggled with this, thinking I need more words. More information on how the characters feel. In fact what I need is not MORE words, just better ones!
    Thanks for the great instruction.

  9. Gemini, thanks for stopping by! Deep POV is always a struggle. For the longest time, I knew it when I saw it, but I couldn't tell you how to achieve it. Hope this helps!

  10. Great post, Catherine. This is something I still struggle with so I appreciate your suggestions. Like Candyland, I tend to play scenes like a movie in my mind. Then I have to force myself to go back and add in the sensual details such as touch and smell, which would not be evident in a film.

  11. Great post, Catherine. Learning to write in deep pov was hard for me, but one day I read a great article that gave examples just as you did and a light bulb went off in my head. Usaully, once I finish a manuscript, I go back and look for areas where emotions need to be added or words that would take the character out of deep pov need to be taken away.

  12. Excellent advice, Catherine. I have nothing to add. Everyone listen to Catherine. :)

  13. Gail, I love that you're able to visualize your scenes like a movie. I guess I do, to an extent, but I experience it more as though I'm in the scene, instead of watching the scene. That's something I've done since I was a little girl.

    Julie, I had the same kind of light-bulb moment you describe. I only wish it had come sooner! But I suppose I needed to grow gradually as a writer, so that the lessons I learned would stick.

    Lydia, YOU have nothing to add? I'm shocked! But then again, you and I do seem to agree on far too many things. LOL.

  14. Excellent advice, Catherine. The best way I know to judge if I've nailed the emotions of a scene is if I end up emotional too. Am I reaching for the tissues while typing? Am I just a wee bit too angry and need a few moments alone time to cool down at the end of my writing time. Our writing has to stir us too!

  15. I tumbled in here from a random twitter search on #amwriting. Hmmm, what could it be?

    I've been clicking on random Categories and nosing around a bit, and THIS post is FANTASTIC! I'm a reader, not a writer. I have a new favorite author and she has Deep POV down! I just thought she had the greatest ideas, but now I see she has this tool of the trade "down to an art."

    (Not anywhere in the same league at all, but I beta-read for some FanFic writers. I hope this will help me help them.) Thanks!