Writing emotion: How to create an emotional response in your readers

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04 July 2024
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A guide to help you evoke strong feelings in your readers and give your writing impact

Whether it’s love, hate, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, intrigue, worry – writers need readers to feel strong emotions as they turn pages. They need to be involved in your characters and what happens to them.

That’s how readers become invested in your writing – when they care about them. They want to see your star-crossed lovers reunited, justice meted out to the victims of the crime you’ve set up, what it feels like to be haunted by a revenant from the past.

Emotional impact is what makes writing compelling, and keeps readers turning pages.

Emotional engagement is a key aspect of storytelling, whether that’s in any kind of fiction, including but not limited to novels, short stories, poems, scripts – or, in fact, in everything you write.

If you write non-fiction, readers need to be invested in the story you’re telling, so they’ll read to the end to find out what happened. If you’re writing marketing content, you still need to tell a story that makes it relatable and gets people involved so they feel – not think, but feel – that the product will enhance their experience.

Knowing how to write emotion will deepen the involvement readers have with your stories. So it’s an essential part of a writer’s toolkit. If you want readers to be invested in your stories, there are techniques you can use that will evoke strong emotions.

Follow this advice to create emotional impact in your writing – read on, and find out how to do it!

Why does emotion matter in writing?

Human actions and experiences are driven by emotions: love, fear, hate, worry, suspicion, joy, etc. When readers can relate to those emotions, they can feel a connection.

Human connections are at the heart of telling a story: if you make a reader feel what a character feels, and understand what they’re going through, they will care about that character, and want to know what happens to them. What people remember about a book they really love is how it made them feel.

They’ll remember the characters that made them feel, too. Characters are at the heart of any story. They drive everything that happens in it, and so readers need to care about them as they experience difficult decisions, emotional conflict, internal struggles and conflicts – which are all part of human experience.

Read more about how to create characters

Good writing makes readers feel, as well as imagine and think. Feeling is the vital word – if you can make them feel, you’ve got them hooked!

Here's how to evoke emotion in your writing

  •  Be authentic. Your own lived life experience is your greatest resource for generating emotional impact in your writing. Draw on your own experience of feeling disappointed, furious, despairing, elated – whatever it is your character is feeling.

    The circumstances may not be the same but your experience of an emotion similar to what your character is going through will give you an insight into how they feel, and then you can make it feel real for a reader. Create relatable protagonists who are fully formed and sympathetic, so that readers can identify with them.

    Readers will experience emotions through their eyes. Think about what motivates them: what they want and why they want it? What has happened to them to bring them to this point of their story? What emotions are they feeling? Readers will respond to well-created characters with emotional lives.
     
  • Let your reader get to know the character. Your characters (and you, as the writer who is bringing them to life), need to earn the emotional investment of the reader. This means you need to pay attention to the arc of the story, how you pace telling it, and when you up the emotional ante so that it has the most impact.
     
  • Get deep into the central character’s head. Let the reader see who they are, from the inside. Show their world and how they experience it from the inside. Using first person or close third person helps to do this.
     
  • Don’t show all the emotion at once. Pace it. Save the most emotional moments in your character’s journey for when the reader is really invested in the outcome for that character. Build up to intense emotions to create the greatest impact.
     
  • Remember light and shade. Emotional writing isn’t one-note. If everything in the writing is heavy on emotion, or on one particular emotion, it will lose its impact. Balance the scenes with strong, heavy emotions with less emotional scenes. Vary the emotions so the reader feels different things with the character.
     
  • Show the emotion. Don’t tell the reader a character feels sad, or disappointed, or anxious or exhilarated. Show it. Saying ‘Jude felt sad’ or ‘Ari was really happy’ is flat writing.

    Show them jumping for joy, punching the air, turning away so no-one sees the tears running down their face. What is the body language that accompanies the emotion your character is feeling? What is their facial expression? Show it.

    Making the reader ‘see’ what a character is experiencing is a powerful way to generate an emotional response.
     
  • Don’t overdo it. Think, less is more. Using a telling detail…

    (‘Michelle had forgotten how Grandma always put perfume on her handkerchief, but the drop of scent in the bottle took her right back to when she was seven, watching her grandparents make sure every detail was just right before Mum’s funeral.’)

    …has much more emotional impact than spelling everything out…

    Michelle was in floods of tears as she thought about her long-dead grandparents and as a grandmother herself, she couldn’t bear the thought of how desperately traumatic it must have been for them to go to their own daughter’s funeral.’)
     
  • Use words and sentences to reflect the emotion in question. Be specific in your word choices, and avoid clichés. Did someone’s heart really skip a beat? Think of a better way to convey the euphoria of falling in love.

    Think of the sounds of the words you’re writing. For instance, deploy short fragments to show someone feeling jittery and uncertain. Short, sharp sentences might convey shock. Or anger. Longer sentences with clauses can suggest a thought process, and show a character reflecting on something.

Want to write effective sentences?
Read this advice on how to write a good sentence, and find out how it will work wonders for your writing.

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To get you started on creating writing with emotional impact, why not try this writing prompt?

"SORRY"

Write about a situation where someone has done something they regret.

Who has done what, and who has it affected?

What are they sorry about?

What were the consequences of the action, for them and for the other party?

How do they feel about it?

Do they make an apology, and if so, what kind?

Is there anything they can do to make up for it?

Write a passage of prose or poetry in any style or form.

Further reading: Find out what 'show don't tell' writing really means, and how you can apply it to your own work


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