Wednesday, February 2, 2011

E is for Emotion

To create a satisfying experience, a story has to have an emotional impact on the reader. This is true whether you’re an adult or a child. Some ways emotions enhance your writing:

Emotion keeps your readers engaged. It’s not always about action and plot. A few days ago, my 11-year-old was reading the novel Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve, and she got so angry about something one of the main characters did, she said she didn’t like the book anymore. But she kept on reading right to the end. It wasn’t just that she wanted to find out what happened. She also wanted to resolve her own emotions that had been stirred up by the story.

Showing character feelings creates a deeper level of attachment. I always appreciate it when my critique buddies point out places where they don’t feel enough emotion from my characters. When there’s no emotional side to a character, the reader often feels detached.

Emotions enhance the action. While no one would argue that showing a heart-stopping fight scene or a breathless chase wouldn’t grab your readers, adding some emotion makes it more powerful. Feeling is part of the way we react to events, and so your characters should feel as well as act in their reactions.

Some tips for creating emotions in stories for middle graders:

1. Be realistic. What bothers a kid might not bother you. Fears are a prime example. What were you afraid of at age 9? Some typical kid fears might be being alone in a dark house, watching a scary movie, or being hurt in an earthquake. It’s also important to keep in mind that the age range from 8 to 12 can show a wide difference in emotional development. A realistic emotion in a story for 8- and 9-year-olds might seem silly to 11- and 12-year-olds.

2. Avoid clichés. Middle graders aren’t always familiar with clichés, and may not interpret them the way you do. Besides that, clichés can may your story seem boring and stale.

3. Don’t overload your reader. A good idea to build in some emotion might be to list the emotions and ways of showing them that could work for your scene. But don’t include everything. Choose words carefully to create a mood that goes with how your reader is feeling. Remember, middle graders don’t like to read through a lot of description.


A review of Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve

Anna Staniszewski talks about how important it is to think about the emotional development of a character, e.g. what a character fears, as well as the character’s goal or want in the plot.

Christine Fonseca, author of Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students, discusses how emotion creates character motivation.

Don Fry talks about using details to show emotions.

Sherry blogs about building emotion into your writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse is a great place to find alternatives for clichéd phrases.

Do you have any tips for creating an emotional experience for your readers?


  1. Thanks so much for this post. That's great advice on writing no matter what genre or age you write for. The reader certainly needs to feel that attachment. If they don't they will likely put your book down never to pick it up again.

  2. This is a great post with lots of links. I think it will have to be Monday's tip of the day link at Author2Author.

    One thing I'm finding helpful is having an emotional build. My character shouldn't go straight to wrath: first she has to pass through irritation, frustration, and loss of temper before she can start plotting revenge to make it believable. Look up "anger" or "fear" in the thesaurus and figure out how it builds: from nervous to anxious to scared. Then you can decide when it's realistic to have your character immediately scared or whether there should be a build up.

  3. Thanks,everyone.

    Kate, you make a great point about the building up of emotion!

  4. Great post. I think sometimes writers get so caught up in creating exciting plotlines and writing beautifully that they forget how important the emotional pull of a story is. But it's the number one thing that makes me really like a book. In fact, its so important I think I may have to blog about this too, or I'll end up cluttering up your comments with my thoughts! :)


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