How to Capture Emotion & Use It For Evil

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

(Gosh, it’s been forever since I’ve written an educational post…)

Hey peeps! Long time no type. Sorry for my absence, but there’s been a lot distracting me lately; I just haven’t been thinking of discussion topics. However, today our topic’s been handed to us!

I woke up this afternoon (don’t judge me) to a Wattpad notification informing me that HEY! I have a new comment on my profile! This is always exciting to see, but today was even greater. Why, you ask? Because this was the message I received:


Now, I know I’m not the best at what I do—heck, I’m not the best at anything I do—but I like to think I know a thing or two about this habit I’ve devoted my life to, and seeing someone regard me as a knowledgeable voice makes me feel… successful. I haven’t published a single work, nor have I made a single dime, but so help me, I’m leaving a mark. It may be a small, microscopic pinprick at the moment, but it’s massive to the girl who once feared being forgotten.

Now, on to the topic at hand.

Emotion is a very complex concept. As human beings, we feel things on a much grander scale than just happy-mad-sad; it’s never really one-note, so there isn’t a single way to convey it. I can’t just say, “Hey! Do this if you want your reader’s to feel this,” because chances are, it’ll only be somewhat effective, if it turns out to be effective at all. We can’t rely on hacks to tell our stories, we actually have to put in the overtime to learn the craft.

Since I’m sharing my knowledge, I might as well start with the most obvious, important, and universal tip out there:

Show, don’t tell.

Is there any writer out there who hasn’t heard this piece of advice? I doubt it. But this saying has been passed around with very good reason: you shouldn’t have to tell me your character is angry, I should be able to feel the earth shake with their rage. Take the following passage for example:

Sam hid under the stairs, terrified. She knew she wasn’t safe there, but she was too afraid to move. By the time she considered making a break for it, she could already hear her assailant approaching.

Sure, we understand that scary things are happening, but do we feel scared? That’s the key here. Show us what the character is feeling, don’t spell it out. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to trust your reader is smart enough to identify the emotion associated with the action. So let’s try that again:

Sam threw herself to the ground, cowering beneath the staircase. She rose a shaking hand to muffle her breathing, but she knew it was no use. It’s now or never, she told herself, but her legs were frozen stiff. As she fought to chalk up the courage to run, to move, to do something, she heard it. The creak of a floorboard, the click of a heel. And she knew it was over.

Not my best, but infinitely better.

You have to be able to imagine not only how they’re feeling, but how they’re behaving because they feel this way. Don’t believe me? Take it from the master of quotable writing advice, E. L. Doctorow:

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.

Avoid the stereotypes.

Clichés become cliché for a reason: they’re overused and predictable. I mean, you could say that your protagonist’s heart sank when they heard the news—whatever it may be—but that’s not going to make us connect with them anymore than we already have. Why? Because that line has been used so much it’s become hollow. We know what it means, but it doesn’t make us feel much at this point. Instead, show us their trembling hands. Show them suddenly noticing how loud and painful their heartbeat is. Show the lack of responsiveness. I mean, there are so many ways to convey this same sense of sorrow. Even if most of them have been used before, you still shouldn’t have to fall back on the options that everyone and their great-great-grandmother-in-law have put to use.

Don’t tell me he swept her off her feet, tell me he brought the color back to her world. Don’t tell me he could feel his temper rising, tell me about the storm brewing in his veins. The ability to paint images with your words is your greatest tool as a writer, and when you’re trying to get someone invested in your work, it’s an invaluable talent. Which brings me to my next point:

Choose your words carefully.

Words have meaning, and some words have stronger meanings than others. This can circle all the way back to that happy-mad-sad business; are you happy, or are you ecstatic? Are you mad, or are you furious? Are you sad, or are you forlorn? You need to consider that some words are more three-dimensional than others, which means they may evoke a deep sensation in your reader where others might fall flat

Some words can be harsher than others and pack more of a punch, while some can offer a sense of comfort or warmth. A common example of this is the use of swearing. Let’s say you have a nice, stand-up character. Then let’s say this character is put into soul-shattering conditions. Now, when it comes down to it, they could choose to yell, “Crap!” However, if you want to startle your reader and show them this character breaking, you drop an F-bomb. These words are laced with enough taboo to make them seem out of place, and that can be a useful tool in making your reader uncomfortable. However, if a character swears regularly, these words will lose their edge and no longer instill the sense that something is wrong.

Similarly, look at the difference between saying “I love you” and “I’m in love with you.” It’s so very minuscule, but the latter sounds more passionate. What about “I hate you” versus “I loathe you”? “Having fun” versus “having a blast”? They mean the same thing, but to different degrees. This is what you have to home in on. Decide what effect you’re going for, and find the words that embed that feeling into your work.

Remember: less is more.

If you go on this whole tirade of emotion and show us every little thing your character is feeling, you’re gonna lose us. Dial it back a little. Try to capture the emotion in as few details as possible. If you want me to know the wind’s blowing, don’t bother showing me the bustling curtain and the rustling leaves. Show me a significant character’s hair blowing into their face, or tell me how badly the chill bites. Just show me a character shielding his-or-herself from it and I will understand.

The same goes for if your character’s loved one dies. I don’t need every symptom of their sorrow drawn out for me. This will force a disconnect between the story and I, and that’s never a good thing. Try to focus on the images rather than the literal action. Giving us a metaphor that sums up their grief can sometimes be even more effective than detailing their pain; exposing us to too much will make us retreat, but making a more modest show of it can make us project to fill in the gaps.

Just as I suggested earlier, you need to assume your readers are not idiots. You don’t have to hand-feed them every thought or emotion you want them to have. Be suggestive and know your connotations, and it’s likely we’ll pick up what you’re putting down.


Now, while I wanted this post to focus mostly on the writing aspect, I must add that your characters, plot, and setting are big influences on the reader’s emotion. Give us a likable, relatable character and it’ll be much easier to get us attached. However, if we find ourselves at odds with your protagonist, you’ll find that we care less than we would’ve otherwise; if we hate the person we’re forced to follow around, we’ll eventually end up dragging our feet. Additionally, the things happening in your story and where they’re taking place can alter the mood as well. If your character is given the news that their spouse died, it’s sad. But if they receive this call while exiting a flower shop, it’s heartbreaking. If your character is told they’re going to be a grandparent, it’ll be a happy day! However, if the message is passed along while they’re prepping for chemotherapy, then… yeah. Not so much.

It’s important to know that you can manipulate your audience. You have the power to break your reader and leave them feeling hollow, but you also have the power to gradually piece them back together and make them feel loved. You can leave them terrified and paranoid, or you can leave them with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It all comes down to your words.


And now, to CreativelyMagical, who sparked this whole conversation:

Thank you. For enjoying TDoaS enough to reread it, for deeming me good enough to come to for advice, and for giving me something to blog about. I wish you the absolute best in your journey as a writer, and the same to everyone else going through the motions.

Until next time!


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4 Comment

  1. Enette says: Reply

    Great post Ayli! I’m glad you mentioned the stereotypes, up until now I couldn’t pin point what was wrong with a scene I recently wrote and I definitely think it could be this.
    You can feel free to write more of these educational posts because I’ll be happy to read them 🙂

    1. Ayliesha Harris Ayliesha Harris says: Reply

      Ooo, glad I could be of service! I do enjoy blogging about the technical bits of writing, I must admit. I sometimes end up helping myself work through my own problems while coaching others, haha.

  2. Alexa says: Reply

    Ayli, this post is awesome. You say you never make educational posts, well you should, because you’re amazing at it! I specially love the part about choosing your words carefully, I know that I get so caught up on the word count that I just end up throwing in whatever I can to make it out up. Great post, definitely be sharing.

    – Alexa

    1. Ayliesha Harris Ayliesha Harris says: Reply

      Thanks Alexa! I’ve written plenty of educational posts before, it’s just been soooo long since I’ve had to, I feared I was losing my touch. But based on the feedback I’ve gotten from this one, nope! Still got it! *puts on shades*

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