I’ll have what she’s having

Emotion: How to Get it Working for You

by Steve Hooley

We all learned how to “set off” friends or siblings as a child. If we were the eldest sibling, we quickly learned how to manipulate younger siblings to flare their temper, get them in trouble, then watch in amusement as they became truly infuriated for the injustice of being blamed for something we engineered.

If we were the youngest, we instinctively learned how to get an older sibling to hit us. We then shouted to a parent with exaggerated pain, and watched with glee as the older sibling received their just rewards.

And then, we grew up and learned to behave as adults…until we joined the work force and saw the office curmudgeon blame everyone else for mistakes, or the ladder-climber take credit for everyone’s successes.

Now, as writers, we need to take those lessons from childhood and the office drama, dust them off, and add them to our arsenal or toolbox of skills for controlling emotions – in our characters and, even more importantly, in our readers.

Why? Because we are told that emotion is the glue that connects our readers to our books.

Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain, p. 41: “How do you make readers care about what happens in your story? They must care, you know. Otherwise they won’t read!…A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”

So, what are the techniques used to create emotion in our readers? That’s a big question and a big topic. As I reviewed multiple books, I found multiple opinions. Broadly, I found two basic approaches taught:

  1. Creating emotion in the characters with which the reader can identify.
  2. Creating “big emotional experiences (for the reader), engineered by circumstances.” Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, 132.

Maass divides #1 (above) into two subcategories: showing and telling. Telling, where the writer goes “inside the mind and heart of a character to observe and feel story events just as that character does.” And showing, where the writer “puts the reader through a character’s experience, provoking emotions in the readers; don’t spoon-feed them emotions.” pp. 1,2.

So, actually, we have three basic approaches.

Maass goes on to explain category #2 (above) by writing, “Fiction writers are asking the wrong question. Showing and telling are fine as far as they go, but the emotional experience of readers has little to do with that. The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” pp. 2

In reality, hopefully, we can learn from all three approaches, find what works for us, and blend them into our own unique brew to get readers drunk on our book.

Under category #1 above, James Scott Bell discusses ways to create an emotional bond between our reader and our lead character using “four dynamics—identification, sympathy, likability, and inner conflict.” (Read more in Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell, pp. 64 – 68.)

  • Identification: “…the more the reader can identify with the lead, the greater the intensity of the plot experience…”
  • Sympathy: “In contrast to mere empathy, sympathy intensifies the reader’s emotional investment in the Lead.”
  • Likability: “…someone who does likable things…not selfish…people we like to be around.”
  • Inner Conflict: “Bringing your Lead’s doubts to the surface in your plot pulls the reader deeper into the story.”

Under category #1 (telling), Jodie Renner discusses getting it right, in Chapter 4, “Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions,” Fire Up Your Fiction. “Readers want to escape into your story world…and vicariously experience what your protagonist is experiencing…If your character’s reactions feel natural and believable to the reader, they will quickly suspend disbelief and become emotionally invested.”

Jodie quotes Jack Bickham and reviews the “stages of response.” (pp. 18 – 22, Fire Up Your Fiction) First show the stimulus, then show the reactions in their natural order:

  • Visceral response
  • Unconscious knee-jerk physical action
  • Thought process
  • Conscious action

It’s not necessary to show all the reactions, but get them in the right order.


Okay, there’s the outline of three approaches. Now it’s your turn. I did this mini-study because there is so much I need to learn. I hope you will share what you have learned and fill in the specifics.

  1. What other approaches should we add to the outline?
  2. What works for you?
  3. What techniques have you discovered to turn up the volume and intensity of the emotional response of your readers?

 We all want to use our books to control the hearts and minds of our readers, to stir their emotions, and to keep them reading into the wee hours of the morning?

 Please share your knowledge!

33 thoughts on “I’ll have what she’s having

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for this warm gold on a cold Ohio morning.

    What do I use? All of the above, plus not lingering with one character for too long. The definition of “too long” is fluid.

    Have a great weekend, Steve!

    • Thanks, Joe. Great advice. So, for some genres and some readers, too much angst coming from one character (? 1st POV ) is counterproductive?

      I hear there is some above-freezing weather coming to Ohio in the next week. Stay warm. Thanks for your comments!

    • “Too much” is determined as much by the genre expectations of the reader as it is reader tastes. For romance, there is almost never too much emotion. A thriller is another story. It can be “just the facts, ma’am” to “OMG, we are going to die.”

      I just finished reading THE VANISHING DEEP, a young adult dystopian novel by Astrid Scholte. It’s a surprisingly dark novel about death and memory, and an interesting, recommended read, but its primary failure is so many emotional interiors that become redundant and, more importantly, destroy the pacing. For me, that’s a very good rule of thumb for a writer. Is the emotional element destroying the pacing?

      • Working with teen beta readers for my fantasy series, I found that the girls constantly wanted more description and emotion, while the boys wanted faster pacing and more action. Maybe some of that is genre preference. But maybe some of the genre preference is gender.

  2. I’ll throw my two cents in the ring, Steve. (That’s supposed to be some kind of clever play on cliches.) I’m a believer in using the five senses to evoke a subconscious feeling in the reader – sight, sound, sense, taste, feel. As a reminder, I keep a yellow sticky note beside my screen with SSSTF on it in red ink. The rational goes that in every scene there should be material that arouses SSSTF in the reader which stimulates the mind. If it’s done really well, hopefully the reader can get a Meg Ryan reaction.

    I also recommend every writer be familiar with brain science. I don’t mean being able to perform neurosurgery – I mean reading a great book called Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. Here’s the AZ link: https://www.amazon.com/Wired-Story-Writers-Science-Sentence/dp/1607742454/

    • Thanks, Garry. You’re up early this morning.

      Great comments on using all five senses. It must be challenging to find something to taste in every scene.

      I agree with your recommendation of Wired for Story.
      Great book.

      Thanks for your two cents. While you were in the ring, I hope you grabbed the brass ring.

  3. Thanks for doing all this research. One piece of advice I had about creating a character readers would connect with was to make sure they were honorable. When put in a tough spot, the reader should think, “If that ever happened to me, I hope I’d have the strength (internal or external) to behave the same way.

    • Good point, Terry. We need characters who inspire us, characters to make us think, “If that ever happened to me, I hope I’d have the strength (internal or external) to behave the same way.”

      Thanks for your addition to the emotional glue.

      Have a great weekend!

  4. Steve, I like to think in terms of action scenes and reaction beats. The latter can be one line within a scene, or stretched out into its own mini-scene. Obviously, the more intense the emotional moment, the more it lends itself to a longer reaction beat. For those longer beats my usual practice is to overwrite the emotion, going deeper than the obvious, trying out metaphors, etc. Then I set that aside for a day and come back to it for an edit. I might retain most of it or just a line or two.

    Jim Butcher has said that the key to the success of the Dresden books is right there in those reaction beats.

    • Thanks, Jim, for those great thoughts. When you mentioned the success of the Dresden books, that reminded me of Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series. I only read one of the books, but when I watched the Netflix series with my wife, I had the same thought: She is grabbing the reader/viewer with her reaction beats.

      I’m enjoying your Bill Armbrewster serial story on Patreon. Highly recommended.

      Have a great weekend, and send some of your warm weather back east.

  5. Good morning, Steve. This is such an important topic, and you did a fine job laying out the importance of emotion and techniques to generate it. I had the good fortune to take Donald Maass’s Emotional Craft of Fiction workshop back in 2017. So many great techniques to generate emotion in that class (and book). I second your citing Jim’s and Jodie’s respective books.

    One thing I’d had (or perhaps emphasize more) is how a closer POV can help generate emotion in the reader. My first really intensive fiction writing class, “Become Your Own Story Doctor,” back in 2008, taught by Eric Witchey, had us tackle getting past what Eric called “avatar narrative”–essentially, the tendency to write a scene as though we were watching it on TV, rather than getting into the character’s skin.

    We did homework exercises where we’d write a scene that way, and then write the scene again, only this time write it in close POV, with sensory detail, POV character thoughts, and include something that they are currently caring about. Essentially, get inside that character and show the world through their eyes. It brings the scene to life and fills it with emotion, both large and small.

    Great post! Have a wonderful Saturday.

    • Great points, Dale. Thanks for your additions.

      I envy your opportunity to take Donald Maass’ class. I took a couple of them, but not that one. “List your options. Pick the worst thing that could happen. Now, make it three times as bad.” Or something like that.

      Thanks for your thoughts on closer POV. I’ve found that easier to do in 1st POV. Joe’s comment above is warning to not over do it. And JSB’s pointing out that the reaction beat is the place to lay it on thick, is a lightbulb coming on for me.

      Thanks, Dale! Have a great weekend.

  6. Great post, and such a tricky topic.

    One thing I’ve noticed in my critique group is the lack of physical responses to events that should trigger strong emotions. Sometimes there’s no response, but what’s more frustrating is when the character reacts with such a small, general response that I get confused on how they’re feeling. For example, raised eyebrows can mean anything. Or a sigh, or biting the lip.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Azali.

      Great points on reactions. Powerful events should yield strong emotions. Or else we end up with cardboard characters, two-dimensional, and certainly not interesting enough to follow.

      I know very little about emojis, but I just looked up emojis for explosion or exploding head. They’re available. Maybe it’s time to introduce some explosive critique in your group. Wake then up!

      Thanks for your comments. Have a good weekend!

    • One of my most useful critiques in my earliest days of writing was that the emotions and the reactions were in my head, but not on my page. I knew why the characters were doing what they were doing, but I wasn’t telling the reader because I was focusing on the plot, and I was eager to move forward with the story. It took a number of years of going back and filling in the emotion during my first rewrites for me to write it right the first time.

  7. Some of my recent blogs were answered questions from a fantasy writer on how to make a reformed villain believable and likable enough to carry a novel. It’s an interesting way to look at both character and reader emotion. Some of it is backstory and how to put that backstory in, but the most important part is goal. Give anyone a worthy goal and an emotional stake, and the reader will care. The emotions on the page don’t have to be romance-audience worthy in the quality of the writing, and you can still hold onto the reader’s heartstrings.

    Speaking of the “Dresden Files” novels, Jim Butcher is very good at giving worthy goals. In CHANGES, his young daughter is kidnapped to be sacrificed by a bunch of evil vampires. His goal for the novel is to save her, and he’s willing to start a war to do so. Absolutely no one will put down the book and lose interest because the goal is so important even when Harry is being a betraying dick to do so.

    • Thanks for contributing this morning, Marilynn. I was hoping you would stop by. I would be interested in links to your blogs on dealing with the reformed villain. A worthy goal and an emotional stake. Great advice.

      And thanks for your comments on Butcher’s CHANGES. After JSB mentioned him today, I took a look at the series. I’m eager to check it out.

      Have a great weekend.

  8. Great topic, Steve. I mentioned a few days ago I’m reading a trilogy of novels dealing with an EMP strike in the atmosphere. The first one is titled One Second After, and follows a small farming community.

    I bring it up again because of a scene I read last night-then couldn’t get to sleep.

    A discussion between the MC, John, and the town council about the food supply.

    Someone mentioned that when the cattle, hogs, and chickens disappeared, there was always the dogs.

    John has two beloved dogs. The author chose to have John react with total silence.

    And in that silence, I thought of having to cook and eat our German Shepherd, Hoka, the smartest dog in the universe.

    I was, shall we say, deeply invested in that scene, and the author did a great job of not telling me how to feel.

    I wanna be like him when I grow up. ?

  9. Fabulous post, Steve! Really good insight how, as children, we learn to push others’ buttons, as well as how we react to our own buttons being pushed. So true that those early lessons carry over into adulthood and we don’t even realize it.

    You mentioned all my favorite craft books. One more to add is Jack Bickham’s SCENE AND STRUCTURE. He talks about how a scene is an action while the sequel is the character’s emotional reaction to what just happened.

    The “scene” can be as short as a sentence (Joe kicked Bill in the shins.) and the “sequel” can be instantaneous (“You *&%$!” Bill shouted).

    Or the scene can be an entire chapter of nonstop action, followed by a sequel chapter where the character processes what just happened.

    The only suggestion I can add to your great summary is to end a scene with a cliffhanger. Make readers keep turning the pages…which, by the way, you do very well with your Mad River Magic series!

    • Thanks, Debbie. Thanks for mentioning Jack Bickham’s SCENE AND STRUCTURE. That’s one I haven’t read yet. I’ll put it on my list.

      Ah, yes, I hadn’t thought of the cliffhanger as an emotional tool, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s funny, we start these exercises on a topic to distill and simplify it. When we get done, we see that, like everything else in writing fiction, there are a multitude of plates we need to keep spinning. But then, it isn’t boring. There is always something else to perfect and learn.

      I’m really enjoying your Tawny Lindholm thriller series, Debbie!

      Have a great weekend!

  10. One of our eagle-eye contributors informed me of a mistake I made in the post today. My apologies to all of you.

    In the paragraph, “Under category #1 (telling), Jodie Renner discusses…” That paragraph should begin, “Under category #1 ( showing ), Jodie Renner discusses…”

    Thank you, my friend, for catching that!

  11. I am interested in how people handle adversity in their lives.

    In each of my books, I try to create situations where the protagonist and/or the antagonist must make a choice or decision, but all the options are imperfect.

    • Good comments, Truant. People dealing with adversity certainly stir emotion. And, I bet, sometimes there is conflict behind that adversity. When people are unfairly treated, the reader’s natural instinct should be to align with those who are unfairly treated.

      And characters having that moral dilemma of making the impossible choice; Wow, you’ve added some wonderful ways to stir the reader’s emotion and connect with the reader.

      Thanks, Truant. Have a good weekend.

  12. Great post, Steve. I love the lead-in you gave us — we can all identify.

    One thing I’ve recently discovered is that writing in first person may be a good way to connect with the reader. It makes it possible to lay bare the character’s emotions in a way that’s harder to do in third person.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

    • Thanks, Kay. I agree with you on first person POV. I started my series with third POV, but switched to first, and it’s definitely easier to let the reader inside the head of the MC. Funny thing, no one mentioned the switch.

      Thanks for stopping in. Have a great weekend!

  13. My most emotional scene is a dozen stages of setup and payoff, with secrets slowly revealed until the poet realizes, 220 pages later, that when he met his beloved beside the Ebro, she wasn’t upset at her father’s vanishing; she was weeping because she’d just drowned him in the river.

    • Thanks, JG, for your example. You’re certainly in good company. Donald Maass would call that a “big emotional experience engineered by circumstances.” With 220 pages of setup, the payoff can be explosive. And that is what Maass recommends as the best emotional trigger.

      Thanks for your comments and great ideas.

      Have a great weekend!

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