As a reader, there is no better experience than being emotionally moved while devouring a good book.
The written word is, after all, intended for communication, and more often than not, what writers want is to make their readers think and feel a certain way. This is especially true in the world of fiction and memoire writing, where readers expect to be drawn into the story and to grow attached to the characters.
However, if you’re an author, you know that it’s not easy getting people to notice your book, and it can be even harder to get them invested. The world is full of different kinds of people, which means not everyone will pick up what you put down. Nonetheless, at the heart of authorial passion is the desire to have your story emotionally resonate with as many people as possible.
Okay, great, but how does one convey emotion through writing? We know beautiful prose when we see it, but how do we emulate it? How do we communicate the rawest parts of ourselves authentically and effectively? This is no small or easy task, but there are techniques that can help. In this piece, I will share four tricks I’ve picked up.
The very structure of a sentence—its length, syntax, and punctuation—can impact the way it is received be a reader. The way writing flows from word to word, sentence to sentence, conveys a lot about the writer’s intentions. For example, short, choppy sentences can be great for communicating strong, sudden emotions like distress, confusion, and pain (in the negative) or excitement, anticipation, and joy (in the positive). Although I am generally not an advocate of using sentence fragments, the occasional fragment can be very effective in communicating a strong emotion—the caveat being that it’s used occasionally. Let’s look at a few examples:
It came from within, this furious, bone-deep itch. Thousands of tiny needle-point legs, trampling on nerves. They burned and screeched, demanding nails on flesh.
In the above example, I’m describing someone in distress. I would assume that a person experiencing this level of discomfort wouldn’t be able to think or narrate in fully formed, complex sentences because of their emotional state, so their thoughts would come out choppy and somewhat fragmented. Keeping the sentences short ensures a snappy, urgent pace that puts the reader on edge. Now let’s look at another example:
She stood there—a ghost returned from the grave. Only she wasn’t a ghost. She was flesh and blood. She was family, and she was alive.
In this example, we have someone seeing a loved one they thought was dead. Although this is definitely a happier occasion, it is nonetheless riddled with complex emotions. Seeing someone you’ve grieved over is still quite traumatic and stressful, even if you are happy to see them! Similar to the previous example, I would assume that the person in question wouldn’t really have it in them to form long, eloquent sentences when first seeing a family member who is presumed dead. The short sentences mimic their tattered emotional state: shocked, confused, uncertain, but ultimately relieved or happy.
However, short sentences aren’t the only ones that can convey emotion. Longer, occasionally even rambling sentences can communicate scrambled thoughts, worry, or exasperation. For example, someone trying to recount a highly stressful or exciting event might narrate in run-on sentences. The same could be said of someone who is overstimulated or has had too much caffeine! Here’s an example:
I put the key in the ignition, then turned it—the key, I mean—and then the engine revved like usual, but as soon as I switched the gear, I heard this noise like someone had dropped a glass from the roof, and then there was this bang and a sputter, and I could smell smoke, so I panicked and hit the breaks even though the car wasn’t moving because I was scared, you know?
The sentence above is narrated in the first person from someone who is frazzled after their car broke down (and who knows what happened before then!). The sentence is longer than any sentence should be, frankly, but the use of punctuation makes it manageable to read/ However, occasionally, using sentences like this is fine because they can effectively convey the person’s emotional state.
Be methodical about word choice. Sometimes, the right words can go a long way in creating a specific emotion. For example, if I say someone is ‘angry,’ it doesn’t really evoke much of an image, but it I say someone is ‘seething,’ my brain conjures a specific image of a pot about to boil over. It gives me the distinct sense that something bad is about to happen—like someone might lose their temper and lash out. In comparison, the adjective ‘angry’ has very little impact.
Here is another example: if someone is drunk, rather than describing their gait as ‘clumsy’ or ‘uncoordinated,’ you can describe them as ‘shambling.’
“They shambled down the hill” is far more evocative than, “They walked clumsily down the hill,” or, “Their gait was uncoordinated as they walked.”
Metaphors and Similes
Perhaps one of my favourite techniques for evoking emotion is using similes and metaphors to conjure a specific image in the reader’s mind. The fact is, direct, simple language often does not create emotional impact the same way that abstract images do. When we write about something directly, it may engender intellectual understanding, but it rarely provokes empathy from the reader.
Metaphors and similes are a great way to communicate how something feels without saying it directly. Because direct and clinical descriptions are so endemic to how we communicate on a daily basis, we are desensitized to their impact. For example, when a friend has a bad day at work, they might say, “I was so annoyed,” and then go on to explain why. We hear this so often that it has almost no meaning and falls flat when encountered in prose.
However, metaphors and similes give us a tool for creative expression for emotions we all experience; they defamiliarize us from the simplicity of loaded terms like ‘anger’ and ‘happiness.’ They offer us a specific and tangible image with which we can better understand the power of what is being conveyed.
For example, saying someone is “unpredictable” doesn’t really evoke any particular emotional response from me as a reader. However, if we say that someone is “like a tornado in the middle of the night,” we can insinuate that they are unpredictable based on culturally shared knowledge and symbolism around tornadoes: they are highly unpredictable and destructive storms with an erratic path, and the idea of one dropping from the sky after dark is especially terrifying because everything is less visible and less certain when the sun goes down. In other words, it’s the image, not the adjective, that evokes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and anxiety. Through the image, we create an empathic connection with the subject of the writing. As a result, we genuinely feel that the person being written about is unpredictable.
Ah yes, the mind-body dualism. Whoever came up with it did some serious damage to how we think of ourselves. In reality, the border between mind and body is paper thin, and anyone who has ever had anxiety (aka all of us) can confirm this. Our emotions manifest through our bodies, and more often than not, bodies speak what we cannot.
For this exact reason, using the body as a tool to convey emotion is far more effective than direct, clinical description. Many of you will have encountered this advice in the form of “show, don’t tell.” For example, rather than telling your reader that someone is grief-stricken, show them through body language.
Does their face twist with realization? Do they curl in on themselves, seeking comfort and safety? Do they flee their immediate surroundings? Do they grab a drink or light a cigarette with a trembling hand? What does their voice sound like? Does it come out rough like sandpaper? Are they swallowing rapidly, mouth parched? Are their eyes red from tears and sleeplessness? Do shadows cling beneath them?
When you find yourself writing a scene that demands emotional impact, try to make those emotions visceral by focusing on the body. Embodied experience is the most tangible way we relate to the world, and it is also one of the best tools for communicating what lies beneath the skin.