4 Tips to Improve Your Writing Through Emotion not Facts
Updated: Oct 7
The world of fiction runs on emotions, not facts.
Writers may not be scientists, but they don't need to be...um...let's ignore science fiction for now. Writing well requires you to know your audience and the emotional responses you want them to have. It also requires the ability to put your readers in places they can never go and show them things they'll never see.
Emotion isn't something learned or a statistic that can be charted; it has to come from deep within the soul of a person who has lived a real life and feels all kinds of emotions daily.
Why emotion drives fiction
We all know that fiction is make-believe. But what we may not realize is that the world of fiction runs on emotions, not facts.
Think about it: when you're reading a book or watching a movie, you're not interested in the dry, factual details. Many people readily accept plot holes and inconsistencies when something has a grasp on their emotions (not saying you should have these things in your book, either.) You want to be swept up in the story, to feel the characters' joy and pain as if it were your own. Readers will even willfully set aside their logic and reason so long as the characters they read about are emotionally relatable.
And that's because, at its heart, fiction is all about emotion. It's about connecting with the characters deeply and experiencing their journey along with them.
Ok, ok. I've said this so many times you're gonna want to hit me like a skipping record. But there really is nothing else you need to know. Sure there are tips and tricks for writing this and that, but the only tool you really need to make something readers treasure is a firm grasp of emotion. Real, untethered emotion. How to manipulate the readers' emotions, convey a character's emotions, and give emotions to objects and places that, in reality, have none.
So next time you're lost in a good book or caught up in an epic film, remember that the emotions keep you in it—not the facts.
Levels of Emotion
Not all emotions are created equal. Some are more impactful than others and can really shape how a story unfolds. Emotion happens on levels (just like everything else I explain in detail. So sue me, I like hierarchies).
Here are some different levels of emotion and how they can affect a story:
Cruise-control Emotion: This is the kind of emotion that is felt on a daily basis and changes from situation to situation. It's not overly intense or dramatic. We might not even realize that we are feeling our emotions at all. It is the feeling of being annoyed because you are hungry. It is the warmth we experience when our child says something cute. It is reactionary and constantly changing.
I said changing, and that matters for our stories too. Most importantly, it is nuanced. I don't mean your characters should be constantly hot and cold, but the little emotions are the cues your reader will pick up on in a scene. They are the things that move beats forward and lead to bigger and better things.
We need examples. Perhaps you have a character sitting in a restaurant, and a plate of food is placed in front of her. We can tell from her reaction what her emotions are to the state of her meal. Does she sneer and pick at it with her fork? What does this say about the food? What does this say about the character?
Maybe our character is stuffy, and she has been taken to a dive bar. The character who brought her there says, "Finally, come on, dig in!" with a brilliant smile across his face.
This small scene conveyed two emotions and told us everything we needed to know about it. It showed the polar personalities of the characters, gave us conflict, and even moved the plot in a direction we can imagine. What if the scene played out without the emotion added. It is literally just two people getting food. Yippee. Boring.
The little amount of cruise-control emotion we got also leads us to think: "This is going somewhere." And it is. It is going to the next level.
Defensive-driving Emotion: This is a more intense feeling that can really drive a story forward (that one's for the dads.) These emotions are the ones that keep your character motivated. They are the reason your protagonist keeps moving toward his or her goals. A feeling of deep regret, a feeling of guilt, a yearning to feel loved. They are also the emotions that keep them firmly entrenched in their fatal flaw, the lie they tell themselves, or their biggest weakness—whatever you feel like calling it.
Car-Crash Emotion: This is an all-consuming emotional explosion that can totally turn the direction of your story on its head, upside down, and all around. These emotions direct the monumental, memorable moments like your Midpoint (turning point), 3rd plot point (major setback/tragedy), or climax and denouement. You have heard us talk about the importance of catharsis in story writing, the moment where all the emotion releases and you either leave your reader in tears of joy, grief, or anger you choose.
No story is complete without a car crash.
I'll leave you with another piece of advice about writing car crashes. It won't matter to the reader unless we know who is in the car and care about them.
Techniques for writing better stories with emotional conflicts.
If you want to write better stories, it pays to focus on emotional conflict. After all, fiction runs on emotions, not facts. You can make your stories more engaging and memorable by understanding how to use emotional conflict to create compelling characters and plots.
Here are some tips for writing stories with strong emotional conflict:
Start your story with an emotionally charged situation. Don't just show us someone doing something, but show us a person doing something AND conveying an emotion, regardless of the level that emotion is on.
Write about universal emotions. Start big. Love. Guilt. Pride. Then move into the more nuanced territory from there but never lose sight of the core of it. This emotional center directs your theme and keeps the reader from floating off into Put the Book Down and Forget About It Land.
Develop believable characters. This is where level one comes in; by showing us the character's emotional progression, you make it more believable when the big emotions come. But this also connects to number two: everything centers around the core.
Give your characters opposing goals. Each character in your story, from your protagonist to the bag-boy packing his groceries, needs to have a goal, something that they "want" in the book and the scene.
Let's dig into number 4 a little deeper.
Some of these goals will be seen by the reader. For instance, the reader should be well familiar with what your protagonist wants. The bag-boy, probably not so much...
However, these goals and wants can create emotional depth and nuance in your scene. Keeping your characters' desires in opposition creates tension in your story.
Let's use the example of a protagonist and a bag-boy. Maybe your character is in a hurry to get home to the beautiful girl waiting for him in his bed, but the bag boy's goal is to get through another dreary day, bored and depressed with his boring life. Or maybe he is high as a kite, just trying to get the bags packed without anyone noticing his red eyes and smelling the roach in his pocket. Whatever you want, the reader never needs to be told (in fact, they shouldn't be told, just shown).
The tension that can be created in that short scene should be obvious. It doesn't need to be a big moment, maybe only a line or two, but it will add depth to your story that readers will appreciate.
I have edited many books where a character reacts realistically but not purposefully based on the core emotion they have been given as their motivation.
How do I explain this? Hmm.
Take, for instance, if a character in your novel cried when they discovered their lover had cheated. Makes sense. It is a sad thing to learn. However, in this story, we start with the theme of pride. This character's pride is the emotion that stirs him to action and directs his decisions throughout the plot. In this case, crying doesn't make sense. Anger makes sense. People, especially men, react with anger when their pride is damaged. In fact, tears would make it worse.
Don't forget to give your characters emotional cohesion.
Facts are essential, but in the world of fiction, emotions are what matter most. To create a compelling story, an author must be able to evoke strong emotions in their readers. Without evoking emotion, a story will fall flat and fail to engage its audience. So, while facts are important, like logical plots and world-building, it is the emotion that ultimately drives the success of any work of fiction.
Fail to tap into it, and you fail at fiction. Done.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under her pen name Turi T. Armstrong.