Monday, February 24, 2020

Getting Readers Invested Through Emotion

In the creative writing class I teach at our local college, my students all read from their works in progress.  I was very impressed with their level of talent.  As we were getting ready to leave, I impulsively gave them homework.  I asked them to write a deeply emotional scene and keep it to no more than a single page.

While driving home that night, I wondered to myself why I’d even thought to do that.  It wasn’t something I’d planned to do ahead of time.

Then I realized that, while most of what they’d written was technically proficient, I hadn’t become emotionally invested in some of their characters.

There was one important exception and that was a piece done on a child’s suicide as written from the first person viewpoint of the mother. It was a powerful piece of writing that was both jarring and moving at the same time.

Emotion.  That’s what makes the characters and their situations real to us.  We can relate to what they’re feeling.

We’ve all felt emotions like love, even if it’s been for your pet.  Or the pain of heartbreak, or grief, or disappointment.  When your character feels those emotions, the reader can feel them as well. They’re familiar to all of us.

But better to show than to tell.

Instead of saying: She was afraid to open the box. We might say, instead, something like: Her hands trembled, her fingertips not quite touching the lid of the box. She was filled with dread, imagining what horrible artifact might be inside.

Instead of saying: He recalled how his father had loved him. We might say, instead, something like: He recalled how his father had bought him his first baseball glove, showed him how to care for it, and taught him how to pitch.  And the beaming smile on his father’s face when he won his first Little League game.

I wrote about grief in my second Geneva Chase novel. Her lover is dead and she’s trying to cope.  I wrote about it this way:

This was originally Kevin’s house and this was his bedroom. Oh sure, my framed posters and photographs are on the walls now and his Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar is long gone. My books are in the bookshelves, my sheets and duvet are on the bed, and my television is sitting on the dresser.

But this is his bedroom.

I’d kept some of Kevin’s clothes. They’re hanging in the closet next to mine.  Now and then, I open the closet door and hug his shirts and slacks to my face, wishing he were in them.

I kept his aftershave on the counter in the bathroom, next to where I keep my cosmetics. I open it and I can smell Kevin, almost as if he were standing behind me.

Where is the line between grief and fetishizing the dead?

No, fetishizing isn't a real word. I write fiction, I make stuff up.

Let me finish by quoting James Michener. He said, "I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."


  1. You are helping your students (and blog readers) recognize the beating heart of writing. Thanks, Tom!

  2. Excellent post, Tom! Thanks so much.

  3. Another interesting read from an exciting author.


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