When I started writing I used to get comments from editors along the lines of “lacks emotional punch”. It took me a long time to figure out exactly what they meant. The emotional punch they were talking of is when a writer makes the reader feel something (other than irritation or annoyance at the crass plotting or stupid characters!).
When I thought about it, I considered my own reading experiences. What made a book special for me? I realised it was when a book made me laugh, cry or get so thrilled by what I was reading I could hardly turn the pages fast enough. So for me, a great read is when I’m so immersed in the world of the story that I forget I’m reading.
One way a writer can do this is by letting their readers view the world from inside their character’s skin. This is known as “deep point of view.”
There are many great articles on the web about deep point of view, but here are five tips to help you stir your readers’ emotions and give them a satisfying read.
1) Show don’t tell.
You will hear this advice a lot if you’re a new writer. What does it mean? It means the author is jumping in to tell the reader what’s happening instead of letting the reader experience it for themselves through action, feelings and senses.
For example: “He felt a blast of cold air as he walked through the door” is telling. The words “he felt” distance the reader from the character. Rewritten in deep point of view would be something like: “He walked through the back door and gasped as the freezing air slapped him in the face like an outraged lover.”
The use of strong verbs such as “slapped” makes it more vivid for the reader. You could also substitute a stronger word for walked, such as burst or strode to convey a different emotion.
To find out if you’re telling search your work for words such as:
These words are often a sign that you’re telling not showing.
2) Empathise don’t sympathise with your character.
This is really a continuation of number 1. Sympathy is when you see someone fall over and you think “oh that must have hurt” Empathy is when you see someone fall over and you really feel their pain.
I remember years ago we were at a family barbeque in a forest and my younger son slipped on loose gravel and fell flat on his front. Being a tough teenager at the time, he leapt to his feet and brushed himself down hiding the fact that it must have hurt like hell, but I really felt his pain; it haunted me long after his grazes healed.
So, when your character is experiencing a strong emotion close your eyes and imagine what he/she is going through then write it down. Easy! (okay not so easy but then who said writing was easy?)
3) Use your own experiences to write authentically.
To imagine an emotion when you’re not feeling it doesn’t come easily to many people. Most of us are not Oscar-winning actors. So it’s a good idea to get into the habit of carrying a journal around with you and describe how you’re feeling or what you’re doing, at any particular time. I call this “writing in the moment”.
Just heard some amazing news? Had a fight with your significant other, or one of your kids? Did someone or something make you laugh so hard your stomach hurt? Describe how that made you feel and react. Did you just eat something revolting or totally delicious? How did it taste?
Remember to describe any physical changes in your body that you noticed. For example, when I’m disappointed about something I get an ache at the back of my throat. When I’m excited, I get a lovely tingling sensation in the pit of my stomach.
If you make this a habit, you’ll soon collect a notebook full of genuine emotions to draw from in your own writing.
You can also use this technique for writing vivid description. As an exercise take your pen and paper and go and sit somewhere. Describe what’s around you using as many senses as you can such as sight, smell, hearing, touch and maybe even taste.
Here’s an example I wrote a while ago when I went to sit by the river during my lunchbreak.
“A hot wind is beating down on my back and penetrating the thin fabric of my blouse. It sends ripples skittering over the glassy surface of the muddy, grey water. A pesky fly keeps buzzing round my face returning relentlessly as I swat it away. Beside me, concrete steps, leading down to the water, are encrusted with barnacles. They smell strongly of old seaweed which reminds me of trips to the seaside to visit Nanna in England as a kid. The fishy seaweed smell mingles with the acrid smell of car fumes. The sky is cloudy and the atmosphere heavy and oppressive. A storm is looming. I can hear traffic rumbling along Riverside Drive behind me and the occasional squeal of brakes, the caw of seagulls, the thunder of trucks and the indistinct mutter of people as they walk by.”
No literary prizes to be won there but you see what I mean? Could you picture the scene? You’d never drop all that into a scene at once but little dabs of it here and there will make your writing so much richer because it will put your readers inside your character’s skin.
4) Listen to stirring music
I find if I listen to something romantic, I get warm gooey feelings inside which naturally flows through to the words I’m writing. Listening to Andrea Bocelli singing in Italian does that to me. I don’t speak more than a few words of Italian so the lyrics aren’t distracting and I can concentrate on the emotion. Movie scores are helpful too as they’re often written to emphasise a particular mood.
5) Limit the number of speech tags and adverbs used.
There are times when speech tags and adverbs are needed but overuse can weaken the writing. Often, they can be deleted or replaced with an action or an emotion which shows what’s happening and who’s speaking.
“I’m not going to stand for this,” Jack said angrily.
“I’m not going to stand for this.” Jack marched out of the door slamming it shut behind him.
His actions make it clear he’s angry and paint a more vivid picture.
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful but if you have any comments or suggestions I’d love to hear from you! And if you’re looking for more writing tips try this: