Project 2015, Part 6: Earned Emotion

Earn Those Feels

If you’re a writer, it should keep you up at night: the knowledge that readers will never lack a good book to read. If your own manuscript starts to go all flat and hollow, the reader can put it down and find something better. Who among us doesn’t have a long to-read list on Goodreads or the Kindle, or a good old-fashioned stack next to the already-full bookshelf? In this part of the Project 2015 course, we’re going to return to the subject of how to write emotion: how to render character emotions, because emotional investment keeps readers attached to your words.

Nowhere else in writing is the show don’t tell maxim more staggeringly true than when you write characters’ emotions. “Earning” an emotion is all about knowing the tricks of how to tee up a scene so that your reader FEELS something when reading; it’s the trick of getting your readers’ emotions to harmonize in a big way with your point-of-view character’s. That trick is the combination of a number of techniques, but the two you need to know for now are (1) rendering, and (2) front loading.


It shows us how to see a scene through evocative details. In super-simple terms, that means if it’s a bad moment, the language you choose has a negative charge. If it’s a good moment, the language has a positive charge (e.g., compare your impression of cooking that has a scent versus food that has a stench).

Front loading: 

It teaches us what we need to know about a scene. Doing it is more complex, takes more time, but basically gives the reader all the context s/he needs to know how to interpret an event.

For an example of each, there is one such spot in the last book I read, Ann Leckie‘s Hugo and Nebula Award winning Ancillary Justice. In it, the narrator-character is made to shoot Lieutenant Awn:

The scene is powerful, first, because we know Awn is innocent, and see her on her knees and begging for her life. We also know she is the protagonist’s favorite officer.

We know these things because we’ve gotten many tiny cues that support the fact that Awn is worthy of admiration: e.g., the annexed local population under her command requests that she not be transferred; she is firm but uneasy around upper-class citizens, having to hide her humble accent; she embraces and comforts a newly made ancillary soldier, which everyone else perceives as mere equipment. Most important, a few scenes beforehand, she herself was ordered to execute a number of townspeople unjustly, and has been feeling bereft and miserable about it. The two unfair executions mirror each other.

We see that the order is painful for the narrator because the language in the scene  portrays Awn’s shock and terror at being betrayed, her “pure, sharp rage.” Her position on the floor, prostrate before her divine commander, is a detail that shows her obedience, helplessness, and lack of threat.

This important scene happens over halfway through the novel. The front-loading needs that much space to prepare the reader for this heart-wrenching scene, because we need to feel it in order to understand the narrator’s extreme need for revenge that leads to the climax.

You write emotions by doing the work of making sure we see and know enough to feel sad. That emotion, therefore, is earned.

Without that big harmony at regular intervals throughout your novel–say, at every single important turning point–your reader and character will start to drift apart and your reader will start dating other people. Er, I mean, will go pick a different book off of the massive pileup next the bookshelf.

This may be a good place to pause and give some technical background. A common challenge that writers of all levels face—especially later in a manuscript—are the characters’ tendency to overreact, or react in ways we weren’t expecting, and similarly, the story’s tendency to drift off into places we aren’t prepared for it to go. (The reader’s reaction is either, “Huh?” or, “Meh.” Or maybe your inner voice speaks in more syllables than mine.) Anyway, the key to making us feel the character’s emotions intuitively, and sense that the novel is on track, is the emotional detailing–the rendering and front-loading–you work into the novel before its major turning points.


Preparing the reader is an unsung art.

When we think of novels we love, we think about the characters in the throes of whatever wrenching scenes define them, but often fail to look critically at the amount of work the author does beforehand to ensure that those key scenes have an impact on the reader. These techniques are literally the subject of master’s-level classes and long workshops.

Essentially, we need to know what to expect. The most straightforward way of showing emotion is probably the least poignant: to simply describe what the character does during the event. In other words, rendering.

Example of Rendering:

Say a woman finds a twenty-dollar bill in the street. You want us to feel something about that. But what? You can describe her racing heart, her breathless feeling of good fortune, and the way the bill warms her hand as she balls it up discreetly against her leg and walks away. That conveys an expected reaction serviceably well.

More Interesting Example (Front-Loading, Part 1):

Instead of being happy, she might react very differently. Maybe her face goes rigid and she looks over her shoulder, and up and down the street, and then steps over the bill and keeps walking. Why? To convey more complex and unpredictable—and often more memorable—reactions to an event, we need to go deeper.

Your most reliable method for doing so is front-loading. In other words, you give us key information about a character well ahead of time, and make sure we remember it. That way, when your character is confronted with an event, you don’t have to jar us, over-explain, or otherwise spend time on any task except writing a clear, effective, lean scene. The context is already there.

More Interesting Example (Front-Loading, Part 2):

To continue with the example of the woman and the money, why might she feel suspicious? Maybe you gave us a flashback much earlier where she’s growing up in a poor family, and her grandmother warns her that there is no such thing as good luck. Then you followed it up a while later with her innocent brother being shot at a party, and the unjust way his case was run by the cops. Maybe the character has a strong belief in leaving well enough alone—even if she’s living on the edge of poverty and she doesn’t have money to buy flowers for her brother’s grave. That way, when the money is there in front of her, and she’s on her way to the cemetery, she can step right over it and keep walking. We’ll have a very clear idea about the complex forces operating in her psyche. The emotion is much subtler, and possibly more poignant.

Overall, the front-loading technique requires forethought and a fair bit of space, so understandably, you only want to use it for the novel’s important emotions: the ones that push the characters in a meaningful direction and express something that hints at theme. When I’m editing, my notes will say things like, “Too explanatory,” “Jarring,” “Set this up better,” or, “We need to feel this better.” This will help you achieve emotional consistency throughout the novel, and lead the characters toward the turning points that define their lives.

The first step is always realizing where you want the novel to affect us, and then working backwards to make sure the cues line up.

If you found this helpful, check out other Project 2015 posts by clicking the tag below, or following me on Twitter (@threepenny) for updates. Thanks for reading!

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