Writers sometimes struggle with painting emotional depth and breadth into their work. They can picture the pain on someone’s features, feel their characters’s agony. Then when they hand their precious words over to someone else, they might find themselves faced with the news: “Sorry, it’s great but, I’m just not feeling it.”
How do you make them feel it?
If you want to make your readers feel powerful emotions, it is crucial to give them powerful imagery. Grounding your story’s world with elements that reflect the mood you want to convey is not an option; it’s the ticket to their hearts. -Tweet that!
Emotion is Bigger Than Facial Expressions
“The eyes are the window to the soul.” Okay, but how many times can you reference eyes, eyebrows, hands, feet, and mouth before running out of ways to describe that particular expression? Sometimes our characters hide how they’re feeling. They’ve got a bleary, million-mile stare. Their tone is dead. Their shoulders are carefully squared. Their words are formal and level.
But then we see the folded flag they’re handing to a woman at a funeral, and we understand. We understand there’s grief, maybe regret, behind the careful words.
Or then we see them giving a speech to a silent audience. They’re conceding to the numbers in the election race; they lost. We understand there’s disappointment to be had.
Or then we see them bouncing their knee at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and understand, they’re jonesing for a hit but they’re here for a reason. They choose to stay seated anyway. Maybe by their own determination, or a loved one gave an ultimatum and it’s hanging over their head.
Picking the Perfect Words
If you were to put a baseball with mud on it in front of several characters, they would all describe it differently. Part of setting mood (or a tone for your character, be it pessimistic or optimistic or any other -istic) is carefully choosing which words any given character would use. Think of their history, personality, general outlook, and new thoughts the situation or props will spark.
The kid who owns the ball might say:
I’ve had it since I was nine. It’s got teeth marks from my dog Joe; he died last year, but we used to play with that ball for hours. I remember how slimy it felt in my hand every time he brought it back to me. I sure miss him. I’ll never throw this ball away.
The mom who wants him to throw it out:
It’s old and all scuffed-up. There are grass stains and the stitching is pulling apart. The thing is clearly giving up the ghost. This ball cost us $700 to repair a neighbor’s window. Footballs don’t go through windows, and they’re on sale at Dale’s Sporting Goods. Maybe I’ll surprise him with one for his birthday.
Setting the Proper Stage
Unless you’re going for a comedic or satirical work, this is one suggestion you might not want to skip. You don’t want to pour all of your heart into something just to find out your tone doesn’t match the intended emotion. Heartfelt, creepy, angry, joyful. An imbalance between your intent and your choice in setting (settings are often considered to be symbolic of inner struggles or victories) and the whole thing goes topsy-turvy. Not cool.
Picture this. A young boy, age four, has been kidnapped. Who is your antagonist? What do they want with the boy? Is your antagonist automatically perceived as EVIIIIL, or do you have to work at it a little, go beyond the shock of the crime? Dialogue is important to give your story pace and forward-motion, but it can’t (or will very rarely) stand alone. Picture a television show or movie where two isolated characters read their lines to each other without any context. Unless they’re incredibly gifted storytellers using vivid imagery and colorful language (not the four-letter kind) then you can bet we’re gonna be bored.
Let’s examine the kidnapped boy. Below are three examples of settings, mixed with dialogue, in which you could stage your key scenes to help us understand your antagonist (or protagonist, if perhaps the boy’s father has just stolen him from some mafia guys) and to help us be grounded by a tone/mood by signals that say “you’re supposed to be angry, happy, or enraged right now.”
The kidnapper takes the boy to a (cliched, but effective) warehouse. It’s a large, dark room with high ceilings. There are loud machines echoing. The only light is coming from blinking workshop lights and some very tiny windows with metal bars over them, at the tops of the walls. The only door is locked and barricaded with a steel pole. There’s no way out. Kidnapper and a tall, scabby dude are talking in sharp voices. The kidnapper says, “This is not what I signed up for.”
How does that make you feel? Are you trapped with the boy? Overwhelmed by the enormity of the setting and situation, just like a four year old might feel? With a little extra paint, could this setting even be terrifying? What are those machines doing, and are they gonna cut the boy up? Or are they not machines at all, but man-eating monsters? Hmm, so many intense questions, so little dialogue.
The kidnapper takes the little boy to the bright white restroom of the shopping mall. There’s a crack in the tile shaped like a lopsided smile. It smells lemony fresh here, like Lysol. Kidnapper brought a hair trimmer like the kind at KidClips, where boy gets his haircuts once a month. Kidnapper begins to shave off the boy’s hair. “You’re safe now,” Kidnapper says. They smile with tears the little boy doesn’t understand. “They won’t find you where we’re going. No one’s gonna hurt you anymore.”
Props are just as important as setting. The hair trimmer and the act of shaving the boy’s hair will tip the reader off that this kidnapper planned this day out to a T. But the boy notices the smiley crack in the tile. The lemony fresh Lysol. The brightness. The familiarity of a hair clipper used in a place where he probably gets candy for sitting still. It’s difficult to be totally afraid in a place like this, but it’s still unsettling. You don’t understand the Kidnapper’s motives, yet, but it doesn’t feel like they want to hurt the boy. What kind of kidnapper cries?
Now here is a special case where setting contradicts emotion. In this case, we use an especially normal, cheery setting to showcase the wrongness of this perpetrator’s actions. If this were the boy’s father, it would be a happy moment. But there is something other about this. Something wrong. There is manipulation at foot; the boy’s trust is not difficult to earn.
The kidnapper takes the little boy for a car ride to calm him down. The minivan smells like dogs and air freshener. There are small fingerprints on the window that were there before the boy, and some Power Ranger stickers near the door’s handle. The boy admires these, and wishes they were his. Kidnapper gets out and takes the boy and an enthusiastic white dog to the edge of the woods at a park. It’s a beautiful day. There are people playing frisbee. A family with two young girls is having a picnic. Kidnapper lets the boy throw a yellow tennis ball for the white dog. When the boy is tired, Kidnapper buys him an ice-cream, then sits on a bench in the shade of a tree. They talk about the boy’s favorite animals and colors. “Oh, then you’ll like it at my house,” the Kidnapper tells him. “Your new room is [his favorite color.]”
From the three examples above, we learn the antagonists are three separate kinds of ‘villains’: the one who was tricked and is faced with a choice, the one who has a well-intended if questionable motive, and the run-of-the-mill creeptastic guy who is the scum of the earth, amen. While the other two have open endings, there will be no redemption arc in that story, and the reader’s expectations are almost concrete right away. They assume the boy with be abused or murdered, but pray he will be found before either can happen.
Your best weapon to evoke emotion is to be aware of details. Stick to the important ones, the ones that reflect your character’s inner state or the plot’s overarching mood, and lean into it with all you’ve got. You don’t have to be wordy or flowery to capture an emotion; just use your natural writerly instinct to tell you what is important.