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  • [Breakfast with the Muse] 4 Compelling Ways to Write Emotion
[Breakfast with the Muse] 4 Compelling Ways to Write Emotion
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2015
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2015

One of the easiest things to write badly is emotion.

Long after a writer has learned to create interesting characters, construct strong plots, invent believable settings, and come up with convincing dialogue, she might still be writing sentences like, “Marissa felt really, really angry” or “Jake was happy as a clam.”

It wasn’t until multiple writing teachers had commented on my tendency to describe my characters’ feelings with boring words like “cheerful” and “depressed” that I began to make a serious study of how excellent writers depict emotions. What I found was that, while writing emotion may be easy to screw up, it’s also easy to fix, if you know a few simple techniques.

Here are four ways to depict emotion in your writing, with examples from some of the best writers around.

Show emotion through action.

This is the simplest way to transform a boring description of what someone is feeling into a vivid and memorable scene. Bharati Mukherjee doesn’t use the word “angry” in this sentence from Desirable Daughters, but we have no trouble knowing what her character, Rabi, is feeling:

He stormed out of the room, took the steep, creaky stairs two at a time, and left the house, slamming the front door so hard behind him that he probably didn’t hear my plaintive, “Rabi, wear something warmer.”

Use metaphor.

Rather than saying what the emotion is, say what it is like. This is what Andre Dubus does here in his story “Dancing after Dark,” about a high school literature teacher:

She taught without confidence or hope, and felt like a woman standing at a roadside, reading poems aloud into the wind as cars filled with teenagers went speeding by.

Dubus starts this depiction with a description, but it’s the analogy that packs the punch (and speaking as one who used to teach literature to very bored teenagers, I can tell you this is exactly what it feels like).

Express it through dialogue.

Marya Hornbacher captures a world of emotion in a very simple, rather ordinary conversation in The Center of Winter, and she does it without either character saying anything about what he or she is feeling. In this scene a young girl’s mentally ill brother has been institutionalized, and she has just gotten his bicycle for Christmas:

I said thank you and began to cry, for reasons of which I was not aware.

“Oh, now. Say now,” said my father. He came over and sat next to me on the floor, rubbing my back with his hand. “See here.

“It’s not the bike,” I said, wiping my face with the heels of my hands. “I love the bike.”

“No, of course not. It’s everything, “ he said.

“It’s just everything.”

Hornbacher's characters don't come out and say what they're feeling. It's woven so perfectly into the dialogue, they don't have to.

Use setting.

Most writers know how important setting is, but it’s amazing how many forget to use it when they start focusing on characters’ emotions. In editing my own work, I often find that my first drafts have scenes in which my characters are emoting away with no reference to where they are doing it, as if they’re floating around in an empty space. Using setting as a backdrop for emotion is probably the most difficult of the techniques discussed here, because it’s easy to fall into cliché (can’t anyone be frightened or lonely on a sunny day?) But done skillfully, it can be stunningly effective, as in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Letter Writer.” Here, a old man is lying in bed too ill to move. He lives alone, and no one knows he is sick:

Herman opened his eyes, and the day was just beginning—an overcast wintry day that he could barely make out through the front-covered windowpanes. It was as cold indoors as out. . . From the hallway he heard sounds of shouting and running free.

What works here is the contrast. It isn’t just the cold of the man’s room that evokes his despair, but the sound of people just outside it—people just a few feet away who cannot hear or see him.

Try this: Write about a grief, an embarrassment, or an annoyance in one sentence, without using a single emotion word. Try it four different ways, using each of the techniques discussed in this post.

How do you show emotion in your writing? What techniques have you used? What has worked and what hasn't? Share them here!

Jill Jepson is the author of Writing as a Sacred Path. Get her free weekly strategies for writers here. Over 50? Get her free ebooklet, Calling Up the Writer Within: Writing at 50 & Beyond.

Photo credit: © Konstantynov | Dreamstime.com - Happy Woman Holding Her Sad Picture Photo

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  • Jill Jepson

    Interesting, Annemarie. We all seem to have our unique strengths and challenges as writers.

  • Annemarie Musawale

    Interesting. I find writing emotion easier than writing about descriptions of things. Setting the scene is harder for me than emoting. :(

  • Jill Jepson

    Now, there's an excellent suggestion, Jenni Ogden!

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Great post with good, clear examples. Thank you! Now do one about sex scenes!

  • Jill Jepson

    Glad you liked the post, Patricia.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thank you Jill and Cate! All good suggestion. I'm not always aware of what I'm feeling at any given time, yet I may be swearing at other driver's in traffic or getting teary-eyed over something not related at all to why I'm teary. Only then do I realize I'm angry or sad. Adding actions and settings add depth to the emotions.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you so much for your interesting comments, Cate! I'm really glad you like this piece, and I love what you say both about the scene in your own novel (which sounds fascinating!) and about Chuck Palahniuk's unique work.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you, Sharon and Louella! I'm pleased to found it helpful!

  • Sharon Allgood

    Fantastic information on setting.

  • Louella Bryant

    Excellent advice!