The Fulfilling Facet: Emotional Influence

This post, from Anthony James Barnett, originally appeared on his Tell Me A Story blog on 11/17/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

Emotional influence is sometimes the most ignored facet in novels. Emotion is important, not only when linked to what characters feel about themselves and others, but in the reaction they stir in readers.

But what is emotion? How do you create such an elusive element? Naming an emotion doesn’t produce it. We can declare our protagonists irritated, anxious, broken-hearted or suchlike, but it doesn’t generate the emotion in the reader. How then do we use this intangible feature in writing?

Emotion is the outcome of all the other elements.

  1. Consequence. There must be consequence. The degree of emotive reaction is a reflection of the character’s problem. Will there be incentive if the central character makes it, will there be tragedy if he doesn’t.
  2. Theme. The outcome of the story must be important in some way. The story must mean something. If the predicament doesn’t matter one way or another, readers won’t be bothered about the outcome.
  3. Struggle. There must not only be consequence, there must be serious tussle both inner and outer, otherwise no emotion will come from it. No matter how severe the crisis, if it is easily sorted, no one will care; no one will feel anything.
  4. Passion. Passion grows from the story’s significance. If the task is meaningless, there will be no feeling, no identity.
  5. Atmosphere. A story should have mood, ambience, atmosphere, call it what you will. Mood comes from all the restrained emotions that arise from the material elements of your story. It’s not enough to set a house in front of your characters; we need to know how they feel about it. Is it scary, full of love, what does it mean to them; how does it move them?
  6. Senses. Characters shouldn’t walk in a vacant space. Tell readers what is around them. Emotions can be constructed from sensory reaction even when there isn’t a problem. It won’t be a strong emotion, but it can exist as an entirety by itself.
  7. Moderation. Never give emotions too full rein when you’re displaying how a character feels, use moderation, it’s a good maxim. Play down the most moving events. Encounter in itself carries drama, and key sentiments become implicit without description.
  8. Limited detail. Be cautious of littering scenes with too much detail. It takes only a few well-chosen words to describe a setting. Humans don’t have time to respond to every element around them, and characters should not respond to everything either. Opt for the most valuable details; the reader will fill in the rest.

So maybe the lesson to be learned is to write with every single sense, including the sixth, but write with restraint. Remember, more than enough is too much. Use your descriptive powers with self-control. Make every word count.