Evoking Emotions in Readers in a Masterful Way – Part 5

I’m picking up where we left off a couple of months ago, looking at the masterful writing of some amazingly talented authors. I want to revisit the topic of evoking emotions since that is one of the most difficult things to achieve yet so very crucial.

Surprisingly, there are very few blog posts and books that address this topic. Writers are told to “show, don’t tell” in order to draw readers into their stories. But we all know that “showing” a character pointing a gun at another character, and even showing the character is trembling or sweating, doesn’t ensure readers will be tense or scared or shocked.

If you’ve not taken the time to read the previous four posts in this series, I highly encourage you to do so. Start with the first one here. We write to evoke a response in our readers, and the primary purpose of fiction is to elicit an emotional response. Think about it. Readers of fiction aren’t reading to acquire facts, such as they might do when studying a nonfiction book. They read to be entertained, affected. They read to be tense, laugh, worry, get excited. In other words, they read to feel something.

And your job as a fiction writer is to masterfully write in a way that will evoke a specific emotional response in your reader. You may not be able to name exactly what those emotions are, but you should know what those emotions feel like when you experience them.

To reiterate: we’ve been looking at the way thoughts lead to emotions, and how getting into our characters’ thoughts can be a powerful tool to evoking emotion in our readers. When we show what our characters are thinking, via the narrative or direct thoughts (when in their POV), and even in dialogue (whether in the POV or not), we can sense what they might be feeling. Sometimes the feelings are obvious, but masterful writing will imply the complexity of the character’s emotions.

I rarely come across novels that move me emotionally. Or, if they do, the emotion is minimal. I like to be surprised with powerful emotional response (mine), and few authors can accomplish this masterful feat.

Most of the manuscripts I critique are lacking their POV character’s thought process. A character experiences something, and he doesn’t react. He doesn’t immediately think. Listen, our thoughts are flowing all the time. Yes, there may be moments when our brain seems to freeze, and that can aptly occur to our characters as well. But it’s not as if the writers of these weak manuscripts are clearly showing their character with a brain freeze. Instead, any emotional response or tell is missing. They just didn’t think about showing that, or any, response.

I’d like to encourage you to spend some time freewriting your character’s thoughts. Put her in a situation, then show her reaction by the thoughts blooming in her head.

Thoughts, more than body language, convey character. Though we can learn a lot about someone by the things they say and do, can you imagine how much you could truly learn about someone if you could eavesdrop into their thoughts (now, that’s a scary proposition, to be sure)? We fiction writers have magical powers! We can actually snoop into our characters’ brains and hear that thought process. Use that magic power to your advantage. Reveal important bits about your characters by what they think about.

Here’s a passage from Redemption, book 2 in the Crimson Lake series (just came out) by Candice Fox. The protagonist, Ted Conkaffey, is a former police detective who has been wrongly and horribly accused of raping and nearly murdering a girl. The trauma of that event, and the fallout, still wreaks havoc on him every second of his life. Nearly everyone believes he is guilty, and so his wife, his former police buddies, and just about the entire world dump venomous rage, disgust, and hatred upon him. It’s beaten him to a pulp. Just this circumstance screams for empathy from readers (making someone a victim of unfortunate circumstance is one of the best ways to inspire empathy).

Ted is hiding out in the swamps of Australia trying to get by each day. He has little hope of ever reclaiming any semblance of a normal life as he works as a private detective solving local cases. But the thing that torments him more than anything is not being able to see and hold his baby girl.

When he was arrested, Lillian was an infant. Now, she is a young girl (possibly three), and his estranged wife, who succumbed to the pressure campaign to convict her loving, devoted husband, finally agrees to allow Ted to come, supervised, to his daughter’s brithday party. Every second is agonizing to Ted. But also to the reader. Why? Because we are in Ted’s thoughts (which is done in first-person POV, but it could be just as effective in deep third-person POV). Let’s eavesdrop into some of his thoughts as I drop you partway into this scene.

“I have a lot of bad people in my life right now, Kel.” I gave an icy smile. “And you know, it’s weird. None of these thugs, drug lords and murderers have ever questioned my innocence. Not even for a second. My wife, on the other hand …” I shrugged.

Kelly said nothing. I rubbed my bruised eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was nasty. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She watched Lillian on the floor before her, the child’s back to me, fiddling with the teddy bear’s eyes. “Lil, look who’s here. It’s Daddy. You remember Daddy, don’t you?”

Lillian turned and looked at me. Her chin trembled.

“It’s Daddy.” I smiled. “You know me, don’t you, Boo-Boo?”

Lillian turned away from me. I pretended to scratch my temple, kept my hand up and ready in case I lost it.

“She’ll come around,” Kelly said.

“I know.”

I picked up my present and offered it, but Lillian didn’t want anything from me so I started unwrapping it myself. She watched from the corner of her eye. I extracted a green plush toy dinosaur from the paper and made him walk up and down the mat beside me. After a while I covertly shuffled sideways so that I was close to Lillian, maybe a foot or so away. I was painfully aware of the clock on the wall, ticking away the seconds of my two-hour supervised visit. My mission in those two hours was to hug my kid. I was going to get a genuine, panic-free hug if it killed me.

“I guess I’ll just play with this guy here if no one else wants to play with me,” I said casually, walking the dinosaur in a circle before me on the ground. “Oh, I’m a happy dinosaur. I’m such a nice guy. Very green, very handsome.”

Lillian was interested but still cautious. It was my black eye that scared her, the bloodshot whites. The haphazard fishing-line stitches. I lay down on my side, ignoring the pain, propped my head on my hand.

“I’m such a happy—”

“That’s mine,” Lillian said, taking the dinosaur from my hand. Our fingers brushed. I sat up again and shifted closer.

“That’s cool. You can have it.”

“My dino-sorb,” she said, making him walk around, as I had. She looked up at me, a little twitch of a smile. The tiniest flash. “I’m a green guy. I’m a green guy.”

“She’s so big,” I told Kelly. “I can’t believe how big she is. She’s turned into a little girl.”

“They grow up fast.” Kelly sighed. “We’re onto potty-training at the moment. That’s … interesting.”

I wondered if she meant “we” as in she and Lillian or she and the dude. Was this guy living with my wife, giving my daughter lollipops when she used the potty? Tucking her into bed at night, singing her songs? I looked up, found Jett giving me a stare-down. I gathered up a little plastic mouse to fiddle with. Lillian took it from me, pushed me in the chest.

“That’s mine,” she said.

“You can have it.” I smiled, took a chance and patted down her soft black curls. She didn’t twist away from me. I was getting closer to that hug.

“Can they have physical contact?” Jett winced, looked to the FACS [social worker] ladies for help. “Is that allowed?”

“She’s my daughter,” I said.

“Hey, I’m just being cautious.” Jett shrugged stiffly. “If there was no cause for concern, I’m sure the court wouldn’t have ordered supervised visits.”

“Jett,” Kelly said.

“Physical contact is fine,” one of the FACS ladies said. “Whatever the custodial parent is happy with.”

The custodial parent. What did that make me? The accused parent. The charged parent. The non-custodial parent. The parent who touched his child like she was made of tissue paper, wary not to shock or horrify anyone, including the girl herself. And what did that make Jett? The stand-in parent? …

His protest complete, Jett settled back in his chair, eyes locked on me. I tried to focus on Lillian. After another ten minutes, she’d help my hand, laughed at me and poked me in the neck. I was getting so close to that hug, the urge to just throw caution to the wind and do it was pulsing in my arms and chest. I was afraid if I grabbed her and squeezed her the way I wanted to do, I might not only terrify her but perhaps injure her in some way. My body longed for her, a heavy hunger that set my teeth on edge. I could smell her. Baby-smell of milk and soap and something plasticky—Play-Doh, maybe crayon—trapped under her fingernails. …

I got pretty close to my hug, but when I opened my arms and offered it, Lillian threw herself at Kelly. My wife gave me a halfhearted, conciliatory smile.

[some paragraphs go on as the time runs out and he gets ready to leave. They discuss his work, then …]

“We’ve gotta go, Kel,” Jett said, coming close to us. I took a chance and reached up, patted Lilian’s warm head, tugged on her velvety soft ear, the way I used to when I was the only man who could hold her without upsetting her.

“See you next time, Boo-Boo,” I told her. “I love you.”

Lillian let go of Jett’s collar and put an arm out to me. Jett took a step back. I felt my teeth lock.

“Let her go,” Kelly told him. “She wants to go to him.”

Jett’s neck and jaw flushed red, a blossoming rage colour creeping up around his cheeks. He let Lillian lean out. I took her into my arms.

“Oh, my baby,” I found myself saying. I turned away from them. From confusing Kelly and her fury-filled boyfriend and the stares of the FACS women. I walked to the window and held Lillian, trying hard not to squeeze the air out of her. “My baby. My baby. My baby.”

I stood there, faced away from them all, feeling her tiny arms around my neck, her chin on my shoulder. I rocked her. Smelled her. Cradled her head in my big hand and tried hard to hold on to the thrilling sensation that perhaps when I turned back around we wouldn’t be in a stale office in an ugly building, surrounded by hostile faces. That perhaps when I turned back around, I’d find I’d been standing at the living room window of my home the whole time, looking out on the yard, my happy baby in my arms, my loving wife at my back, alone.

“I love you, Lil,” I told my child. Her fingers were in my hair, playing with a curl at the nape of my neck.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said.

Even being dropped into this scene without having read all the scenes prior (in the first book as well as this second one), Ted evokes empathy and emotion. I hope you felt his pain. Getting into Ted’s thoughts helps show the kind of person he is, shows his longing, his fears, his hopes, his emotional turmoil. It shows how human he is.

Yes, you can convey these things in your characters via their speech and actions. You can evoke emotion by “showing.” But thoughts are the most powerful way to reveal character and evoke an emotional response from readers.

If you haven’t ventured into your POV character’s thoughts, why not give it a try? Don’t have him think what emotion he feels. Just show the thoughts. They will reveal the complex emotions that often both reader and character would be hard pressed to label.

Your thoughts on this passage? Share in the comments.

Related posts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Want to master the emotional craft of fiction?

Dive into the online course Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers!

In this course, you’ll be given tools to show emotions in your characters. You’ll be given techniques to help spark emotional response in your readers. What is going to bring it all together for you is practice. Study and practice. And you’ll have exercises in this course to help you put into practice what you learn.

There are two facets of emotion in fiction: conveying what your character is feeling and evoking emotion in your reader. We’ll look at these two facets separately and in depth. Yet, they are intrinsically connected.

Emotional mastery requires writers to set up the dynamics of a scene in such a visual, textural way that readers can’t help but feel what they are meant to feel. Understanding that emotional mastery requires a twofold approachthe emotional landscape of both the character and the reader—is the first step.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in my new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers.

You’ll get lifetime access to all the videos and more than three dozen downloadable assignments. And with a 30-day money-back guarantee, you have NOTHING to lose by jumping in. Sign up NOW.

This course will challenge you to become an “emotion master.” Are you ready and willing to go on this journey deep into emotional territory? If you want your characters to move your readers, take the plunge!

5 Responses to “Evoking Emotions in Readers in a Masterful Way – Part 5”

  1. Dani Coleman November 5, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    It seems the writing world is over-run by advice to tell only what is going on in the character’s body to show their emotions. I’m glad I found your posts about this a while ago. Thanks for another great example. That is a very powerful excerpt–definitely brought tears to my eyes without any prior context at all.

  2. Victoria Marie Lees November 5, 2018 at 3:52 pm #

    What a powerful example, Susanne. I agree. Getting inside the thoughts of our characters is the only way to feel true emotion in story. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll need to read Candice’s new book. It sounds great. I’ve shared your blog post online. All best to you!

  3. Sherryl November 5, 2018 at 7:56 pm #

    I’ve read this book and he is such a complex, interesting character. This passage brought tears to my eyes – such a great example to use. Thanks. Will print this out and keep it as a reminder.

  4. Luke Kendall December 17, 2018 at 8:40 am #

    I’ve always believed my characters’ emotions and thoughts are as important as what they do, since that what drives them. I think though it’s why some people found my first book, in particular, too confronting.
    I had to preface my book description with a warning, after discovering some readers hated experiencing what the antagonist was thinking and feeling.
    So sometimes it can work against you. You need to let the readers know what to expect, before they start.

    • cslakin December 17, 2018 at 8:48 am #

      Thanks, Luke. Yeah, that’s a choice writers have to make–whether to go into the head of a bad guy. It can be creepy. I’ve thrown more than one novel out because of that.

Leave a Reply to Dani Coleman

Gravatar Image



Don't wander aimlesslystrategize your writing career!



Sign up for my newsletter and get cool updates on releases, special offers, and your free ebook!


You have Successfully Subscribed!