May 18, 2021
by David Corbett
The difference between writing emotion and writing feeling is more one of degree than kind. Feeling is emotion that has been habituated and refined; it is understood and can be used deliberately. I know how I feel about this person and treat her accordingly. Emotion is more raw, unconsidered. It comes to us unbidden, regardless of how familiar it might be. Rage is an emotion. Contempt is a feeling.
Both emotion and feeling are essential not only in fiction but in nonfiction. However, given their unique qualities, rendering them on the page requires different techniques.
Both rely upon understanding what readers want. People don’t turn to stories to experience what you, the writer, have experienced—or even what your characters have. They read to have their own experience. Our job is to create a series of effects to facilitate and enhance that experience.
Emotion on the page is created through action and relies on surprise for its effect. That surprise is ultimately generated by having the character express or exhibit an emotion not immediately apparent in the scene.
We all experience multiple emotions in any given situation. So, too, our characters. To create genuine emotion when crafting a scene, identify the most likely or obvious response your character might have, then ask: What other emotion might she be experiencing? Then ask it again—reach a “third-level emotion.” Have the character express or exhibit that. Through this use of the unexpected, the reader will experience a greater range of emotion, making the scene more vivid.
Surprise can also be generated through unforeseen reveals and/or reversals. This technique requires misdirection: creating a credible expectation that something other than what occurs will happen instead.
Types of misdirection include:
Misdirection through ambiguity: Any of several results might occur.
Misdirection through fallacy: Something creates a mistaken belief regarding what is happening or what it means.
Misdirection through sympathy: Intense focus on one character lures the reader into overlooking what another might do.
To ground a surprise in emotion you must develop a belief that some other emotional outcome—ideally, the opposite of the one you hope to evoke—is not only possible but likely.
For example, to push the readers toward dread, panic, or terror, you need to create the impression that these emotions are in no way inevitable. The readers are trying to avoid the negative feeling. It’s hope that “the terrible thing” can be circumvented that makes them feel the dread, panic, or terror once it’s presented, and actually intensifies it.
Feeling requires introspection, which thus necessitates identification with the character and empathy for what she faces.
Remember, however, that the story’s action and its characters are vehicles through which the reader creates her own emotional experience. The goal is not to get readers to feel what the characters feel, per se, but to use the characters as a device to get readers to feel something on their own.
Recent neurological research suggests that feeling and cognition coincide, which is to say that a major factor in experiencing a feeling is the assessment of it. This means that, despite the modernist turn toward the objective mode (Hemingway, Hammett, etc.), and the constant drumbeat of “show, don’t tell,” readers need some processing of feeling to register it meaningfully.
This means allowing characters to think about what they’re feeling, which accomplishes two things:
It makes the feelings both more concrete and more personal.
It creates time and space for readers to process their own feelings. If empathy for the character has been forged, this allows readers to ask themselves: Do I feel the same way? Do I feel differently?
Such examination is best accomplished in sequel scenes, which normally occur after a particularly dramatic scene or a series of these scenes that culminate in a devastating reveal or reversal. These scenes permit characters and readers alike to take a breather and process what has just happened.
Within such scenes, the point-of-view character:
registers and analyzes the emotional impact of what has happened
thinks through the logical import or meaning of what has happened
makes a plan for how to proceed
Readers process their own emotions and interpretation of events while the character is doing so, not necessarily in parallel or even consciously.
It’s typically best to keep this sort of analysis brief. Going on too long can bore or alienate readers who have already ingested and interpreted what’s happened and are ready to move on. Try to restrict yourself to a paragraph or two. The point isn’t to overanalyze the character’s feelings, but to clear a space for readers to examine their own.
To accomplish this, the POV character should:
Dig deeper: As with emotion, surprise is a key element. You need a starting point that seems unexpected because nothing shuts off the reader like belaboring the obvious. Instead, seek a second- or third-level feeling in the scene.
Objectify the feeling: Find a physical analogy for it (e.g. She felt as though her shame had created a sunburn from within).
Compare the feeling: Measure it against other occasions when it has arisen. Is it worse this time? How? Why?
Evaluate the feeling: Is it right or wrong to feel this way? Proper or shameful? What would a more refined, stronger, wiser person feel?
Justify the feeling: Explore why this feeling is the only honest response for the character.
Examine the impact on identity: What does this feeling say about the character or the state of her life? Has she grown or regressed? Does she recognize the feeling as universal, or does it render her painfully alone?
Putting Them Together: Writing Emotion and Feeling
A character changes through the emotions she experiences, the refinement of those emotions into feelings, and the evolution in self-awareness that this process allows. This gradual metamorphosis creates the story’s internal arc, providing the character an opportunity to move step-by-step from being at the mercy of her emotions to mastering her feelings. And through the use of surprise and introspection, you provide a means for the reader to traverse an arc of her own, expanding her emotional self-awareness.
David Corbett is the award-winning author of five novels, the story collection Killing Yourself to Survive and the nonfiction work, The Art of Character. David is a regular contributor to Writer's Digest. Find him online at davidcorbett.com.
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