Out of My Head 7: Depicting Emotions in Fiction

  1. Emotional Resonance

Often called the B-Plot, but that’s really not true.  There’s nothing secondary about it.

Life is run from the emotions outward.  You run the risk of losing your audience by working from the intellect only (technique), disconnected from body and spirit.  Your world isn’t real because of the plot points that built it.  It’s real because it feels real.

There must be a core of strong and genuine emotion resonating at the heart of every story.  Without it, the narrative will feel flat and out of balance.  Your readers may not know why they feel this way, but they will know it to be true.

Balance – addressing the needs of the body, mind, and spirit (emotional wellbeing) in equal measure.  Note that balance doesn’t mean perfect.  Out of balance leads to rich characterization.

At any given point in your story, ask yourself “What are my characters feeling right now?”  Then convey that through their words, tones of voice, body language, physical action.  Do you have to share all of this with your readers 100% of the time?  No, but as the writer you need to know how your characters feel because it will color everything that they do.

All that said, badly written fiction can actually succeed because of strong emotional appeal.  Examples of this are Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and anything directed by Steven Spielberg.


  1. Family Dynamics

The ups and downs of family drama are shortcuts into your characters’ head space.  Mom issues.  Dad issues.  The struggles of the middle child.  Example: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”  They’re universal.  Use them.  The advantage here is you don’t have to explain everything.  Your readers already get it.


  1. Evolving Roles in the Post-Patriarchy

Women aren’t more emotional than men.  Men are emotionally stunted.

The manly man (traditionally) doesn’t emote.  He’s stoic.  He’s a rock.  He’s eagle-eyed and level headed.  Depicting him as excessively emotional doesn’t ring true.  Patriarchy regulates men’s behavior, attitude, personality, even appearance.  Men who don’t fit into the mold of traditional masculinity either have to hide their true selves or face ostracism.  Men have always had more external freedom than women, but this came at an internal price.

However–today, right now–we’re in a time of transition.  The old paradigms are being completely redefined.

What does this mean?  As a writer, you have a much greater opportunity to tell stories that weren’t easily accepted in the past.  You can explore male characters who defy conventional definitions of masculinity, or female characters who defy conventional definitions of femininity.

An emotionally aware man isn’t a wuss.  A strong woman isn’t a bitch.

Men and woman together are equally responsible for bringing about and sustaining a post-patriarchal narrative.  The stories you write can be exemplars of this.


  1. Love Scenes

A love scene is not about sex.  A love scene isn’t even about love.  It’s about the relationship.

A relationship of love contains affection, trust, respect, honestly, playfulness, commitment, an entire spectrum of feelings that can’t really be defined.  All are parts of the relationship.  A love scene between two characters demonstrates these qualities.

“I love you” doesn’t always have to be said on the page.  It isn’t essential to a love scene because it’s already there–it’s the emotional context of the scene.

A love scene is not always a scene between lovers.  Most of the time it isn’t.  A love scene is between two people who love each other: parent and child, brothers, sisters, grandparent and grandchild, friend and friend, teacher and student.  Romance is but one aspect of love; there are countless others to explore.


  1. The Hard Throbbing Stuff

David Gerrold:  Sex scenes are embarrassing.  They’re embarrassing to write.  They’re embarrassing to read.  And most of all, they’re embarrassing to publish.  This is because people will assume you’re writing from experience.

Every time you write a sex scene, you’re telling people not just that you think about sex, you’re also telling them what you think about sex.  It is a very public admission of a very private part of your life.  And no matter how many times you say “It’s just a story”, the fact remains that you are the person who sat at the keyboard and imagined it.

So don’t force it.  Be honest!  Don’t feel like you have to include a sex scene just because it sells.  If you’re not comfortable writing sex scenes, it will be evident on the page.  Your reader will know.

What comes before the scene is important.  What comes after is most important.  Again, you’re going for emotional resonance.

The effective sex scene is not about sex.  It’s about the passion of the moment.

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