On Writing Emotion: Avoid These Common Pitfalls

On Writing Emotion_Title

In my blog post 6 Tips to Write Your Novel in the Vibrant Way Your Brain Imagined It, my fifth tip discussed implying emotions rather than explicitly stating them. This post will focus specifically on tip #5 and goes deeper into why explicitly stating emotions can weaken your writing.

First, let’s talk a bit about emotions. What exactly are emotions? This is a hard concept because many emotions are abstract, and theorists don’t even agree on how many basic emotions there are. (Popular theories range between 2-11 basic emotions, and if this is something that interests you, you can read more hereI had to read up a lot on this topic when I was working on my Master’s in Counseling).

I like to use this list of emotions when thinking about emotions I want to watch out for in my writing. It’s simple and even provides a short blurb after each emotion for clarity.

The four emotions I’ll be using in the examples are ones that I’ve noticed come up frequently in my own writing: Sadness, Anger, Love, & Fear

Here are four examples where I have explicitly stated each emotion:

Example 1       Example 2       Example 3      Example 4        
Esperanza was sad. I was angry. Jamile loves her. I am scared.
(Note: I prefer to use third person past in my own writing, but for the sake of being more inclusive, I’ve also included first person past, third person present, and first person present.)

So what’s wrong with these?

Three Pitfalls:

Explicitly stating emotions –

Does not allow the reader to experience the emotion. Did you tear up in Example #1 when I told you “Esperanza was sad”? Did your jaw tighten in Example #2 when I told you “I am angry”? Didn’t think so. If I’d wanted to elicit sadness from you (the reader), I should have written something sad. If I’d wanted to elicit anger, I should have written something angering.

Doesn’t allow the reader to be completely immersed in the scene. When I told you in Example #3 “Jamile is scared”, I wasn’t showing you Jamile’s fear. I may have saved a few words by just giving you the emotion, but you weren’t there to witness anything. Remember “show don’t tell” (tip #4)? Explicitly stating emotions is an indicator that the writer is telling rather than showing.

Wastes a chance to more fully develop your characters. While some would argue there are universal emotions shared by all species, everyone does not experience and cope with emotions the same way. When I told you in Example 4 “I am scared”, I failed to show you what that means for “I” (my main character). Does my main character shrivel up in a ball and hide? Does my main character clench his fists and try to fight? You don’t know, because I didn’t show you.

You might say all of these things can show up later once context is added around those short example statements. Once you add context, however, all of these example statements should be implied and thereby, unnecessary.

Writer Tip - Imply Emotion

This blog post was to just point out the pitfalls of explicitly stating emotions. So what should you do instead? Check out my next post on what you should do! – Easy Strategies to Evoke Emotion in Your Writing – I use all four examples I used here again and show several different ways to evoke emotion in your writing. Follow me so you’ll get updates when I post more writing tips!

Leave me a comment below about what you thought! What other pitfalls did I miss?

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You may also enjoy these posts:

A Few Easy Strategies to Remove Those Pesky Filter Words that Fog Up Your Writing         7 Wellness Strategies for Creative Minds 10 Signs you might be a Writer with Young Children          6 Tips to Write Your Novel in the Vibrant Way Your Brain Imagined It


13 thoughts on “On Writing Emotion: Avoid These Common Pitfalls

  1. Really useful stuff, thank you. I never really realised how effective not being direct was, you’re right describing an emotion is way more effective than just stating it.

    Liked by 2 people

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