Not too many years ago, I thought an accurately portrayed scene naturally caused readers to experience the emotions that the characters would logically feel in such situations. Not true!
As Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explain in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, we must take our innate skills of observation and transfer them to the page, by both verbal (dialogue) and nonverbal means (physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations).
Award-winning author and writing coach C. S. Lakin later warned me of the failure to explicitly convey emotion:
You don’t want your protagonist to seem like an unfeeling robot. Readers will hate him if you do.
To avoid this, she suggested I buy a paperback thriller and highlight every explicit emotional sentence until I learned how emotion occupies nearly every page. I decided to make a bigger project out of it.
The Emotional Deep Dive: A By-the-Numbers Experiment
On the 477 pages of my favorite thriller, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, I highlighted all 1,988 (by my count) sentences with explicit emotional content. That’s an average of over four per page! For each, I populated three spreadsheet columns:
1. The page number.
2. The emotion (from the seventy-five listed in The Emotion Thesaurus).
3. The sentence itself.
As much as I learned from doing this, the real lessons took place when I began sorting the entries in different ways.
Discovering the Emotional Story
Leaving the spreadsheet sorted by page number, I found I could follow the story by emotional content alone.
Kristen Kieffer writes about such cadence in her post “How to Create Strong Pacing For Your Story“:
After dealing with the physical consequences of an instance of conflict, your character should address—or possibly repress—the emotional ramifications of the conflict, which can range from joy at a victory to intense grief, fear, or anxiety surrounding a loss.
And what was seen near the ninety-five percent mark around page 452? You guessed it—the maximum emotional sentences per page density of the novel’s climax.
Identifying the Emotion “Buckets”
Since the emotional labels themselves are subjective—the dividing lines between anger and rage or surprise and astonishment will differ for each reader–your and my emotional labels won’t always match.
Some unique scenes can evoke opposite reactions from different readers. After a short story reading during one of my writer’s group meetings, a Stephen King-inspired author had each of us feeling vastly differing emotions:
1. Amazement, at how such a scene could unfold.
2. Disgust, for the setting described.
3. Happiness, for the darkly humorous sequence of events.
The character’s emotions, however, should always be clear and truthful. As Martha Alderson points out in her post “Connecting with Audiences Through Character Emotions“:
Thoughts can lie. Dialogue can lie, too. However, emotions are universal, relatable and humanizing. Emotions always tell the truth.
Sorting the entries by sentence provided perhaps the most interesting learning experience. It showed how much repetitive emotional content is directly told instead of shown (e.g., “Langdon was amazed” on pages 21 and 22).
In his 2017 post “How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers,” Donald Maass calls this the “inner mode, the telling of emotions.”
It also works with repetitive actions (e.g., “The camerlengo smiled” on pages 304 and 305), what Maass calls the “outer mode, the showing of emotions.”
So why don’t these repetitions immediately distract readers from the story, as repetitive setting descriptions surely would? I believe that, similarly to why dialogue tags being more perceived than read, emotional content is more felt than read.
Sorting the emotional content this way also displayed identical snippets of dialogue that evoked drastically different emotions, due to their context. Two such sentences seem to convey annoyance and pride, respectively:
1. “Correct,” Kohler said, his voice edgy. (Page 59)
2. “Correct,” Langdon said, allowing himself a rare moment of pride in his work. (Page 165)
As just one example, Elizabeth Sims, in her 2013 guide You’ve Got a Book in You, demonstrates how the word “Oh” is endlessly flexible:
1. “Oh,” he grunted.
2. “Oh!” Cassie couldn’t believe her luck. “Oh!”
3. All at once he understood. “Ohh.”
Despite the time this experiment took to complete, I recommend writers repeat this project with a copy of their own favorite novel. You may never see written emotional content the same way again!