Emotions in Writing: The Author’s Guide to Stirring Up Big Feels

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

If you know how to convey emotions in writing, you know how to draw your reader in, hold them captive, and make them remember you forever.

And if you think that sounds manipulative, my brother/writing partner once referred to this skill as the art of “jerking people’s emotions around.”

But he’s right, and we writers might as well own it. The only reason anyone picks up a novel is because they want to feel something.

Thrilled. Terrified. Soothed. Devastated. Anxious. Intoxicated.

Sure, fiction makes us smarter and more insightful. But let’s be real: the only reason it succeeds in making us think is because it first succeeds in making us feel

So how do you become an all-powerful emotion wizard?

It’s all right here. You’re about to learn how to plot a story built for emotional resonance and draft scenes that speak to your reader’s soul. So… big stuff.

Let’s start feeling those feels.

Lay the Emotional Groundwork

The first rule of emotions in writing:

Set up your story to elicit big feels.

New writers especially tend to think building emotion is a matter of heartbreaking dialogue or shocking cliffhangers. And sure, that’s part of it. 

But the fact is, it won’t matter how well you nail those micro details if the story itself doesn’t feel authentic and resonate with your reader.

So before we dive into the matter of bringing out emotions in your writing, let’s lay the groundwork for a powerful story.

Know How You Want Your Readers to Feel

A person with long dark hair smiles while reading a book.

What specific emotional experience are you trying to create for your readers?

Or to put it another way:

If you were going to read a book in your chosen genre, what would you want to feel?

Be specific, because specificity is your mightiest tool when it comes to conveying emotions in writing.

For example, you’d probably want the romantic subplot in an adventure novel to charm and delight you. Maybe even dizzy you up a bit. 

But if you pick up a romance, you’re looking for a full-on swoon. Those love scenes had better make your heart race, make you breathless, make you believe in love again no matter what broken dreams lie in your past.

Revisit some of the books that made you want to write in your genre in the first place. Make notes about how you feel, when you feel it, and what the author did to spark those emotions. 

Then, as you draft each new scene, go into it knowing exactly what you want your readers to feel so you can make it happen.

Establish Relatability

How are you going to get your reader to emotionally invest in your protagonist?

You’ve got to offer at least a glimmer of relatability, and you’ve got to do it early. 

Fortunately, this is way easier than you might think. Your reader doesn’t need to see their actual life reflected in your story. They also don’t even need to see their personality reflected in your character. All they really need in order to relate is a glimpse of vulnerability. That’s it.

In White Ivy, Ivy Lin is a young Chinese immigrant trying to carve out a path to status and power in a cold new world. She’s a protagonist with a shockingly negative character arc, and I definitely do not recognize my life in hers.

But on page one, I learn two important pieces of information.

She feels invisible and she wishes she could trade her face for someone else’s.

These are near-universal vulnerabilities. Even though Ivy’s feelings are connected to the very specific experience of being an Asian immigrant in the U.S.—an experience I couldn’t claim to understand intimately—I can at least say there have been times in my life when I’ve felt invisible and unappealing.

This is why literature is such a powerful tool for empathy. Great books start with an emotional entry point. They show a character’s insecurities, fears, failings, or wounds, inviting the reader to say, “Oof. Yeah, I know that one.” Suddenly, the unfamiliar becomes the understandable. 

Flesh Out Characters

Once you’ve hooked your reader’s heart by dropping some relatable vulnerabilities, follow through by making sure your characters are multi-dimensional creations.

This includes side characters and antagonists. You want your players to feel human (even if they’re not). This means they’ve got to have:

Also remember that your characters do not exist in a vacuum. They’re influenced by their upbringing, culture, economic class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, physical and mental health, and about a million other things. Let your reader see how your characters’ influences shape who they are.

On that note, backstory helps a lot as you build emotion into your story. What has your character been through? How has it shaped their perception of the world? What old wounds are they carrying? 

This stuff can get pretty dense, but it’s worth putting in the work. I recommend checking out these two Dabble articles to get started:

Get Readers Invested in the Outcome

A person bites a pencil while nervously reading a computer screen.

So how does the actual plot factor into the process of jerking people’s emotions around?

The good news is that you’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting in your character development. If your readers care about your protagonist, they’ll care what happens to your protagonist.

But you still need a plot that supports all your hard character work. This means:

Your major characters should face both external conflicts and internal conflicts. As the external conflict intensifies, it should heighten the internal conflict (and vice versa). You can learn more about how to do this here.

You continuously raise the stakes for your protagonist. With each new twist and turn, your hero(ine) has even more to lose.

The protagonist’s choices drive the plot. Don’t make your main character a constant victim of their circumstances. At best, a passive character will only elicit pity, which is the most boring of all emotions. Allow your very human protagonist to make choices that make the conflict worse.

It all makes sense. Logic has an important role to play when it comes to emotions in writing. A gaping plot hole or unsupported character decision will break the spell you’ve worked so hard to cast. For a great guide to plotting an airtight story, download our free ebook, Let’s Write a Book.

Now that you’ve designed your story to stir the soul, let’s get down to the details.

How to Convey Character Emotions in Writing

You’ve laid your foundation. Time to wipe the sweat off your brow and get into the nitty gritty.

Here’s how to bring your character’s emotions to life when you actually get down to drafting.

Use Sensory Details to Set the Mood

Conveying character emotions in your writing isn't just about telling the reader what your character feels.

It’s also about reflecting those feelings in the scene itself. This is especially true when it comes to your point-of-view (POV) character

See, even if you write in third person, you still write through the lens of your character’s perception.

You might write in third-person limited, where you only show one character’s perspective at a time. Or you might write in third-person omniscient, which allows you to hop from one character’s POV to another’s. Either way, the character’s emotional state should be reflected in the scene you set.

For example:

“I just can’t marry you,” Daniel had said in the suffocating heat of his car.
–White Ivy

So simple, right? One quick scene detail—”suffocating heat”—immediately puts us in Ivy’s shoes. We know what kind of hurt this break-up brings: the kind that makes it hard to think, hard to breathe, hard to stay calm. It's a hot, suffocating kind of heartbreak.

Now, the reason “suffocating heat” works so well to establish an emotional experience is because it’s a sensory detail. It’s concrete. Believe it or not, that’s the key to sliding your reader’s feet into your character’s emotional shoes.

We tend to think of “feelings” as abstract, but when it really comes down to it, we experience everything through physical bodies. We’ve built associations between what we feel in our hearts and what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel on our skin.

That’s why, if you want to give your reader the heebie-jeebies, your best bet is not to tell them it was really scary in the alleyway, but to show them the long shadow of the broken fire escape ladder. The old advice “show, don’t tell” is really about giving your audience all the feels.

Get Into Your Own Body

A person sits on the edge of a bed, holding their head in their hand.

Here’s another reason why sensory details are so essential to communicating emotions in writing:

We experience emotions physically. We know what we feel because our body tells us what we feel.

If you’ve never thought about this before, now is the time to start noticing.

What physical sensations arise when you feel angry? Anxious? Amorous? Try to notice. Write it down. Remember it when you’re trying to convey your character’s emotions.

This is honestly one of my favorite things about being a writer—the phenomenon of feeling and observing at the exact same time. I’ve had full-blown panic attacks where my inner writer was still there watching and murmuring, “Oh, interesting.” as she scribbled in her little notebook.

In addition to observing yourself, you can find great examples of how to convey the physical experience of emotion in any book that’s successfully sparked emotion in you

But if you want the masterclass, check out The Sign for Home. Part of this novel is told through the POV of Arlo, a young DeafBlind man who experiences the world through physical sensation. The result is a lot of passages like these:

Electricity ignites all over your brain, causing the hair follicles on your arms and the back of your neck to vibrate. 
You had never met the principal before, but his power was legendary. Your face felt hot. Your stomach tightened. You wanted to pee.

When our brains read passages like this, they register these physical experiences as if they were our own. We feel the vibration and, therefore, the excitement. We don’t put ourselves in the character’s shoes as easily when all we know is that the character was “psyched.” 

Master the Art of Subtext

This is another skill that takes some real-world observation and a lot of novel-reading to master.

You probably know you can’t have your characters running around saying exactly what they feel all the time unless it’s an actual character trait. Real people don’t do that, so if your characters do it, your reader’s going to remember that this is all make-believe. 

Pssheww! That’s the sound of your reader’s emotional connection exploding.

So then how do you help your readers hear what your characters aren’t saying?

One helpful fact about human beings is that we’ve developed a sort of subtext shorthand. We already have phrases that we know will signal our feelings without requiring us to do the dirty business of actually stating those feelings outright. 

For example, here’s a line of dialogue from Seven Days in June with zero context.

“Fine. Go explain to Audre why you’re scared to try new things.”

You don’t need me to tell you anything about the scene in order to understand that the speaker is tired of the listener’s crap. Right?

So, as a writer, all you have to do is start noticing our universal shorthand for “I’m pissed” and “I’m jealous.”

You can also use the descriptions between lines of dialogue to clarify your characters’ states of mind. Here’s another passage from the same novel:

“What’s he like?” Shane knew he was going too far.
“Travis Scott?”
“Audre’s dad.”
Eva sat back in the booth, hard. She grimaced and massaged a temple with her knuckles. “He’s stable.”
Shane went further. “Where is he?”
“You tell me. Where do men go when they’re done?”

You can feel the tension, right? To create it, the author taps into Shane’s thoughts (as he’s the POV character in this scene) and Eva’s actions. (Not to mention that stinging line at the end.)

It also helps that the author has written vivid characters. By this point in the story, we know these people well enough to understand how they’re likely to feel in this conversation. 

Incorporate Body Language

Three teenagers stand by a fence looking at a phone.

In the last example, Eva’s body language served as a clue that there were big feelings bubbling behind her measured words.

But body language and facial expressions aren’t just a subtext tool. They provide a window into a character’s state of mind in any given moment. Here’s Eva just standing around at a prestigious event right after unexpectedly running into Shane:

[The dress] had gotten tighter somehow, sucking at her like Saran Wrap. She kept shifting it around her hips.

In other words, she can’t get comfortable… physically or emotionally.

Now, there’s one big challenge when it comes to using body language to convey emotions in writing. Most of us end up falling back on the same all-too-obvious body language cues.

She wiped away a tear. He grinned. They shrugged.

My first drafts are positively riddled with shrugs and quiet smiles. A big part of polishing later drafts is going back over these boring descriptions and coming up with more specific, less repetitive details.

The Emotion Thesaurus is an extremely helpful tool for this. So is good ol’ fashioned real-life observation.

Banish Clichés

As long as you’re searching that first draft for overused body language and facial expressions, you might as well look for clichés, too.

Because when we’re trying to get the reader to experience an emotion, we start loading up the clichés. 

A single tear fell from his eye. She glared daggers. Their heart shattered into a million pieces.

These phrases are so common they’re almost meaningless. We’re numb to them. Unfortunately, their prevalence also makes them the first thing that comes to mind when we’re trying to describe emotions in writing.

Keep pushing past the first thought. Maybe even the second and third, too. Play with metaphor and (once again) use the physical to make the emotional come alive. 

When you do that, you can replace “They were meant to be” with passages more like:

With him, she was at ease: her skin felt as though it were her right size.

(That’s from Americanah, by the way.)

Trust Your Reader

Finally, be aware that it is possible to overdo emotions in writing. 

Sometimes writers are so eager to make sure the reader connects with the character’s experience that they overload every page with feelings.

Emotional manipulation requires light touch. When a reader sees a lot of feelings talk, they stop seeing the story and start seeing the author frantically trying to tug at their heart.

Trust them to be smart enough to follow your subtext and the emotional logic of your story. When in doubt, invite your beta readers to tell you about their emotional experience of your novel.

Also allow your genre to inform how thick you want to lay it on. A noir mystery novel will probably take on a more cold and objective tone that only stirs curiosity and the occasional chill. 

Romances, on the other hand, tend to do a lot of emotional check-ins.

Know your readers. This is all for them, after all.

Let Dabble Help You Become a Master Manipulator

Now you know how to build a story that resonates and bring it home with powerful prose.

You’ve probably also figured out that this can be a messy process. Dabble can help.

Dabble’s Plot Grid allows you to plan, review, and edit your entire plot in one glimpse so you can see your characters’ emotional journey clearly. Plus, handy features like Comments and Stickies help you stay on top of pesky clichés and excessive shrugging.

A screenshot of a Dabble manuscript with a comment reminding the writer to revise the way they depict emotions in writing.

The best part? You can try all these features and more for free for fourteen days. No credit card required. How does that make you feel? Click here to get started.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.