On Adding Emotion to the Written Word

I figured, given that I’m a writer and this is a writer’s blog, that at some point I probably ought to talk about writery things. I admit that a part of the reason for this post coming at the very end of the week is that I didn’t find this a particularly easy topic. In truth, I write much more by instinct, feeling and flow than I do by some explainable process. So, even picking out a single aspect of writing and trying to explain how to go about doing it is no mean feat, at least for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that the topic I pulled out of the proverbial hat is one that is often far more art than science. Namely, how to make text carry emotion. Now, there are a few cheap, easy tricks that everyone uses, ways to place emphasis on a sentence or single word. There are also, however, some more subtle cues and methods that aren’t so easy to pick up.

Let’s get the easy, simple methods out of the way first.

      1. Bold/Italicize/CAPITILZATION/“quotations”: Used sparingly, preferably on single words, these methods can create emphasis on a single word or sentence. Generally, due to heavy overuse by the general public, usage of any of these methods should be kept to the bare minimum you can manage. A few dozen words emphasized in one of these ways over the course of a novel is generally useful and acceptable. However, you should definitely save them for those times where you absolutely positively need them.
      2. Punctuation: Most commonly the exclamation point would be considered for this, but the occasional ellipses, hyphenated word, or cut off words can also serve. All should be nearly as rarely used as the above methods as an overabundance can wash out their effect. If every other sentence uses an exclamation point, you either start reading every character like an overexcited teenage girl on a sugar rush or stop “hearing” the difference in tone at all.
      3. Font changes: Changing a font can sometimes be a viable method to add emotion (or lack thereof) to text. An example would be a very machine-looking blocky font being used for an emotionless computer character. This can work, however, it becomes a nightmare if your book is released as an ebook. I personally never use font changes for this very reason.
      4. Visual Markers: Visual markers are a much rarer breed, but they exist. One ready example can be found in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Hagrid sends a letter, and the emotional tone is set by showing tear-stains on the page.hagrids-tear-stained-letter

        This method works in some, highly specific, cases. It also, however, is a serious pain-in-the-ass for everyone who ever has the slightest bit to do with the making of the book in any format, ever. Use sparingly or not at all, unless your a glutton for punishment and/or don’t mind homicidal editors, publishers, and typesetters hunting you for sport.

So, those are the easy methods. The first three may even be methods your average Joe/Jane has used as some point (certainly the first is a plague upon humanity in places like Facebook or Tumblr). However, you’ll note that every single one of them has reasons to either not use them at all or to use them very sparingly. What truly separates the professional author from the gifted amateur, in this specific area, tends to be how little the author can use these methods without sacrificing the emotion in their writing. So, what methods can be used in place of those above? There are likely dozens of methods and I’m fairly certain I could write an entire book on them without feeling like I’ve given my audience a truly comprehensive understanding. I can, however, at least cover a few of the more common/basic techniques.

      1. Actions that reveal a mood: An example of this might be descriptive text of a shivering child cringing away from a blow, or a man violently shoving himself out of his chair as his face turns red. As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and these sorts of descriptions effectively create a mental picture in your reader’s imagination. A good, vivid action-description can produce the same visual cues for the reader as what they would get were it happening in front of them. They know from their own life experiences, on some conscious or subconscious level, than the cringing child is afraid and the man is angry or outraged.
      2. Emotive Language: This one is very much more an art than a science, despite it being the one in this list that has an actual honest-to-goodness official name. It’s also surprisingly hard to explain, I actually dropped down to #3 while writing and then came back to this. Really, this is probably the single most common method used, but also the hardest for even good authors to make come through plain text properly. So much so that I know I, at least, often have to wait anxiously for my test/beta readers to get through a section and then ask if the emotion came through properly for them. Basically, it’s nothing more than the use of loaded words to create a feeling. Words like crazy or shameful, or even curses like bitch or asshole, can charge a sentence with emotion if used correctly. Probably the one area I am most skilled in myself, in this regard, is making dry humor or sarcasm leap off the page and into the reader’s mind. This, however, is something that I don’t know how to teach. It is, as I said, as much an art as a science. Experimentation is really the only proper teacher for how to get it right.
      3. Character Observation: This can be as blunt as an internal character thought of, “I was angry as hell” to a far more subtle “I saw the corners of her mouth tighten and knew I was in trouble.” In essence, this is nothing more than outright telling the reader what emotion a character is feeling. However, it should be noted that it is extremely useful for identifying the emotions of other characters, as opposed to the observer, as in the second example given.
      4. Accent/Language slip: This is an easy one but it rarely applies. It’s only truly useful if you have a character who is either using a second language (say a French woman using English) or else someone with an trace of an accent that may grow thicker with emotion. The French woman, when angry, excited or upset may forget herself and slip into her native tongue. The, just as an example, Scottish man with a slight burr to his speech might get more accented/harder-to-understand in his agitation.

There are many, many more means by which emotion is written into text by authors and there are variations on the above themes as well. Using physical symptoms like a racing heart, for example, would be a common variation of #3. I can’t possibly cover them all in a blog post but hopefully the eight methods I went through above will prove helpful to people!

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