When we pick up a novel, we do so because we want to feel something. We want to have an emotional experience – to go on a journey not only alongside the characters, but also within ourselves.

The stories that stay with us long after we close the pages tend to be those that speak to us on a deep emotional level. We might not remember the intricate details of plot, but we do remember how these books made us feel and the ways in which they moved us.

A writer who understands how to connect with readers on an emotional level has the power to make a story set in the furthest reaches of history resonate every bit as much as one set today. After all, certain aspects of the human experience are universal and as old as time – think sacrifice, betrayal, love, justice, and revenge. Readers will never tire of exploring these soul-stirring themes.

But how exactly do we go about writing stories that will make readers experience deep feelings? Here are five tips for eliciting emotions from your readers:

1. Show what characters are feeling

If you want your reader to empathise with your characters, resist telling them directly what the characters are feeling. Labels such as ‘Mary was scared’ or ‘Thomas was in love’ are too abstract to fully resonate with readers. They tell us what a character is feeling, but they don’t stir our own emotions.

The key to evoking emotion in your reader is to write in vivid scenes, with action and dialogue unfolding in real time, as opposed to skimming over events in summary form. By inviting the reader to become an active participant in the story and witness events as they unfold, you give them space to interpret a character’s actions and make judgements about their behaviour, just as we make judgements about people’s behaviour in real life. You’ll light a spark under the reader’s imagination, enabling them to draw their own conclusions and connect with the characters and story on a deeper level.

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2. Watch out for physical tells

In order to avoid emotion words – ‘Jane was upset’, ‘Rupert was furious’ – sometimes we try to show how a character is feeling by describing their physical reactions, such as trembling hands or a hammering heart. However, as with any cliché, readers are so used to these well-worn physical tells that they often fail to register on an emotional level. To get round this, your instinct might be to opt for a more unusual physical tell. However, this can sometimes have an unintentionally melodramatic (or even amusing) effect, therefore breaking the reader’s immersion in the story.

This means that sometimes a bit of telling is actually preferable. If a character’s emotional state isn’t significant enough to the scene or wider story to warrant detailed exploration on the page, and if it’s not necessary to sweep your reader up in that emotion, then ask yourself whether it’s better to use the emotion word and move swiftly on.

3. Choose words and imagery with care

When you edit your work, ask yourself whether the words on the page fit with the emotion you want to evoke in your reader. Some words are imbued with meaning and have connotations beyond their dictionary definition, and they can therefore do a lot of heavy lifting on the page. Opt for language and sentence lengths and rhythms that are in keeping with the mood and pace you’re aiming to create.

Strong, precise verbs can speak volumes about the way in which a character performs an action, thereby hinting at their emotional state.

In early drafts, we tend to rely on clichés. Dig deeper and spark the reader’s imagination with striking and specific details and imagery that will bring to life the nuances of your character’s inner state.

Rather than telling us that a character is in love, or grieving, or bored, show this through the details they notice as they go about their day. How does their mood affect the way they experience sensory data? Look beyond what your viewpoint character can see with their eyes; think about what they can hear, smell, touch, and taste. Sensory details can be incredibly evocative.

If you have something significant to say and you want to ensure your reader pays attention, it’s far more powerful to say something once, with total clarity and precision, than it is to repeat it in various less precise ways.

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4. Don’t neglect your characters’ inner lives

When your viewpoint character is experiencing an emotion that you want your reader to identify with, don’t limit yourself to depicting this through action and dialogue – look inwards to their interior world too. Reduce the narrative distance at key moments and give the reader glimpses into your viewpoint character’s real-time thoughts and feelings. If you rely only on objective, external details to depict how your protagonist is feeling, the result might be a character who is too impenetrable to fully connect with.

After a key event, give your viewpoint character a chance to process what just happened and work out what to do next. This in turn will give the reader space to explore their own feelings and make comparisons about what they would do in that situation. However, take care not to spend too long here – you don’t want to ruin the forward momentum of your story.

In terms of how your characters react to story events, dig deep. Resist settling for the most obvious emotional response – what else might your character be feeling? Is there an opportunity to subvert readers’ expectations and have the character react in a surprising way?

Don’t shy away from exploring difficult or unexpected feelings – readers connect with fiction that explores uncomfortable truths. Just as our own emotional responses are rarely without nuance, the same is true for our characters. Embrace messy, complex, contradictory feelings – they’re a fundamental part of the human experience. Nudge your characters into difficult situations; make them face terrible moral dilemmas. Which brings me to my final tip…

5. Raise the stakes and conflict

If you’ve laid the groundwork and created characters your reader can relate to, the events that befall those characters will inevitably stir your readers’ emotions. But in order to make your reader experience deep emotions, something important needs to be at stake for your character.

If you take the time to establish someone or something that means the world to your character, you’ll rattle your reader when that person or thing comes under threat. Readers want to see your protagonist struggle through complications and conflict in pursuit of their goal. There will be high points and low points along the way – you can make it a real emotional rollercoaster for your reader – but the stakes and tension should ultimately rise to a crescendo in your story’s climax. Surprise and unsettle the reader with some unexpected twists and turns along the way.

By putting your characters in difficult, high-stakes situations and forcing them to make tough choices, you invite readers to question what they would do in those circumstances. You invite them to question their own behaviour, to think about their own lives. You invite them to engage with your story beyond what’s on the page, and go on an emotional journey of their own.

Rachel Smith is The History Quill’s executive editor. She is our lead content editor and manages our editing and group coaching operations, as well as our content and resources. She lives in Essex, UK, and has a degree in English literature and creative writing.

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