Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Writing with Emotion

by Cindy Sproles @CindyDevoted

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

I still get chills when I hear those words. Something inside me churns. I scoot a little closer to the television. As the stars shoot past me on the screen, I am drawn into the next adventure of the Enterprise. Excitement. Anticipation. A touch of anxiety—all emotions set into play by the author.

The joy in reading comes when an author tweaks the reader’s emotion. It doesn’t always have to be earth shattering—but it does need to spark an element of sensation.

Readers come to fiction to escape the doldrums of life. Our job as writers is to build an imaginary world they can step into that allows them to experience the story. Not just read it.
The experience is what makes a story memorable.

How do we strike that emotion that holds a reader hostage inside our imaginary world? It takes practice. Lots of practice. You’ve heard this before—show don’t tell.

For every rule there is an exception, so there will be times when you have no option but to show. The art of the craft comes in learning the balance and then putting it into play.

Writing is not an easy venture—at least, not if you do it right. If you are able to flip a story down onto a page in a week and proclaim it perfect, then more than likely, you’ve done it the lazy way. You’ve probably spent more time telling the reader how to feel, what to see, how to move through the story, than you’ve spent showing the rocky path to follow and allowing them to stumble over the hurdles.

Telling is road of least resistance, or the lazy man’s way to write. It’s like telling your mom about her surprise party before she opens the door to the excitement of her friends shouting Happy Birthday.

Here’s an example:
Mark opened the door. He inched down the stairs wondering what might be waiting in the dark basement.

You don’t have to worry about busting word count here. Short and sweet. No emotion. No anticipation. The character is just walking down the stairs in the dark.

Now let’s add word count and emotion:
Mark’s hand shook as he reached for the door. Touch it or not? Yes? No? His fingers gingerly grasped hold and twisted the glass knob. The door hinges cried like a cat yowling for attention. Pitch black. Where’s the light switch? Mark rubbed his hand against the pitted shiplap. A lightbulb reached out from the wall like a ghostly hand, and a dry rotted string dangled from the socket. He wrapped the string around his finger and pulled. Nothing. Taking in a long breath, Marked eased down the steps into the dark. The stairs creaked from his weight. Something rushed past. He jumped. “Who’s there? Answer me. Who’s there?”

Emotion comes through description. However, like anything, you can overdo it. Too much description becomes an albatross. The skill comes in learning where to interject the description that pulls the reader into the story.

Perhaps you have a woman sitting at a table in a small café. Look around the café and make note of the little things that catch your attention. There’s no need to describe the tablecloth, the dishes, or the water glass unless those things are pertinent to the scene. Instead, focus on what the character sees as important. Maybe it’s the anticipation of waiting on her boyfriend, knowing she’s going to leave him. She squirms in her seat, drops her spoon into her water glass and stirs, clinking it against the glass. Let your reader feel what your character feels.

When you describe the important details in depth, your reader begins to feel the emotion of the story. Now they live and walk inside the imaginary world you have created and they want to know how this story pans out.

Our lives are not boring, though we sometimes think they are. Take time to think through your own conversations. Ponder your own internal thoughts when you’ve shared a conversation with a friend. The drama rises when you grab hold of the details and describe them to someone else. Suddenly a simple conversation with a buddy becomes filled with emotion. 

Follow these tips to learn how to write emotion:

  • Stand in front of a mirror. Talk through your character’s thoughts. Look yourself in the eye. Pay attention to your body movements and internal thoughts. You’ll see you don’t just stand there like a zombie. Instead, you move, you feel the emotion of your character.
  • Tear photos out of a magazine, and write a description. Look at the fine details. Perhaps a corner of a rug is turned up. Imagine how that happened. Let your imagination run. Practice finding the small things that make you curious, then embellish them.
  • Scratch a personal ache until it bleeds. Sometimes we simply need to access the emotion we hold deep within us. If you’ve been hurt, broken, sad – go back in your mind and scratch that sore until you feel the emotion of the pain. When you find yourself there, you will write incredible description because you are looking for a way to express it. Your word choice will be much better and your ability to share that emotion will be greater than ever.

When you write a story with good emotion, it becomes a joy to pen. Your reader will love you and they’ll love your story and keep coming back for more.

#Writing with emotion: Show Don't Tell explained by @CindyDevoted on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

"When you write a story with good emotion, it becomes a joy to pen." @CindyDevoted on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Cindy Sproles is an award-winning author and popular speaker. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions ministries and managing editor of Straight Street Books and SonRise Devotionals, imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Cindy is the executive editor of
www.christiandevotions.us and 
www.inspireafire.comShe teaches at writers 
conferences nationwide and directs The Asheville Christian Writers Conference - Writers Boot Camp. 

She is the author of two devotionals, He Said, She Said - Learning to Live a Life of Passion and New Sheets - Thirty Days to Refine You into the Woman You Can Be. Cindy's debut novel, Mercy's Rain, is available at major retailers. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com and book her for your next conference or ladies retreat. Also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Cindy, Brilliant post. At times, I struggle with show don't tell. You "showed" me the difference. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful suggestions. A true demonstration of effectively blending the art and science of writing. Well done ma'am. God's blessings.

  3. Hi, Cindy! I recently heard a writer friend say her editor told her to stop "thinking" when she writes and to start "feeling." I like how that moves show don't tell from the head to the heart, as does your suggestion to scratch a personal ache. Thanks for the examples and tips!

    1. Feeling draws the reader into the action. Telling is like reading a grocery list.

  4. What a great post, Cindy! You did a great job demonstrating the improvement when showing versus telling in our writing!