Emotion in Stories: how to Create it?

Every great story has emotional moments. In the movie, E.T., Elliott is heartbroken as his friend, E.T., is dying in his house near the end of the story. He was nervous when he first encountered E.T. making noises in the shed. He was anxious and excited in the end, when peddling E.T. to his escape ship. Would this story have been great with these emotional moments absent? As Karl Iglesias says, “When was the last time you saw a movie ad that said, ‘Well-structured, great plot points, fresh dialogue?’ No. What you see more often than not are emotional blurbs, which are promises of the emotional experience you’ll feel by watching the movie. They’re selling emotions because that’s what audiences want.” (Writing for Emotional Impact, 2005) Yet, writing a story capturing elusive emotions is often considered difficult. Is it though?

Imagine Mr. Jones undergoes a heart surgery, where his future health is uncertain. Now contrast the next two scenes. Version one: in the next scene, the story skips a year and Mr. Jones is fishing in the Bahamas. He really wants to catch a big fish. There is no reference to his health. Or version two: the story moves to a scene where his wife converses with his daughter. His wife expresses her anxiety about how she will support herself if her husband passes prematurely. She conveys her sadness of retirement plans that will probably never occur. Her daughter then shares her own sorrow that Mr. Jones may never see his grandson graduate from high school. Then his other daughter calls, learns the news, and starts crying. In the second version, the character reactions to the event (the heart surgery) all provide emotion to the story. How to create emotion? That’s how: show character reactions to an event, almost as if the narrator is interviewing each character to find out what she is thinking and feeling.

In our everyday life, the people around us emotionally react to events: e.g., news of a death—sorrow; news of a marriage—joy; and news of a financial problem—grief. Imagine taking an action story, which is usually loaded with events. Imagine then adding a scene after each of those events throughout the story, where that scene focuses solely on how various characters react emotionally to that event. The author most likely will have infused a great deal of emotion into the story.

Now, too many of these scenes creates a soap opera, and the story may very well lose a large male audience. Too few of them creates an action piece, and will likely lose a large female audience. A balance between action/events and emotional reactions should be sought. E.T. achieved this balance, appealing to an audience of both genders.