If I want a character to respond with anger, I want the reader to understand why the character is angry. I want the reader to be caught up in the the events that lead to that anger and be given reason to feel the things I do while I'm writing. But sometimes, the things I'm feeling "in the moment" don't get conveyed and the reader can get left behind.

How do I ensure what I am writing captures what I'm feeling as I write it?

My question is less about forcing everyone to feel the same thing and more about how I, as a writer, can make sure I have illustrated the situation completely.

3 Answers 3


The job of the writer is not to convey emotion (or only in a secondary sense that I will come back to in a minute). The writer's job is to create emotion.

A story is fundamentally an experience. You don't push emotions onto the reader during the experience, rather you design the experience to create the emotions, just as experiences in real life create emotions.

If the reader is not feeling the emotion you intended in a particular scene, therefore, chances are that the writing of the current scene is not the culprit, it its that the experience leading up to the scene has not primed the reader to have that emotion when they have that experience.

Think about passing an accident on the highway. You see cars smashed or overturned. You may feel some small twinge of sympathy for the victims, but they are unknown to you and chances are you will have forgotten all about it five minutes down the highway.

But prior experience can completely change your reaction. If you have heard your friend talking about how he is worried about his teenage son who likes to party and who drives too fast, and when you look at the wreck you recognize that the smashed vehicle is the same make and model and color as your friend's car, and you think you recognize a "This Car Climbed Mount Washington" bumper sticker on the trunk, then your reactions are totally different.

But the difference is not in anything you are seeing in one case vs the other. It is all about how your prior experience conditions you to react. It is the same in a story. The emotional response is created by how you set up everything leading to the scene. It is not created by the way the scene itself is written. In fact, the better you have set it up, the less you need to say to get the emotional payoff.

There is, however, one way in which you do need to be able to convey emotion, and that is when the emotions of the characters are actually part of the setup of the emotion for a reader. The nervousness of the groom about to propose is part of the setup for the reader's emotion when the proposal is rejected. We probably don't enter into the nervousness itself to any great extent, but it sets up the emotional payoff of the rejection.

For a perfect illustration of both these points, read the Saki short story, The Open Window. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/OpeWin.shtml

  • 3
    Good answer, I guess I've never looked in that way. The expectation for the scene is also important and the empathy that the reader feels with the character and the scene. Just like its said in psychology "emotions are built on memory." If you manage to create a memory prior to the scene, than this next scene will have a greater impact. Very good answer indeed.
    – Hanilucas
    May 13, 2017 at 11:46
  • 2
    "Emotions are built on memory." I love that! It captures the point perfectly. Our job as writers is to create the memories on which the emotional reaction to later scenes depends. Of course, we can rely on other memories to a certain extent as well, memories common to most people. But most of the big moments in our stories will depend on the memories we have created in the material leading up to them.
    – user16226
    May 13, 2017 at 12:12

Let me explain with a scene-building technique I've learned.

A scene is composed by some elements. Three of them are: the atmosphere, the moldure and the action. Lets say I want to create a scene where the character opens the door of a room in a creppy and abandoned pirate ship, and I shall use these three to explain them. In this example, I want to build the emotion: fear.

(PS: Sorry if my english fails, I'm not a native english speaker.)

Little Charlie walked down the stairs to the dormitory. The blue ghosty light of the moon traversed the small windows and the broken parts of the grey woods of what should be the wall of the ship. The wind creeps in making it sound like a whisper from a dead bride. He stares the door to the captain's room and imagine if he will open the door to hell.

What is the technique?

The atmosphere are said to be "variable things" in the place. The light of the moon that gets in the place, the slow and cold wind that enters the place, the sound of the wood creaking and the ghosty wind entering the room... (It is said that Stephen King is the master of atmosphere.)

The moldure is the image, the objects and positions. The barrels, the bottles in the floor, the hammcocks in which the pirates slept... Have you noticed that I did not mentioned them even once but you probably had imagined it? Should I tell that there were hammcocks, barrels or bottles in the dormitory? Probably not, UNLESS there is something uncommon in it, like a fountain of beer or a statue of a cat.

The action is the movement and actions of objects and/or characters. In this case, the only action I used was Little Charlie staring at the door and feeling something.

If you use this technique, you will manage to build emotion more easily, because you will know what a scene is made of. The use of the right words are also the key for building the emotion. You can only select the right words by your own experience and by using figures os speech such as metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, etc.

Also, if you think that the scene still dont pass the good emotion you want it to pass, you can always solve this in the revisions and editings.

And just a final comment, if you still dont feel safe about the emotion you want to pass in the scene, I think that you are facing a terrible bad that many writers face today: perfectionism.


Put it down and read it later.

It can hard to tell whether you are properly conveying an emotion while you are writing. You are the author; of course you know what emotion you want readers to experience. Put it down and come back to it. Become a reader of your story rather than the author. Then ask yourself what your writing makes you feel when you read it. Does it still convey the emotion you want it to convey? If not, what do you need to change?

As you reread it, think about why the writing does or doesn't convey the proper emotions. Is it imprecise word choice? Try rewriting using different words. Does the scene not make you feel truly angry? Readers will only be angry for characters or causes they care about. In fact, they likely won't feel much of anything if they don't care about your characters. Does the emotion feel forced? Make sure you have provided enough context to justify the emotion.

Basically, do some editing. When you give your work a little time and distance, you can find and fix this sort of problem much more easily.

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