The thing I hear most often about my writing is, "It's too dry." I'm sure this happens to other people too. I'm working on eliciting emotion through writing, and I'd like a critique on some of my first bits.


I wake up screaming - again.

I’ve woken up screaming at least once a night since it happened. Most nights I’ll wake up three or four times, bathed in sweat.

I can still see her face fading from recognition, each time I awake she’s silently begging me to save her. I see her face twist with the sudden terror as she slips, time slowing as she starts to fall. I feel the look of betrayal, deeper than the deepest ocean, when her fingers barely brush against mine as I lunge to save her. Then...every emotion I’ve ever seen, and so many more I could never begin to describe, all meld together with abject terror as she falls. Those same feelings are ravaging me from the inside, taking my world and ripping it to shreds in the blink of an eye. Pieces of paper, torn apart by a storm.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away; I had to watch it all. A twisted sense of responsibility to her memory, or something. She fell for so long - when her body hit the ground, it was smaller than the ant crawling next to my hand.

I stayed there, on the edge of nothingness, for three whole days. I ate nothing. I drank nothing. I did. not. move. I played all of our mutual experiences over and over again in my head, promising her all the while that I’d never forget her. I knew the first time I’d told her this that I was lying: at some point my memory would fail, or we would grow apart and the memories would be rewritten. I could see in her face that she knew I was lying too. But...we both also knew that there wasn’t any other way to live. That even though we know that nothing can last, we had to act like it could, like it would. Act like we were the immortal fomori of legend, casting linguistic spells on those around us, running circles around people with less-developed minds. Capricious spirits of the wind who nevertheless held such capacity for love and understanding that it overwhelmed us on a regular basis.

I cried in her arms, cried over all the things we could never do nor fix, all the people - who by simple virtue of existence deserve unrelenting love - whom we couldn’t save. People whom we’d never meet, whom we could never help. We grieved together for the people who are too blind to know that they can’t see, who will live forever in self-created misery - people we will never be able to help. We grieved for the people they hurt out of ignorance.

You could argue that childhood abuse coupled with a unique perspective has created martyr complexes. But we didn’t do this for ourselves. We didn’t do this because we wanted others to know who we were. We didn’t do this for praise or fame.

When you realize that we are all just living collections of basic particles, that invisible air is made from the same type of particles, that all things are made up of the same stuff -

When you realize that knowledge, culture, beliefs, and more are all just things we are given -

When you realize that the only objective Truth is that we each have our own subjective experience -

When you realize that the only true knowledge is experience taken in its original context -

When you realize that the world is uncertain - that language is imprecise - that experience is ineffable -

-- you begin to realize what it means to really live - and you would never go back, even if you could.

I hope for you.

I love for you.

I miss you.

I’ll never forget you.

This is not intended to have characters, a plot, or much structure. This is specifically about creating emotion in the reader.

Did it work? Or not? (why not?)

  • Don't have time to wander through the whole piece and form an answer atm, so I'm just gonna drop this here: The "Noooooo" at the beginning to me feels completely redundant, because instantly thereafter you tell us he is screaming. To me, "I wake up screaming - again." is a much better immediate hook than an out of context scream itself.
    – MarielS
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 2:13

7 Answers 7


It is getting there, but not quite yet, IMO. The rule I have seen so often applies here - show don't tell - and you are still telling too much.

If you can remove description and replace it with emotional response, while still telling the same information, then you will have it. That is a real challenge, but you are part way there already.

[Edit] An example, from the first part of your writing. Not perfect, but the direction I feel you should be going.

A scream echoed around the room, starting from the pits of hell, or maybe from me.

Once again. like every other time this night. Or last night. Or whenever.

The bed was wet. The smell of sweat filled the air. Her voice begging me to save her still ringing in my head, her face fading in my mind, the look of terror frozen on it, melting into hopelessness, freezing into horror.

  • 2
    Or go poetic! "The bed was wet. Filling the air was the smell of sweat. Her voice begging me to save her, still ringing in my head. Her face fading in my mind, the look of terror frozen on it. Melting into hopelessness, into horror freezing it." Mostly alliteration but I think it could work. Not this particular example but rather a way akin to "Mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking and hiding on my chamber door. Never more..."
    – Mussri
    Commented May 25, 2012 at 20:47
  • LOL The pits of hell part is a bit much Commented May 26, 2012 at 1:22
  • @Aerovistae But the point is that it often seems like the pits of Hell when you have just woken up. that is my point. Anyhow, it was not intended as finished idea, just a concept to pursue. Commented May 26, 2012 at 8:28
  • I agree--right now you're just telling us how you feel, in overblown language. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 17:16
  • Not sure about "The bed was wet ..."! :) My memories of waking up in a sweaty bed have always been that the sheets were cold and clinging to me, and it seems that that's the kind of phraseology that would bring the experience better into the mind of the reader. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:55

The other answers are great. When you wax analytical/philosophical, you are naturally distancing yourself (and your readers) from emotion. Emotion can't look forward or back in time, it is all about now. Even if you're focused on an event in the future or past, the feelings about it are happening now. That's one of the biggest differences between thought and feeling. Thought can roam anywhere, anywhen, but feeling is here now.

Writing for a feeling needs to be immediate - not reflective. The reflective/descriptive/analytical stuff is what builds the context for the reader so that they "understand" the situation and have a reason to care about the protagonists.

That's why so many horror stories start out honky dory, boring, and hopeful - so that when the action/emotions start, it's not only a stark contrast to what came before, but the reader has had a chance to get to know and identify with the characters (and with what they have to lose).

(disclaimer - I write almost no fiction (although I have read a lot), so my "suggestions" are not meant as actual text you could use, but more as the sort of thing that might work.)

Little things: meld is a soft, comforting word. It works against the predominant feeling - maybe - all smash together - or freeze into a mass of - those aren't very good, but they add momentum instead of dampening it.

Splitting the waking up into paragraphs also gives the reader breathing room to relax. Emotions flow and usually build or subside ("waves of emotion"). They are rarely static, so your text has to reflect that. It can't stop and look at them from several angles while they're "holding still".

I wake up covered in a cold sweat. Two or three times every night since she plummeted from my grasp, I'm wrenched from sleep screaming as I hopelessly try to save her.

Digression: Many years ago, I went to see The Deer Hunter at the movies. I knew it was going to be a rough picture from the trailers, etc. I remember the amazing Polish wedding at the start of it. All I could think of was, Holy !@#$%, if he's making this so incredibly detailed and real, how am I ever going to handle what's coming next? I was terrified before any of the terrifying stuff happened!


Remember, the goal is not to feel emotion, and not to write emotion. The goal is to write so the reader feels emotion.

At the risk of being terminally cheesy, consider these lyrics from 90's pop group Roxette (reformatted as prose):

What's the time? Seems it's already morning. I see the sky, it's so beautiful and blue. The TV's on, but the only thing showing is a picture of you. I get up, and make myself some coffee. I try to read a bit, but the story's too thin. I thank the Lord above that you're not there to see me in this shape I'm in. Spending my time, watching the days go by. Feeling so small, I stare at the wall, hoping that you think of me too.

To me, this paints an effective picture of a post-breakup depression, built almost entirely through mundane details. Essentially we see a portrait of someone trying to get on with life and failing. This makes it easy to emphasize with, especially if you've ever lived that experience, because it's very relatable.

Here's a very similar example, from Wilco:

I try to stay busy. I do the dishes, I mow the lawn. I try to keep myself occupied, even though I know you're not coming home. I try to keep the house nice and neat. I make my bed, I change the sheets. I even learned how to use the washing machine. Keeping things clean doesn't change anything.

The problem with your example is that even though the character is very emotional, there's no real avenue in for the reader. There needs to be some point of identification before we start to care.


Don't overreach. Phrases such as "I did. Not. Move." come off as a bit much, a bit dramatic. And I agree w/ the top answer, it does get a bit didactic towards the end. Illustrate inner conflict with outer actions; as a general rule, tend away from explicitly indicating the character's mindset. Of course there are cases where you must, but don't unless you've thought about both options, and know you must.

You want an emotional response, but that comes from building empathetic characters, not from dramatic language. We don't know the characters very well at this point, so we don't have much emotional connection to them. Build interesting, whole characters—make us familiar with them, friends with them—and Then deliver the blow. Is my 2¢.

Good luck!


As answer to your question: it did for me. You can slightly get a feeling of the story behind, and I think that makes it strong.

I do have 2 small notes: ". I did. not. move.": This reads a bit annoying "But...we both also": I think "..." isn't stronger than just a regular comma and should only be used in comics ;).

I like M.Na'el's piece as well but that depends on the style you want to write.


Try putting the entire thing in present tense, unfolding in real time. That tends to elicit emotion better than a chronolog.

You start with present tense: "I wake up screaming," but then dropped the ball -- why? To keep us on the edge of our seats, we need to think something is about to happen, not that it has already happened.

You also slip into passive voice at the end: "has created," "is made from," etc. Make the reader an actor, not an observer! Battling passive voice is challenging, but rewarding.


A few things I notice are your change of tense and POV. It is not consistent. You switch at the end from "I" to "you" and feels like your preaching to your reader.

You have a lot of Filter Words. Saw, felt,feel, realized, watch, etc... These words naturally put up another layer between the character and the reader. Try rewriting without these.

Passive voice was mentioned before. Look at MRU (motivation reaction units) as well.

One way to expand the scene is to have the POV character reflecting on specific moments they had together rather than telling us about them.

"I cried in her arms, cried over all the things we could never do nor fix, all the people - who by simple virtue of existence deserve unrelenting love - whom we couldn’t save. People whom we’d never meet, whom we could never help. We grieved together for the people who are too blind to know that they can’t see, who will live forever in self-created misery - people we will never be able to help. We grieved for the people they hurt out of ignorance."

Expand upon this. Have the POV character recall an actual specific situation the led to such grief. Perhaps a story about why he cried in her arms and who we couldn't save. Was it a random person, parents, ex lover, etc...? Did they die tragically? Was it the POV fault for their death and by extension they feel they fail to protect their lover. This allows us to emphasize.

EX Idea: Maybe the POV was driving and crashed a car (maybe he was drunk). The accident killed his parents and he blames himself for it. During the crash he tried to pull his parents from the burning car and his mom bleeds to death in his arms.

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