Writer's Notebook: Creating Emotion in the Reader

Make the reader feel something.

Make the reader feel something.

It’s that time of the month — by which I mean it’s the time of the month I spend editing my students’ work.  I enjoy this.  They’re good writers and always striving to be better.  It’s wonderful to be part of that process.

One thing I notice emerging writers struggling with is how to create emotion in the reader. That’s what we aim for, yes?  Not that our readers understand what our characters are feeling, but that they feel those very emotions and sensations themselves — that they are, in other words, dreaming with eyes open.

It takes practice.  I get it.  And that’s why I repeat myself over and over in these workshops, reminding students how to use certain tools.

And what are those tools you might ask?

First off, remember that emotions reside in the senses and construct your prose with moment-to-moment sensual experience — no abstractions, no generalizations.  Make me smell the coffee, hear the tinkling bells, feel the biting wind, see the rosy-fingered dawn, taste the tooth-achingly sweet marzipan.

Second, follow this advice from Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler (with whom, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be teaching at the 13th Annual International Conference of the Short Story in English in July 2014), which is the best advice I’ve read to date:

The Five Ways to express emotion, and therefore create it in the reader: 

 “First, we have a sensual reaction inside our body – temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change.

Second, there is a sensual response that sends signals outside our body – posture, gesture facial expression, tone of voice, and so forth.

Third, we have, as an experience of emotion, flashes of the past.  Moments of reference in our past come back to us in our consciousness, not as ideas or analyses about the past, but as little vivid bursts of waking dream; they come back as images, sense impressions.

The fourth way we experience emotion and can therefore express it in fiction is that there are flashes of the future, similar to flashes of the past, but of something that has not yet happened or that may happen, something we desire or fear or otherwise anticipate.  Those also come to us as images, like bursts of waking dreams.

And finally – this is important for the fiction writer – we experience what I would call sensual selectivity.  At any given moment we, and therefore our characters, are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sensual cues.  But in that moment only a very small number of those sensual cues will impinge on our consciousness.  Now, what makes that selection for usWell, our emotions do.”

It is in the selection of those sensual cues that the essence of fine writing is found.  We must train ourselves to find the correct details, not merely lots and lots of them, but the right ones.

Now, off you go!  Make the reader FEEL!



  1. alison weston on August 24, 2013 at 7:49 am

    hi Lauren, as an avid reader, I can really relate to your comments. I most love reading novels when I feel I’m in the hands of a writer who carries me away, letting me dive into the story and stay there. This essay helps me understand why there are some authors/novels I’ve not enjoyed, and I’m now sure one of the reasons is I was being “told” things about the characters, rather then “feeling” them through what’s happening to them. By the way, I love the Robert Olen Butler advice, and WOW – next year you’ll be teaching in Vienna! Congrats, wish I could be there. regards, Alison

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 24, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Thanks for commenting, Alison. You’ve got it! This is often why books fail to move us — this and point of view problems. (And yes, I’m pretty excited about Vienna as well. I’ve never been there before.)

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