Engaging Emotion: Every Best-Seller Does It

Our brain is driven by emotion. I know we like to think we’re rational beings, applying the rules of logic calmly and sensibly to those little and not-so-little decisions, but our every thought, our whole perspective is colored by emotion. And rather than convince you by giving examples of emotion’s salience in our life (such as research [1] demonstrating that a patient is more likely to prefer a treatment if told that ninety percent of those treated are alive five years later, than if told that ten percent are dead) I thought I’d introduce you to a man called Elliot.

For most of his life, Elliot had been a model father and husband, holding down a high-level corporate job. He was seen as an intelligent, professional and socially competent man who was looked up to by siblings and colleagues.

But when he was in his thirties, his life began to unravel. He developed severe headaches and it was difficult for him to concentrate. His family insisted he see a doctor. Tragically, Elliot was diagnosed with a large and fast-growing brain tumor. Surgery was necessary if he was to survive. But modern medicine was on his side and an excellent medical team removed the tumor and the operation was considered a success. The outlook was excellent.

But the operation changed everything.

Elliot lost a small section of his prefrontal cortices (situated behind the forehead and damaged by the tumor) during the surgery. Although Elliot’s smarts remained intact, as did his ability to move about and use language, Elliot was no longer Elliot.

After the surgery, Elliot couldn’t make a decision; he needed prompting to get started in the morning and go to work, and then at work he was unable to manage his time or remain focused on important tasks. He was unable to decide whether to use a blue or black pen, what to have for lunch and where to park his car. He lost his job, his wife, and was forced to move back in with his parents. Why?

Because Elliot could no longer feel emotion.

As a result, he was completely detached and approached decisions as if he was in neutral—every option carried the exact same weight. Think about it. If you are ambivalent about work, you don’t ensure you arrive on time. If what to have for lunch, who to befriend, or who to marry (Elliot had a brief second marriage that also ended in divorce) had no emotional salience, your decision making is inherently flawed. You don’t care about the present, and you certainly don’t care about the future.

As it turns out, emotions are the weight in the scales of choice.

What does this mean for your reader? Well, if the reader can’t feel what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what isn’t, then nothing matters. So as a writer, you need to convey not just what happens (the action), but also how this affects your protagonist, and how your protagonist feels about the events (the reaction). That is what your reader is going to connect with. Without emotion, it will be neutral, boring…put down and the remote picked up.

Donald Maass captures how important emotion is to narrative in his aptly named The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Plot happens outside but story happens inside. Readers won’t get the true story, though, unless you put it on the page—both the big meaning in small events and the overlooked implications of large plot turns.

When you illuminate the meaning of everything, you can do anything. You can deliver dry facts and make them matter…You can make poetry out of doing the dishes.

The first sentence in that quote is my favorite. Plot happens outside but story happens inside. The truth is, the emotional element of story is just as important as the curiosity element—curiosity has us wondering and asking questions.

Emotions mean we care about finding the answer.

In evolutionary terms, emotions evolved as an adaptive response to need. They came about because we needed them. Each emotion is tailored to solve a different adaptive problem that arose during human evolutionary history, such as face recognition, foraging, mate choice, sleep management, or ‘holy crap, that’s a lion!’, and each is activated by a different set of cues from the environment (e.g. hot guy/gal versus big cat). Sounds like a lot of balls to juggle? Well, you’re right!

Emotions are actually ‘programs’ that simultaneously activate multiple components. For example, if our body wants to sleep, then several things need to happen. Our heart-rate, breathing, and brain all need to slow down. If our brain is buzzing or our breathing is rapid, we ain’t getting to sleep. So a ‘program’ for sleep is activated so we can rest and recharge. On the other hand, if a jaguar just slipped into your cave, sleep isn’t what your body needs right now. If the threat of danger is present, you need to switch off the sleep program and press the big red button on the ‘freak-the-flip-out’ program. Fear is about fight or flight, and for that we need to speed up breathing and heart-rate, tune out extraneous stimuli and focus, shunt blood and adrenaline to the parts of the body that need it, and we need to start cooling down (sweating) because we’re about to tackle a jaguar or run for our lives. A super-program is needed to coordinate these physiological, behavioral, and cognitive components, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time.

That super-program? Yep. Emotions.

Emotions are an orchestration of several responses to a need. We need to feel fear so we can cope with danger. We need to feel love so we can form long-time bonds with partners and share the burden of raising children. We need to feel guilt so we are less likely to cheat on our fellow Homo Sapiensand risk alienating ourselves from those we depend on to survive.

Wondering what this has to do with your dreams of creating unforgettable, best-selling fiction?

I’m glad you asked! All those words above were included to demonstrate two things—one, emotions are central to human experience, which means emotions are central to story. And two, emotions are a product of several components, and likewise for writers, authentic emotions on the page are a product of several components. To write a story that captivates readers, your masterpiece needs to have emotion woven through it, under it, and through it some more. And to do that, you need to capture the entirety of the emotional experience.

So, just like curiosity, let’s dissect emotion into its elements so we can ensure we’re including them in our best-seller. Psychology has deconstructed the overall emotional response into three components; physiological response, behavioral response, and the subjective experience. There’s still some contention about which component comes first, or which ones happen simultaneously, but for a writer, it doesn’t really matter.

Capturing them is the bit that does.

Like Lisa Cron says in Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the First Sentence, ‘if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.’ So we’re going to explore each component in depth, and once we tease apart the threads of emotion, we’re going to look at the importance of weaving those threads together to create an authentic experience. The last chapter of this section explores the complexity of emotions because most emotions don’t live in isolation—they tend to overlap and blend, merge and meld. A compelling book knows this and captures it.

Excited? Curious (yes, that’s also an emotion!)? Feeling a sense of basorexia? (The first two I can help you with. The last—the sudden urge to kiss someone—you’ll have to deal with on your own.) Awesome! Because in the upcoming weeks, we’re going to look at how every writer can capture emotion in their pages.

Until then, how do you think emotion is captured on a page? How do you elicit it in your reader? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy writing,


Want to know more?

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[1] Damasio, Antonio R. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York :G.P. Putnam



  1. I am head-down focused on getting through the first draft on my new novel. But, I will always take the time to read and re-read each of your posts. I struggle and push that rock up hill every day. I write what some call quotidian stories – the every day struggle that doesn’t have a crime, a murder, a romance. I write within the psychological realm, the struggle of finding purpose and the meaning of life… and of course, overcoming trauma particularly guilt and shame. Your posts are always spot-on! 😉 Sharing this post

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic!
    I strongly believe that emontions are the flesh and blood of any story. They need to be everyone, from the overarching plot to the well-placed adverbs.
    Personally, I think that being able to handle emotions in stories largely comes from observing our own emotions and the reactions of people around us, but knowing the mechanics of ‘psychological emotions’ will definitely help.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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