Engaging Emotion: Emotions and Actions

Writers know emotion in writing is important, I have no doubt I’m preaching to the converted. Human emotion is one of the most powerful experiences we can have, and capturing that on a page is a core component of a good book. Personally, I believe it’s central. No amount of clever plot twists or magical word-smithing is going to keep a reader engaged if you haven’t let them know what this means on an emotional level. Make your reader feel, and you’ve got them hooked.

We’ve already explored how important emotion is in story, and the physiological (almost automatic) response emotions always involve. Today, we look at another component of the emotional reaction – the action.

For some reason people typically conceptualize behavior as a separate process from the emotion itself, which is inaccurate. Your character wouldn’t engage in whatever behavior is playing out on the page if it wasn’t for emotion being present. Remember how emotion is a program designed to address a need? Well that adaptive need—to eat and drink, to live to see another day, and to find a partner and get procreating—all involve action. That’s what emotion is used for. To achieve a goal such as communicating, drawing in, or pushing away.

Authors who sell a lot of books make sure they capture this.

Luckily, the most observable (and probably easiest to describe) part of emotion is the behavioral component. There are certain behaviors that reveal to the outside world what is going on inside. They can be both verbal and non-verbal.

The first two, actions and facial expressions are the parts of emotion you’d see if you were watching a show on mute. I was sitting in a meeting recently, pondering this very fact. I wondered if I pushed mute on the discussion that was happening, what would I be able to glean? What expressions or actions would tell me how each person in the room was feeling? Although the yawning and clothes straightening and crossing-uncrossing of legs wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, it certainly educated me about what several people were experiencing.

These observations gave me insight into the emotion in the room. I got to see how people were reacting to the information that was being presented, and that is what we want to capture on the page. Have a look how successful authors have managed to do just this:

Jodi Picoult’s The Pactis about two teens who make a suicide pact and the journey that must be made when one survives. The first excerpt includes a simple, but well-placed, nonverbal action.

“We’ll also need to show the jury that you were planning to kill yourself that night. Any counsellors you spoke to? Mental health people you’d seen?

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Chris said, licking his lips. “There isn’t anyone who’s going to tell you I was planning on killing myself.”

Those few lines are almost all dialogue. But the one little tag at the end captures how Chris is feeling—he’s nervous. That makes me, the reader, nervous too…and now that I’m invested in this feeling I’m going to keep reading so this emotion can be resolved.

Attraction is all about body cues and closely observed facial expressions. In 50 Shades of Grey, EL James amps up the sexual tension when Anastasia has a near miss with a zooming cyclist. Christian yanks her into the safety of his arms.

“Are you okay?” he whispers. He has one arm around me, clasping me to him, while the fingers of his other hand softly trace my face, gently probing, examining me. His thumb brushes my lower lip, and his breath hitches. He’s staring into my eyes, and I hold his anxious, burning gaze for a moment, or maybe it’s forever…but eventually, my attention is drawn to his beautiful mouth. And for the first time in twenty-one years, I want to be kissed. I want to feel his mouth on mine.

Just like my meeting, if we were watching this scene on mute, most people could interpret the emotion in this scene, even without Anatasia’s inner declaration. These are two people experiencing some serious chemistry. In fact, spending time building that chemistry through gentle touches and hitched breaths gives Christian’s upcoming rejection all the more impact.

In her mystery thriller, Black Out, Lisa Unger manages to capture the emotional impact through an absence of movement:

I notice how still he is. There was so much anxiety and adrenaline living inside me that I couldn’t keep myself from fidgeting, shifting my weight from foot to foot, padding a few steps away, then back toward him. But he is fixed and solid. He keeps his hands in his pocket, his eyes locked on some spot off in the distance. All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.

Clever, hey? The stoic lack of movement alludes to emotion, which is intriguing. We sense there is suffering there, but we’re going to have to keep reading to see why…and if we’re right.

Emotion is also conveyed with tone of voice. This isn’t about the words themselves but how the words are conveyed, and it’s a powerful way to communicate emotion. Joan Swan is a romantic suspense author. Check out how emotion is captured through her use of tone in her book, Blaze:

“But what?” Alyssa’s doctor’s voice geared up. Firm, no-nonsense, I’ve-had-enough-of-your-bullshit.

And this:

“He’s bleeding bad.” Her voice came out low, as if she was sharing a secret, but shaky with fear.

If we revisit Jodi Picoult’s The Pactagain, we can see the impact of tone of voice in all its glory:

“Em,” he said, swallowing, his voice just another shadow in the car. “Are you…is this about killing yourself?” And when Emily looked away, his lungs swelled up like balloons and the bottom dropped out of his world.

“You can’t,” Chris said after a minute, stunned that he’d made any sound at all, with his lips so rubbery and thick. I’m not talking about this, he thought. Because if I talk about it, it will really be happening. Emily wasn’t sitting across from him, pale and beautiful, discussing suicide. He was having a nightmare. He was waiting for the punch line. Yet he could hear his own voice, high and freaked out, already believing.

Impressive, huh?

The beauty of the behavioral component is it’s the part that most authors already intuitively capture. But now that you have an understanding of its grounding in psychology, you can use it explicitly and consciously. That’s how best-selling books are made.

What’s your thoughts? Already using emotion driven action in your story? Was that an intuitive inclusion or a conscious decision? How have you seen emotion be used in the books you love? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy writing,


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    1. Theme can be tricky! Sometimes theme doesn’t become apparent until a book is finished, sometimes you know what it is straight away, sometimes there’s more than one (choose a book that multiple people have read, and I get there will be more than one opinion on what the theme is). Pick one that seems to fit and see if it says ‘fitting’ is my suggestion. Hope that helps.


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