Writing to Create an Emotional Impact
A story’s power lies in how words evoke emotional responses in its audience. Creating an emotional impact requires a basic concept of how emotion works, and adapting basic writing skills to achieve the desired effect. The tools discussed here differ depending on the type of emotional impact desired for the scene. Emotion needs to be triggered consistently in order for a piece to be engaging, but for emotion to build up to a specific point of tension, it has to be connected to specific elements of character, plot, and setting. This takes a whole other creative touch.
Emotion in writing isn’t created, it’s pulled out of the audience by rich, sensory details. For the most part, readers are engaged with a creative work through the part of their brain that handles reason, engages intellectual problems, and connects abstract thought. This is the neocortex. Emotion comes from an entirely different place; the limbic system. The job of the limbic system is to process the data from the physical senses in order to create the emotional responses in the body, like tear formation, heart palpitation, blood flow to the face, or hair to stand on end.
The rules governing which sensory input produces which emotional response are part of common instinct. The key is to select the sensory details carefully so they both make sense in the scene and elicit the correct emotion.
First, know what the reader needs to feel in the scene. For an illustrative example, consider a scene in which the main character is waiting in a busy train station to meet someone. This is a wide and wonderful canvas since there’s a lot of possible action going on and an infinite number of details to choose from. If the reader should be feeling building suspense, describe a couple of details the character notices that are negative and tense.
The second step is to build the details up in intensity. Zoom in on someone pacing and biting their nails, people rushing past in foul moods, an individual who is knocked down and hurt while others don’t even notice, and then some culminating tension like an intense argument between two patrons that escalates to a fight. Each of these can’t just be mentioned, they have to be shown with specific sensory detail in order to develop that connection with the reader’s limbic system.
Another way to use emotion, other than just triggering it as needed, is to attach emotion to items, settings, or characters specifically. This is a delicate operation. Emotional connection is almost always severed when it’s pointed out directly. Instead, investing an item with emotional connection is best done using situation and sensory description to trigger an emotional memory of the item.
An example of this is found in the Dr. Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor, in which the Doctor and his companion meet Vincent Van Gogh. One particular painting, one of the the sunflower series, is layered with emotional connection through situations and scenes. Amy, the Doctor’s companion, pointed it out as her favorite of Van Gogh’s works when they first visit the museum display. When they travel back in time, she adorns the garden in sunflowers hoping to get him to paint the piece, but he tells her he actually doesn’t like sunflowers. Vincent grows to trust her and the Doctor, and makes an inept marriage proposal to Amy, in the hope that she can stay and fix his loneliness and depression. She has to say no, though she hopes their influence will keep him from committing suicide as history shows he did. When they return, he had ended his life after all, much to her dismay. However, when she takes another look at the famous Sunflowers painting, she finds the words “for Amy” inscribed on it. All the feels, right? No one had to tell the audience how to feel. Instead, situations and items were arranged so as to evoke the emotion from the audience naturally.
In larger works, emotional connection can be achieved using larger elements, like theme and conflict. One of the ways to tap into this is by introducing a situation that the reader can relate to and doesn’t have an easy solution.
Romance, as a genre, often does this by developing two potential partners to the point where the reader can see how the protagonist could manage with either one. This splits the audience into “teams”, while some are simply torn because they want the protagonist happy, but see consequences for either choice.
Another genre that handles these conflicts of conscience is speculative fiction. Ender’s Game, a classic in YA sci-fi, delivers a heady blend of emotions when (spoiler alert) Ender is told that the simulation of battle has actually been real. This taps deeply into emotion because deceit, lies, guilt, death, and duty are all rolled into a single decision that was Ender’s to make, but that was taken from him.
Emotional impact can be increased by sensory description or careful crafting of scenes and situations, but the crucial point to remember is how the reader processes detail into emotion. Know what they should be feeling, recognize the type of detail that can trigger that emotion, and work it into the scene. This can take several versions, but the effect is worth it.