This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, July 21, 2008

Invoking Emotion in Fiction

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

Most people pick up a novel because they want to read a good story that will invoke some kind of emotional response inside of them. It could be humor that they’re looking for, romantic suspense and the adrenaline that pumps through their veins, or transported to another place and time in history where tenderness and faith inspire them with the people and relationships in their own lives.

As an author, how do you accomplish this?

It’s much harder than it seems. A reader can pick up a book and read through it in a few hours, while the author labored on it for six months to a year, not to mention the number of revisions it probably went through.

Regardless of your approach to writing or the length of time it takes you to finish a novel, if you can tell a good story and invoke an emotional response in your readers, your books will sell.

Have you ever watched an animated movie about cars, ants, bugs, animals, toys, veggies, and felt some kind of emotion from the story? What made you care about that make-believe character? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the blue paint on the female Porsche and her long eye lashes on her headlights in the Cars movie. Could it be because you understood her passion and love for the long-forgotten town? She had realized that life was more important than money, fame, and fancy titles. She wanted to do things that would help others, inspire them, and bring the town back to life. That little car made you identify with her purpose and goal in life. It was self-sacrificing.

Before your readers can care about your characters and feel the same emotional impact they are feeling, your readers first have to be invested and “hooked” by your characters. They need to be introduced to your characters—not formally through your telling, but personally through showing their actions, behaviors and reactions to people, situations and environment.

Invoking emotion is linked with characterization. Readers need to know who the characters are by:

  • What they think in introspection. They will know whose thoughts they are reading without being told whose POV your they are in.

  • What they say in dialogue. They can read a line of dialogue and know him/her without a tagline.
  • How they behave. They can almost determine how a character will react to a situation, because they know that character’s fear, likes and dislikes, and background. This is where the author has to be consistent with how that character should behave, but manage to still surprise readers so the character doesn’t become too stereotypical and the story unimaginative. This is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish and it takes lots of practice—thus, all your rewrites.

    Below is an example of two different scenarios of the same scene. Determine which one invokes more emotion as you read them.

    Example 1:

  • The hospital room beeped with all kinds of machines, babies lay in tiny incubators in neat little rows. Tiny voices cried wanting to be fed, changed, or cuddled. But Nancy’s little girl lay with her fists balled under her chin and slept as if she dreamed of angels. Nancy hoped and prayed this wasn’t a sign that her passive child wouldn’t fight to live and be strong.

    Example 2:

    Nancy walked slow, fearing what she may find this morning. After the code blue sirens yesterday on her premature baby girl, she hadn’t slept through the night and food lurched in her stomach like a bad case of poison. Images of a tiny blue face gasping for air kept reeling through her mind on replay.

    Each beeping machine that she passed made her heart skip. Her breath caught as an infant beside her burst into a fit of crying. Nancy took a deep breath and forced it out slowly as she passed the rows of clear incubators, until she came to her daughter’s. No movement. All was quiet from this corner of the room. Nancy gulped as she leaned on her tiptoes, covered her mouth, and peered inside.

    Does one invoke more emotion than the other?