The “Secret” Technique of Writing Emotion

A Lack of Emotion.jpgWriting emotion into fiction can be very challenging.  Many writers rely on television, or other works of fiction, to gauge the best method to write believable emotion into their stories.  While I never discount the value of studying popular fiction in your genre for examples of what to do, there is also value in trusting your own emotional background as a source of inspiration.  Today I wanted to offer a simple exercise to help you tap into “secret” emotions and apply them to the page.

I read this in a more generic writing book I won’t mention, but the idea was this: when writing about pain, love, anguish, fear, or any other emotion, tap into your own emotional experiences.  I remember seeing this and thinking, “Okay, that makes sense, but how do I actually apply this?”

How I perceive emotion is different than how you might.  The classic example is love.  Think about the first time you ever felt love, or on a more shallow level, had a flirting feeling of attraction.  Maybe think about the first time you had your heart shattered.  If each of us wrote a short biographical piece detailing these experiences, they would likely be similar in some aspects, but very different in others.

stein on writing.jpgSol Stein, in his book, Stein on Writing, talks about his “secret” technique.  The technique is simple for some, and uncomfortable for others.  The idea is simple.  Think of an emotion and recall a point in your life where you experienced it.  However, ensure it is an experience you wouldn’t want to share.

You may have to do some soul searching, but I think all of us have a certain experience we wouldn’t anyone to know about.  For the exercise, I recommend locating a scene you are having particular trouble with and reading it a few times.  Isolate the important emotional elements that are missing and write them down.

Now you have a basis to work from and emotion you are attempting to bring to life.  Now go into you own emotional reserves.  Think back to a moment where you experienced the emotion in question.  More so, try to isolate a time where the experience was so great you would be very uncomfortable sharing it with anyone.  No matter how painful, awful, wonderful, or horrible it is, sink into it.

Writing a Secret

Once you have found it, chronicle it.  Write as if you were writing a journal or diary entry only you will see.  Make it personal and don’t fabricate it.  In your own words, write it as accurately as you possibly can.

After you are done, look at what you have written.  Study the language and words.  Now take that bottled lightning and apply it to your book.

You may do this exercise and find you have opened a door and it stays open.  If that is the case, jump straight into your manuscript and start typing.  Use that emotional high (or low) to add depth to the scene in question.

For others, pouring out those experiences may drain you emotionally and leave you with little in the tank.  The good news is you have a source of original emotions to pull into your writing.  You need only reference the secret entry you made.

I like this exercise for a couple reasons.

One reason, is it forces the writer to pour themselves onto the page.  Like I mentioned earlier, everyone experiences emotions in a different way.  In regards to fiction, being able to apply this unique perspective to the emotional elements of your book will add to your own style and voice.

toolbox-807845_960_720.pngThe second reason I like it, is because it’s a tangible tool for isolating and tapping into emotions.  It’s nice to be able to temper problems with actual solutions.  As an editor and writer, I like to have useful tools I can apply and share.

On a side note, I have considered the value of an emotion journal.  As frilly as this may sound, for some people it could be useful.  It’s a commonly accepted practice for a writer to keep something to write with them at all times (or at least a means of recording ideas).  This way, if inspiration strikes, you can capture it.

With that being said, some of the best writing we do is when our hands are shaking and we are emotionally charged.  An idea journal could serve another purpose as a storage bank for emotions as well.  Perhaps after a heated discussion, or moment of introspection, you could flip it open and quickly transcribe your thoughts and feelings in the moment.  Arguably, the fresher the emotion, the more meat you should be able to pull from it.  In essence, you are capturing emotions to apply later to your work.

question markThat’s it for today!  I hope you find some merit in this technique.  I’d be curious to know some of the methods you all employ to add emotional context to your writing.  Do you do what I just described, or do you have a different method for tapping into those feelings?  I’d love to talk about it and learn more.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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35 responses

  1. I actually get the most feels while playing role-play games. (And, with the right game, it could happen several times in one sitting, making your downtime ripe with potentially new and fresh material.)

    This isn’t to say that I don’t have personal stuff to use, but the perk with video gaming is the fact that you’re already in a good space for writing emotions – you don’t have to worry about finishing an argument or storming off in anger; it makes it easier to really think and write what you’re feeling down. That being said, I like to have a notebook handy while I play – for emotion, and for the jotting of creative inspiration influenced by the situation or the physical environment. 🙂 I’m sure you do the same while playing Fallout.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Video games and role-playing, you’re speaking a language I understand here. I haven’t really considered this as a potential outlet for capturing emotion, but you are right on with this assessment. This is very clever (and yet another reason for me to stop what I’m doing and go play games).

      I’m really glad you mentioned this as I never even considered tapping into this aspect of my life. Again, very clever!

      Thank you so much for reading and leaving a great piece of advice. Yet another day where I learned something from my blog. Love it.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Check out It’s an ambient music site built for table-top gameplay. (Mechanical Dungeon is one of my favorite tracks.) I use it for writing myself; I actually include it in my post, (Free) Music Sites for Creatives.

        QE: Would you mind me writing a post on this topic in the near future? Now ya got me thinking of how games helped me be a better writer. (I figured I’d ask since your post was the inspiration for it. ^^)

        Liked by 2 people

      • Wow, this is really cool. I just went to the website and this is a really awesome little tool. The website layout is also very appealing. Thanks for this, I’ll be bookmarking it for future use.

        As for posting, write what makes you happy! You never need to ask. Even a post that is centered around this concept, from a different perspective, adds a lot of depth to our combined knowledge.

        Thanks for reading and leaving this great link…love it.


  2. I always feel like I’m most productive when I’m emotionally charged. Say something’s gotten me riled or upset. The only downside of that is a tendency to show my characters feeling the same. But that I’m more comfortable with writing separate scenes, as opposed to continuous, that’s much less of a problem.
    Another great post Corey. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 4 people

    • You always seem to have your finger on the pulse of emotions in your daily short stories (which I’m behind on and will be catching up with). I like how you mentioned you try to break it down into scenes when possible. One reason I like this tip is because it addresses specific scenes.

      As always, thanks for stopping in, reading, and leaving some insight about your process. Daily writers really interest me because you all seem to really have a grasp of how to turn on and turn off different aspects of creativity.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent article Corey! ^_^ I’m not sure I know how to explain my process. I think it has a great deal to do with how I visualize and feel things in general. I’m pretty good at reading others emotions so it isn’t very hard for me to put myself in another shoes, regardless of if I’m writing fiction or otherwise.

    That is the best I will be able to explain my process when it comes to writing emotion into anything I work on story wise. I wish I had a lengthier explanation but the way I do it, I can’t really put that into words…although I know that sounds crazy and a tad sad for someone who writes to not be able to find the words to describe something. 😉

    I like the idea behind this concept you shared in your article. I have no doubt it will help many others who have trouble evoking emotion with writing or are simply looking for another way to do it.

    Solid tips!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are one of those writers who is not only unafraid to write emotion, but taps into elements of it others are afraid to think about. I’ve heard people talk about emotional IQ’s before and how you are describing your process reminds me of this. There is little doubt that having the ability to read emotion only lends to our ability to create it via words.

      Judging by the growing readership on your page (which is awesome!) you have your fingers on an emotional pulse that is resonating with a lot of people. I know for me, Black Winter is a frightful but intriguing place. And yes, I know you write about more than Black Winter, but hey, readers are allowed to have favorites 😉

      Thanks for swinging in today and leaving some thoughts. I’ve been thinking about a mustached, meat aficionado ever since I stopped by your page earlier…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you kindly Corey. I’m going to keep this reply shorter (hopefully) because my wife and I drank a ton of wine. At any rate, I do want you to know I appreciate your thoughts and that you and others enjoy what I write.

        I always look forward to reading your posts! I always find something I can learn from them and I love to see your insight on writing and other things (nostalgia induce speak of gaming).

        You are excellent at teaching and doing so creatively. I’m always engaged with every article you write regardless of content. Keep up the amazing work sir.

        I look forward to your book (not even joking as I’m already hyped)!

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never consciously tried this–to draw on my own experiences to nail an emotion on the page. I suspect it will work well for things like anger and fear!

    But I find tough to draw on my own emotions for the whole being in love thing. I’m sure I felt that ‘romantic high’ in high school or college–but I’m pretty aromantic now, and I don’t think I can recapture the old feelings.

    Oddly, though, that freed me up to write about a different type of romance. About partnerships that are based on liking or friendship or mutual need. Or even sheer self-interest: ‘I like you well enough and you have a lot of money/power/position and I kinda need that for comfort/protection/security and in exchange I’ll try and make you decently happy.’

    So, um, yeah. Aromantic romance is kinda my sweet spot. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the type of aromantic romance you are talking about appeals to a large subset of the population. I know I’ve had plenty of married friends who were just kind of together because that’s what they felt they were supposed to be doing. “Stay together for the kids,” or, “We both benefit from this arrangement,” kind of stuff. So this idea of feeding off of one another for purposes outside of pure romance makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. I like this concept because it has the potential to evolve and de-evolve as well.

      I’m scatterbrained right now, but I’m pretty sure I missed out on Tarot Tuesday on your space so I’m going to head that way after I finish nailing these comments. QE needs his weekly tarot fix!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for pointing this out. I hadn’t really considered this angle at all. It makes perfect sense now that you say it though.

      Perhaps I shall take my role-playing to the next level and begin method acting in the house. That should thoroughly frighten and confuse everyone involved. But perhaps there is a hidden goldmine of emotion to be found.

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving a solid breadcrumb for me to gobble up and think about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Perhaps I shall take my role-playing to the next level and begin method acting in the house.” That can be a lot of fun, as long as the people around you know what you’re doing. (Not that I’ll to admit to knowing this from personal experience… 🙂 )

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve found music extremely helpful for tapping into an emotion. I have two death scenes planned for the book I’m working on and I’ve set up a playlist to get into that shock, depression and the numbness which follows.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Music also helps my ability to tap into emotion as well. Especially movie soundtracks that conjure up the emotions I was feeling during the film.

      Great bit of advice! Thanks for taking the time to read today.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have a love and hate relationship with emotions. When I’m feeling “high” off of happiness, I feel like I can write half of my book in one day. But the second I get even an inkling of negativity I struggle to even land a single word on the page.

    *sigh* human beings, they’re too fickle for writing of you ask me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you about those fickle humans! Why haven’t machines with self-awareness started writing books yet?

      On a more serious note, I think you aren’t alone. I have friends who take those days off to prevent the frustration from building into something more. In my opinion, sometimes it’s okay to give up a few battles if it helps you win the war.

      Thanks for sharing your way of thinking and for reading. I’ll just be over here working on my cyborg replacement.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I often use this technique, or one like it. Often my characters are experiencing more intense situations than I have ever known, but the emotions are still the same. By the same token I think if someone wants to write about a place they’ve never been to, they can find common ground with their own experiences. At first glance a desert and a forest are not very similar, but anyone who’s been lost in a forest could relate to the endlessness of a desert; the isolation of being completely alone in what they might perceive as a hostile environment. I’ve heard that astronauts rely on the same techniques in their training, using under water as a facsimile for outer space.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think this method of linking emotions and environments is very intuitive. Thanks for sharing an easy to apply way of tackling the process. I might just do some Google searching about astronauts and submersion now.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and for getting me thinking in a different direction.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I find it easiest to tap into fear, sadness, horror, and anger. Likely because these are emotions I grappled with while in the military and while I was a police officer. Whether experiencing those emotions myself, or interacting with people who were dealing with them, they were often prevalent in my daily life.

      Now that I have a baby boy, it’s also easy for me to feel wonder and excitement. I watch him figure out new things everyday, and in a way, I experience it with him.

      While these are kind of “shallow” emotions (ones I freely share), the feelings I would focus on for this exercise are at a level I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing.

      Thanks for stopping in today!


  8. When I typed the end of act 1 in Bob Drifter, I knew it was strong because I had trouble typing it. I was tapping into my worst fear, and the character in that chapter was living it. I felt how connected I was to it, and thought others would be as well. I think this is where the bulk of my readers really sink into the book. Solid advice. Glad I had a chance to stop by and read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I always know you are having an emotionally charged writing day because it’s reflecting in messenger chats when we clock in and out with each other.

      I know there have been a few times where my hands were shaking after typing a scene or chapter and I immediately messaged you afterwards to celebrate what I felt was an emotionally powerful scene. Those are the days we live for!

      Thanks for swinging in today bud.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post! It’s so important for writers to put emotion into their writing, otherwise we might as well all be automatons.
    I find it actually comforts me whenever something bad happens and I’m very upset to think “well, at least I can use this in my writing”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “well, at least I can use this in my writing”: That’s a good attitude to have. I try to remind myself that all experiences are useful for a writer, but sometimes I forget (although when I’m having someone else’s anxiety attack, it’s a bit easier to remember: ‘This is like that scene with Marlie on the shuttle — excellent!’).

      Liked by 2 people

  10. For emotions, I rely on my best friend. She can always tell me where an emotion is missing and then I reread the passages and either add a simple “He was so frustrated that he punched a wall,” or I go deeper depending on the event and how much emotion I would like to show.

    Nice post as always

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trusting the insight of a valuable alpha (or beta) reader is a really smart thing to do. I know a lot of us (myself included) get too close to the story to see those missing elements. Sometimes, like you pointed out, an extra set of critical eyes makes all the difference.

      As always Angelina, I appreciate both your insight and the time you take to read my rantings.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing you process with us. I also try to use visualization to transport me to a place and time within the story. Sometimes it works for me, and sometimes I can’t seem to connect. I do feel the more this is used in practice the easier it become to apply.

      Thanks again for swinging by today and reading. You’ve left so many nice comments 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Using Sensory Details to Enhance Fiction « Quintessential Editor

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