As writers, we all want our stories to be fueled with emotions – to make our readers feel something. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques on my work telling me that I needed more emotion in my writing to really make the scene impacting. Now I’m not going to say those comments were wrong, because (especially with my older writing) I am positive that I could have worked on that a bit more.
However, through observation of the way people act when critiquing, as well as the way I react after reading something I’ve written myself, I believe to some extent it’s not the writer’s fault if the reader isn’t feeling emotion. Often times, it’s the reader themselves that are holding back from getting an emotional reaction.
The main way I discovered this was through role playing an especially emotional scene with my friend and our characters, though as I thought about it later, it applied to when I had written especially emotional scenes in my own stories as well. In the moment of writing, you’re absolutely invested in everything that is going on and you don’t really care about the specific words you’re using to convey everything. You, the writer, are feeling everything as it is happening as if you were there yourself. But later, after the emotions have died down, you might go back and read it and not get the exact same emotional affect. Why is that?
Maybe you realize afterward that the writing you did during that emotional scene was not very good. I often look at the actual prose of those scenes I’ve written and cringe over them. So maybe reworking your prose until it’s perfect will get you an actual emotional scene, right? Well, it might be able to help, but that doesn’t mean it will automatically add emotion to the scene. I think what makes something truly emotional is when you are invested in it to begin with.
I’ve noticed that people who go into your story with the expectation of critiquing it are going to be the ones to complain about a lack of emotion, whereas people who go into it with the expectation of enjoying it for what it is are not going to have that problem, and then there are the people who are invested in the characters before having read the story and they love it to pieces, despite its flaws. This last example is especially prevalent with people who read fan fiction.
Emotion often comes through context and background of pre-established characters. If you’re expecting extremely emotional scenes from page one, you’re going to be disappointed because it’s not going to happen that fast. Emotion comes through getting to know the characters and then seeing them go through certain situations. You could read a scene that is extremely emotional, but if you don’t have previous context on character background, it would probably mean nothing to you.
I bring that subject up only because I have seen some people claim that we should feel emotions in any emotional scene regardless of whether you’ve gotten that context, and I believe that is wrong. The quality of a scene should not be measured in how good it is on its own but rather how it works in the entirety of the story. I believe critiquers go into stories too often with the expectation of finding what’s wrong with it and analyzing it to pieces, and they disallow themselves to feel emotions at all because of this.
I’m not saying that you should just disregard rough writing for the sake of the emotional impact, but rather that you should appreciate the emotions that are happening despite the rough writing. If you’re going to be giving feedback to a story, just vaguely saying “this needs more emotion” is not going to help. Try to identify the emotions that the writer is attempting to express and actually try to get invested in the characters. But, it’s like I always say with critiquers: Don’t bother critiquing something unless you are genuinely interested in it/want to help it get better. Emotional investment is one of those ways of doing it, and you can’t get emotionally invested by going in with an attitude of “what can I point out that’s wrong?”
I have a lot to say on the subject of emotions in stories, and I don’t know if I have all the words to properly express them. I’ve just been finding out so much stuff. A lot of songs I’ve listened to that previously didn’t mean all that much to me, for instance, take on a new meaning when I can relate them to one of my favorite stories or some of my favorite characters. Even Bible verses take on new meanings to me and I get emotionally invested in it and actually feel like I really understand it better when I can apply it to a story that I have gotten emotionally invested in.
Stories are important. Characters are important. When written well, when given a raw, human quality, we will feel things. When you intrinsically know the characters to the point that you can pick up on everything they’re feeling without a single line of exposition and can just tell through actions alone what is happening, we will be more moved than we otherwise would be if we didn’t know who these people were. This is how it works in reality as well. So yes, maybe some slightly prettier prose would make a scene a bit more enjoyable, or a bit clearer, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the emotions that should be there already. Also remember that emotional scenes don’t just have to be sad or angsty or a turning point in character development necessarily. There’s a wide variety of emotions. So turn off your analytical brain for a bit and enjoy the story for what it is. You’ll be more likely to get invested that way, and see the emotions buried beneath the rough edges.