Writing with an Emotional Landscape

The other day, my parents came to visit. My dad and I were talking and he asked, “What are your books known for?” I thought about it for a minute and then said, “I’m pretty sure I’m known for writing with emotional intensity.” My dad laughed and said, “You’ve always been pretty emotionally intense.”

I have been. I know that. I have often experienced and interpreted the world through a kaleidoscope of emotions. When I have a story idea, it’s not the story that interests me as much as the emotions that get all tangled up in these moments I want to explore. It’s that tangled emotional web I enjoy. I tend to think the character’s inner journey is just as important, if not more so, than the story itself. I’m one of those people who likes it when authors make me cry. That’s when the book stops being something I’m reading, and starts being something I am living.

An example of two moments I’m sort of rolling around for something I’m working on.

One: My husband and I watched a show (I won’t say which one, for spoilers). The woman’s husband slept with a teenage girl and got her pregnant. The girl ended up with a son, and then a year later, the mom was murdered. At the end of the show, they figured out who done it. The husband ended up going to prison for the crime. He asked his wife (he cheated on) to raise his son (by the teenage girl) because there was no one else. She agrees to do it. Emotionally, it almost kills her.

This moment really, really appeals to me, not only because of what happened, but my brain keeps going over the tragedy of the situation. This poor boy without parents. This woman who is being asked to, and agrees to, raise the child her husband had with a sixteen-year-old girl. It’s less about the situation, but more about, “I really want to explore these emotions.” This quiet, explosive personal tragedy appeals to the writer in me.

Two: I read a book last year about Afghanistan. This American war correspondent went to Afghanistan and wanted to tell the story of the Afghan War more from the perspective of average citizens impacted by it. One of the stories he told was about this professional woman in Kabul. When the war came to the city, she and her husband decided to flee and go back to where he was from, this serious backcountry area that didn’t have electricity, plumbing, or roads. She learned, when she arrived, that women who live there only see the sky two times in their life. Once, when they enter their husband’s house for the first time and once when they die, and leave it for the last time.

Apparently when some American troops went through that area, they pulled all these women out of their houses to ask them if they knew where the Taliban were, and a whole bunch of them basically had nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. They hadn’t been outside of their houses since the day they were married, and couldn’t cope. It freaked them out.

Again, really interesting situation that’s worth playing with in a story setting, but specifically, it’s the emotional texture that appeals to me. What would it FEEL like to go from living your entire life within the walls of your home, to suddenly being outside it and looking at the sky? That’s a huge transition, and the emotional impact, the vast swing between stagnate and predictable to unpredictable, and the different kinds of fear felt (inside fear verses outside fear) really, really appeals to me. I want to explore that.

I’ve been asked a lot recently to write a bit about emotional prose, and I really want to, but I had an accident (Fell down the stairs, have a severe high ankle sprain, I hyperextended my foot, and I’m missing a huge chunk of skin on my leg.) and now I feel like I still don’t quite trust myself to write intelligently for other people yet (I’m medicated, and all my brainpower is being used on editing) so I figured I’d write a thing up on my website.

Please understand, these are generalizations. Not all of this will be applicable to every book or author, furthermore, it’s not absolutely necessary either. Some people don’t want to tell stories involving heavy emotions, and that is fine.

Most of the time, when an author hires me to edit their book, they mention something about how I am an emotional writer, and they struggle with emotional writing so they hope I can help them level up in that area of their book. A small nudge here or there, a few “take this moment and make me cry, here are some things to keep in mind and some ideas with how to use that” comments, some well-placed suggestions is usually all it takes. 

However, I get asked a lot for tips and tricks all the time. I never usually give any because for me, writing this way is as natural as breathing, and it’s really hard for me to sit here and parse out how I do what I do, but I decided to try to write a few down. 

I will say, there are some basic things I won’t bother mentioning, like make sure your reader can relate to your protagonist. I think, on some level, we know you can’t really feel something for someone who is unbelievable or unrelatable.

1. Emotions are usually bigger and far more powerful than we acknowledge. 

I know this is a personal belief, but hang on and let me explain why I feel this way. We humans get trained at a young age that feeling strongly shows some kind of weakness, and so we learn to moderate these emotions. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but often, I think these powerful feelings are there, they are just buried. 

Many of us have learned that to show emotion is a bad thing/frowned upon/shows weakness. I think many of us have also learned that if you aren’t showing emotion, you aren’t feeling emotion, and I disagree. There is so much going on beneath all of our surfaces. Should that be any different to our characters?

We experience the world through our senses, and then an emotional interpretation of that. You go outside on a summer morning. The breeze washes across your skin. You feel… what? 

There’s a moment when I go out to my garden when my entire body unclenches and my soul seems to sigh and says, “Yeah, this is where you need to be right now.” That’s part of my emotional landscape. It’s a powerful part. That unclenching is what makes me love gardening. 

When my mother announced she had cancer, I could feel the information sinking into my mind, and then changing over to fear once I’d processed the magnitude of it. My mother’s cancer diagnoses was processed through the lens of fear and fear has it’s own sensory landscape. It felt cold. It felt very, very dark and all-consuming. It felt a lot like winter. 

In my own mind, emotion is the bedrock by which I understand and interpret the world. Something happens, our mind says, “Oh, this happened” and then my emotions click on and I decide how this will feel to me. Angry? Sad? Afraid? Happy? Relieved? Those are all emotions, and they underscore each of my life events. And what are the sensory details of those words. “Happy” doesn’t tell me much. What does happy FEEL like? 

Sometimes we ignore that component of things, but I also have been acutely aware of the fact that I see and experience the world through an emotional lens, and so that is how I write my books. It’s one thing to say, for example, “Jenny’s dog died, and she couldn’t believe it.” I get that, and it’s fine. It’s another thing entirely to dive a little deeper and bring me into that moment of disbelief. What does disbelief FEEL LIKE to Jenny? Don’t tell me her dog died, and don’t summarize how she feels, but bring me into that level of discovery, and make her feelings come alive as she processes the event. This happened, and then interprets it through her own emotional lens. 

Basically, if someone was writing a story about you discovering your dog died, what would they say? How would that moment feel for you? Write in a way that brings me under your skin. Bring me into Jenny’s experience. Let me experience it as it happens. Let me feel the emotions she feels as she interprets this moment, as it sinks into her heart and becomes real.

I urge my writers to remember, feeling powerfully does not make a person weak. We all have feelings. We all understand the world through that lens on some level. Perhaps we express it differently, but it’s always there. It’s part of being human, and that added emotional note will not only humanize your characters, but it will help connect them to your readers. It will increase the chance of your readers relating to your half-orc battle-crazed killer. It will bring your story from fun, to something a bit more dynamic, fleshed-out, and real.

Happy, sad, determined… all those emotional words have sensory landscapes, and it’s those landscapes I want you to bring alive. Fear feels like winter. That kind of cold means a lot more to me than “I am afraid.” 

2. Use the surrounding area to set an emotional tone with evocative language. 

Where a lot of this post will involve working from the inside out, this is the opposite. Atmosphere is hugely important, and I usually like to think of creating one as working from the outside, in.

I edit books routinely where I remind the author to use the world around the characters to give readers cues about the character and set the tone of the scene. For example, if you have a character walk into an office to talk to someone, explain some of what the character sees in the office. That will give the reader cues about the impending situation and even some world and character development. If the character in question has pictures of his kids on his desk and a sign that says, “Love is kindness” on his wall, I’ll feel a lot differently than if he has a skull on his desk and a bloody axe hanging next to the door, but as the reader, I need to “see” these things. You need to bring me into that room with that character, and describe it as they’d see it. That atmosphere you develop also has a huge impact on the emotional level of the scene itself.

When you walk into an office, you don’t just ignore the room. You scan over it and then, on some level, draw a conclusion about what you see, and that’s what your character needs to do for your reader. Don’t forget, the surrounding environs can be a huge, huge tool in your writer arsenal. 

More than that, though, setting can be an emotional instrument, and I advise my authors to lean into the potential there. The more senses you use to describe a scene, the more realistic it will be. Furthermore, the language you use to describe your setting matters. “The room was red and blue” could be, “Sunlight spilled through the high, arched windows, painted the room with shades of gold. Red and blue wallpaper hung, faded and forgotten, from nearby walls. In the corner, a piano covered in years of collected dust sat, the memory of better times.” 

The first example is fine, but in the second example, I not only see the room better, but I instantly get an emotional reaction to it. This place was grand once, has the potential to be grand again, but there’s a bit of sadness about it. All this majesty faded, peeling, covered by dust and forgotten. It’s not just a room, it’s suddenly a room that subtly taps into my emotions, just enough to make me sit up, notice, and care. I want to know more. Why was it forgotten? Why is this room important? Why are we in it? Why all the dust? What used to happen here? Can I, perhaps, hear a palimpsest of memory?

Why does it make me feel a bit morose?

3. Colors

This one might be weird, or might not. I’m not sure how everyone’s going to react here, but I try very hard not to use normal color words when I really want a scene to stick to someone’s ribs. One of my favorite things when I write, is to set transitional and emotionally powerful scenes at a transitional time. So, for example, if something is happening to a character and I want them to feel lost I will also want my reader to feel lost. I’ll usually put that scene at sunset and I’ll make the sunset chaotic but powerfully so. You’ll almost never see me say, “The sun was setting, the sky was orange.” No one cares about that. Instead, I get up my googlemachine, and I look up colors. “Shades of orange” for example, and then I pick a few from that and use them to describe the sunset. 

Saying, “It was red” is fine, but there are a lot of different shades of red. If you branch out and and use a descriptor that specifies not only a shade of red, but could mean something to your reader as well, the scene will pop. Now, I will say, there is a time and place for this, but I advise in moments where you want the emotions and evocative language to draw on your readers feels, think of other words to use to describe colors. 

Red, turns into merlot, and merlot means a lot more to me than, “It was red.” I think of dinner. I think of celebration. I think of happy scenes, maybe romance, with dramatically dark, yet subtle, undertones. Shades of blood. I want to explore that.

It’s subtle, but it taps into the emotional undertone just enough to give both you and your reader a doorway to walk through.

4. Time and Place

I mentioned this briefly above, but I do tend to pick a certain time and place for scenes that I want to emotionally draw readers in. Transitional scenes, scenes where I want to hit on emotional turmoil, usually happen either at night or during a sunset or sunrise in my own writing. I like the parallel there, of the world being in transition and so is my character. Lost in a swirl of colors. It appeals to me. In a broader sense, though, there are times and places where you can use the setting and time around the character as a tool to heighten the emotions in a scene. 

An example from Oh, That Shotgun Sky (Songs of Sefate, book 2):

I’m walking. It’s all I do anymore. 

Just walk.

My arms are swinging in time with my feet, an ancient prayer wrapped in the motion of my body. Overhead, the sky darkens so fast it seems alive. From bright blue to swirls of goldenrod and warmest amber. Then, the moon spills her cup of night, and stars cascade across a black so deep it’s more felt than seen. 

The landscape between one heartbreak and the next is desolate indeed, and I trudge through it, no end in sight, my footprints blown away by Fate’s exhaled breath. I’m lost out here in this wasteland. This bone-dry plain full of nothing but ghosts and aching. 

If I stop, they’ll bury me alive, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.

So I keep going.

It could have happened during daylight hours, or at sunset, but I don’t think the moment would have been as powerful without dark, the transition, the emptiness of the landscape around him matching the emptiness of the landscape inside of him. (Poor Saul…)

The point is, time and place can be powerful tools, and I try very hard to make my time and place as much of a character in these scenes as the characters themselves. I don’t want Saul to just stand there and hurt, I want my readers to understand the unfathomable level of his pain, and I want to do it by comparing his upset and disquiet to something equally unfathomable: the sky, the stars, the unexplored darkness of the deepest night, the barren world around him. The barren world within.

Metaphor is a hugely powerful tool in your emotional and evocative kit. Use it. Use it. Use it. The world isn’t just a world, is a parallel. Your emotions are a landscape, so describe them like one. Make me feel your fathomless depths by describing your sorrow like the ocean. Show me how hard it is to navigate these treacherous fears, because they’re a desert and you’re all out of water. Make me understand your character’s inner journey by drawing on things I know and experience. 

We are worlds, universes, entire soulscapes that writers can use to draw on to heighten emotions and increase character depth. There are mountains and valleys inside all of us. There also is within our characters. When I read, I want to explore your character’s topography, so don’t forget to use that universe.

5. Get rid of words like “felt” and “was”. 

If you hand me a book to edit, and your character feels sad, or your character was sad, usually you’ll get a note back that says, “Okay, but don’t tell me what they’re feeling. Bring me into the moment. What does ‘sad’ feel like to her?” Honestly, I treat phrases like “he felt/he was sad” like adverbs. Use them sparingly, and only when they carry the most impact. These are telling words, not showing words. 

I’ll use myself as an example here. When I was diagnosed with cancer the first time, I remember getting the phone call and the doctor saying, “Your biopsy came back, I’m afraid you have cancer” and “sad” was absolutely not what I was feeling. I will never forget that moment. I was standing in front of the living room windows. The sun was setting. I’d just been told I had cancer and I felt like the sky was falling, the walls were closing in, and I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry. I wanted to get really, really drunk. 

I was not sad. I was ruined. Absolutely ruined. 

And that matters. “Sad” is what I feel when one of the plants I loved dies. Whatever I felt when I was diagnosed with cancer was an entirely different beast, and it’s a very dark place I never want to go again. To say I was merely sad, or upset, is doing a complete injustice to that moment. 

However, if you’re writing that moment into a story, and you say “Sarah felt sad” that’s wrong. I didn’t feel sad. I felt fucking ravaged, and as a reader, I want to know what “ravaged” feels like. To do that, you’ve got to bag your “he/she felt” and “he/she was (emotion here)” words. To bring readers into this emotional landscape, you need to paint it for them the same way you’d paint the room they are standing in. These words like “felt/was (emotion here)” signal to me that you’re telling me what a character felt, rather than bringing me into the moment, into the character, and allowing me to feel it alongside them. You’re removing narrative distance, and thereby, removing my ability to interpret a scene. I’m observing. I’m not experiencing.

6. Emotions are a landscape. 

See the theme here?

We describe landscapes, rooms, people, situations. This is common sense to a writer. You bring in as many senses to a scene as you can, and you lay it out in detail for your reader, and you have a story. However, people rarely realize that emotions are a landscape all their own. In order to write emotionally, you need to tap into that emotional landscape and give it the time and attention you’d give the physical landscape. Remember, we experience the world, and then on some level, we emotionally interpret that experience. It’s that emotional interpretation that I love exploring and it can be just as dynamic and captivating as any external conflict. You can use cues in the surrounding world, in the character, language, color, time and place to help establish your emotional landscape.

Emotions can surprise readers, help establish characters, develop the world and setting, make situations and people matter, and help you bridge that chasm between the reader and the writer. What I usually tell writers when they ask is, “If you’re just getting to the point where you think you’re hitting the emotions too hard, it usually means you’re just starting to get it right for your readers.” Reason being, it will always feel more powerful and visceral to the writer than the reader. The story is alive in you. The goal is to also make it alive in me, and that means you’ll have to magnify some stuff a bit, and it might make you slightly uncomfortable. That’s okay. Being uncomfortable can be a good thing.

That being said, in order to write this emotional landscape, you have to understand your own emotional landscape, and that takes a lot of time thinking, at least for me, “This happened, now what do I feel? How do I see this through my emotional lens?” For example, it took me a while to understand that being diagnosed with cancer didn’t make me sad. Sad was a bandage used to cover up all those emotions I had no words for.

Understand that feeling things does not make you weak, and if your emotional interpretation of an event is “I am bored and boredom feels like (insert here)” then that’s fine. Not everything has to be an eleven on an emotional 1-10 scale, but even those emotions that register a two on the scale are valid and worth having a place in both your, and your character’s landscape. Sometimes, “This sucks and I hate it” is enough. Most of the time, I’d argue, you could lean into that a bit harder, but that’s up to the writer.

Once I start tapping into that emotional landscape, it’s easy for me to say that sad/happy/excited/hurt are usually not what I’m feeling. Those are simple words that cover up the deeper roiling truth. Somewhere a bit lower, I’m a fucking mess of emotions, as we all likely are. Every action causes a tapestry of emotional reactions, and it’s those tangled threads that make things matter to me. When I write, I want to bring my readers into those moments. I want to make you feel that fucking mess. When I read, I equally want to feel that fucking mess. It usually doesn’t happen with language like sad, mad, and happy. Emotions are too complex for such simple words.

Our books are full of highs and lows. There are peaks and the valleys, and it’s important to understand that, just like a mountain range, emotions have ups and downs as well. Landscapes our characters need to traverse. In order to do it well, we need to tap into their depths. What is beneath “sad”? What lingers under “hurt”? Describe it to me. Bring me into the moment and let me experience “sad” as the character does. What does “sad” feel like? It might feel different to me than to you. I want to feel my heart hurt. I want my chest to burn right along with your character’s. I want this situation to be so real, it becomes part of me.

So, my big advice for writers looking to write more emotional and evocative prose? 

First, realize emotions don’t make you or your characters weak. We all feel them, we just, perhaps, get used to ignoring them or moving past them. Understand, your readers will connect to your characters for a lot of reasons, but often, it’s the emotional pull that brings readers into the book and turns your story from something interesting to something they experience. Use setting, time, place, and evocative verbiage to bring readers into a scene. Get rid of words and phrases like, “he felt/he was sad”. Sometimes it’s okay, but sparingly. Treat those phrases like adverbs. Only use them when they’ll carry the most power. 

Use the surrounding world to not only build your story and characters, but to help establish their emotional landscape. Remember, time and place are not just important tools to further a story, but important tools to develop a character’s emotional landscape or emotional moment. A transitory sky can mirror a transitory personal moment and level up its intensity. Describing a color by using a more evocative word can also tap subtly into the emotional undertones of a scene.

And emotions are a landscape. Once you stop thinking of them as one-word descriptors and actual landscapes with forests and mountains and hidden lakes, sunrises and sunsets and all that, and give them equal attention in that respect, you’ll realize your characters will stop being people on the page, and start living and breathing and take on a life all their own. 

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