Writing with emotion is one of the most important skills a writer can learn. Emotional prose drives a novel and turns a description into an experience. It’s the difference between a good book and one that captivates and immerses the reader. It’s also one of the most difficult concepts for most writers to grasp.
I just finished my ninth novel (at one this morning, I might add) and as I put the finishing touches on it, I thought about emotional prose and how I approach it. The first step is to remember that as the storyteller, everything you write is filtered through the point of view of your character. When it comes to dialog, most writers know exactly how their characters will respond and interact. In action scenes, the same is true. But when it comes to prose, many writers pull back and search for the most descriptive way to say it—not the most emotional.
It’s about word choice but it’s also about saying it with feeling. Below are three examples of how emotion can be added to a simple description of the beach. In each one, the same view inspires a different emotion based on the outlook of the character standing on the balcony. Strong verbs drive the emotion and accurate adjectives complete the picture. The visual cues come from words that evoke the feeling without describing it.
The Welcoming Beach
The first signs of morning enticed me out to the balcony. A bright sun glittered over the sugar-white confection of a pristine beach, frosted by the wash of surf and the roll of tides. Shell seekers sorted and laughed as they shucked their gems from the sand, dancing away from the playful wash. Above seagulls sang of morning feasts in the joyous winds. I breathed in the perfume of coconut-laced fantasies and promises never broken, of a future that waited willingly for me to take my place. If there was a God, He had served up this wedding day intentionally
The Desolate Beach
The first signs of morning dragged me out to the balcony. A harsh sun beat down on a bleak beach the color of bone. Unrelenting, the tide surged and waned, belching seaweed and crushed shells onto the barren shore. Shell seekers picked through the shoddy offerings and moved on with dejected strides while seagulls mocked their vanishing footsteps. The air stank of sunshine, burnt flesh and bitter memories, leaving me without hope that tomorrow would bring better. If there was a God, He had served up this wedding day intentionally
The Cruel Beach
The first signs of morning badgered me out to the balcony. A fierce sun glared over the garish beach, blinding me to any beauty that might lurk in the sifting grit and sand. Waves pounded the shore, washing up flotsam and scum from the cold depths beyond. Shell seekers scurried back as the tide thundered in, then scuttled forward to scavenge the leavings while seagulls screeched at their invasion. The fresh air taunted me as it blustered across the uninviting stretch. If there was a God, He had served up this wedding day intentionally.
In each of these examples, it’s the same beach. What makes them different is the emotional mindset of the viewer. The next time you approach a description, remember that the emotional state of your character impacts every single perception from the cheerful (annoying? teasing? derisive? friendly?) good morning at the coffee shop to the way the sun feels on their face.
The number of words you use should also be in character. A man who rarely talks but sees the world in long and poetic descriptions is going to jar unless it’s a facet of his character that you have built in. A man who likes rules, will likely notice the things that don’t conform—Not how pretty and vivid the flowers are, but how they’re not planted in a row or uniform in color.
It’s tempting to use that omniscient voice when describing scenery and paint pictures with beautiful words, but keeping those descriptions in character makes your story stronger all around. Emotional prose can take your book to a whole new level that your readers will embrace.