Emotion in Narrative

For 22 years, when I taught fifth or sixth grade, I began the year teaching Personal Narrative. Students who are reluctant writers always did well in this unit because Everyone Has a Story. They learned how to take a memory with impact and turn it into a story that can impact a reader. To begin, I asked students to remember an incident with a person close to them. The chosen events always centered around great emotion: excitement, anticipation, joy, grief, or fear. For example, many students wrote about the first time they rode a scary roller coaster at Great America. They were terrified, and the terror is what they remember. That alone is not a story. To make a reader feel the fear, the student had to show the buildup of growing fear, the realization they couldn’t change their mind, the thrill of the ride itself, and getting back in line to ride it again. They had to convey the emotion by Showing How They Feel, what they did and how they looked. 

Adult authors take emotion further. Because novels are longer than a student’s narrative, an author has time to layer emotions. That ride at Great America, for example, had more than just fear. There was the need to impress a friend, the thrill of a challenge, the determination to keep a promise to ride it, the exhaustion of a hot day, the longing for a cold drink…you get the idea. A good author’s goal is for readers to feel all those emotions just like the character does. That takes more than just showing the fear.

Readers want to connect to characters and live the character’s lives. To do this, they must think about the author’s words. Readers have their own biases and experiences that affect how they react. If a reader has never been on a roller coaster, for example, their reaction to a story about being afraid to ride would be very different from a reader who loves roller coasters. No author wants their reader to feel apathy, boredom, doubt, fondness, gloom, melancholy, or even merely caring, contentment, liking, or satisfaction. Authors want their reader to be excited about the book, to root for the character! An author’s goal is to tap into visceral primary emotions like fear, rage, passion, glee, ecstasy, triumph, hope, astonishment, grief, humility, joy, and love. 

To do this, the author must create a world that challenges the reader to think, question, compare, that creates an emotional experience connecting them to the character. After the event, how does the character’s world change? How does the character’s emotion or attitude change? What is no longer important to the character? Is the character lost or hopeful? What is the destination the character will reach? What was surprising? What hurt?

Our lives have meaning not in the things that happen to us, but in their significance. Plot happens outside, story happens inside. The plot events might intrigue a reader, surprise them, or excite them, but what makes the story intrinsically memorable is when a reader measures the protagonist against themselves and makes a discovery about something important. They go on an emotional journey that is theirs, inspired by the author’s words. And for me, that makes a novel successful.

Linda Ulleseit believes in the unspoken power of women living ordinary lives. Her novels are the stories of women in her family who were extraordinary but unsung.

2 responses to “Emotion in Narrative”

  1. Great post! Really good advice here, and also a wonderful vocabulary list!

  2. Thanks, Karin!

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