Being a Better Writer: Selling Emotion in a Written Medium

Hello readers! Welcome back after the (for many) Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend! A bit of an odd one given the pandemic issues sweeping the country at the moment, but a Holiday Weekend all the same. Like many, I stayed home, making a Thanksgiving meal for one—by which I mean I’ll be eating leftovers for a while now—and then got all my Christmas shopping done in a single, several hour stint of buying on Friday. It’s a bit easier when you’ve had some gifts in mind for a while.

Anyway, it was a pretty nice weekend past that. Got a bit further in The Pinch, which I’ll be talking a little bit about when I’m done, and also tore through Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which I can absolutely recommend as a worthy successor to the first title, Ori and the Blind Forest. Very evocative story-telling, to the point that yes, just like with the first game I teared up a little. Moon Studios is really good at getting that Pixar-like empathy with the audience going, all without dialogue.

Which actually ties in to what I wanted to talk about today, actually! Because yes, both Ori titles do a fantastic job of selling emotion, in a way that’s very reminiscent of the opening to Pixar’s Up (yes, that opening), and selling emotion like that is what we’re talking about today. So hit that jump, and let’s get started!

All right, so where to begin? Well, let’s talk some terms first: What do I mean when I say we want to “sell emotion?” Obviously, this isn’t a transaction in the “traditional” sense, so what do I mean when I say that we’re talking about “selling” emotion to an audience?

It’s a play on words, basically, that comes back to the expression “I’m not buying it.” “I’m not buying it” is a phrase often used when someone is told something that they, for one reason or another, do not believe. So for example, a young child might try to excuse a piece of self-signed wall art by saying that their sibling did it, and a skeptical parent may reply “Yeah, I’m not buying it.”

In other words, they don’t believe it. Something about the tale rings false to them, and rather than “purchasing” said story by believing in it, they’ve rejected it for one reason or another.

So logically, when this comes back to “selling” emotion to a reader, what this phrase refers to is the concept of presenting the emotions in the story in such a way that the audience embraces them.

Now, there may be a few of you thinking “Well, what’s so hard about that? All I need to do is make sure I’m showing character emotion rather than telling the audience about it, and I’m fine, right?”

Wrong. There’s actually a lot more to it, and this is why Pixar is routinely known as a company that can bring about empathy in their audience even without any dialogue while other films from similar studios often struggle to get an audience to engage with what should be a sad moment. Showing emotion is part of “selling” it to your audience … but it’s far from being quite so simple. Emotions, as with anything “human,” are complicated, multifaceted things. Conveying them is more than an exercise in writing “tears rolled down his face.” It’s a study of what makes your character “human” and then getting the audience to connect with that human element.

In fact, you can break that simple statement down into a lot of Pixar’s films. Take, for example, Inside Out. Inside Out takes a simple concept—the governing emotions that each person feels—and then makes them human enough to empathize. It assigns them likes and dislike, reactions and opinions, makes them “people” that we see ourselves in. Then, when a character does react to an event that we understand and resonate with, from loss to success, the audience resonates with that emotion as well.

Ori‘s emotion works in the same manner. The opening of Ori and the Blind Forest drove so many to tears (much like a certain Pixar opening) precisely because it spends time drawing threads of connection between the audience and the characters in play. We, as the audience, are shown moments of life and emotion and are drawn in because we too understand, and perhaps have experienced those moments.

Alright, I worry I’m getting a bit to abstract, so let’s step back for a moment and start breaking down what exactly both these studios, Pixar and Moon, do that makes audiences so willing to “buy” the emotions of their characters, and how in turn we can apply the same principles to our writing.

Strong Character Consistency

All right, so here’s one of the really core elements to selling emotion, one so core that yes, I’m putting it above the parts where we talk about show VS tell or any other aspects of emotion. Something that you’ll see repeated across Pixar, Ori, and really any other product that really works to sell the audience the emotions of the story is that their characters are strongly portrayed and consistent.

Now, this doesn’t mean that their attributes and behavior were shoved in the audience’s face or “told” to them. That’s not at all what’s happening here. No, what I’m referring to here is that we, the audience, are shown the kind of characters that the story is about, and we’re given a consistency with their appearance, behavior, movement, etc. Everything that can be used to convey the attitudes, mentality, personality, etc, of the characters is. Drooping ears, maybe, or the slight downward turn of a corners of a mouth. Narrowed eyes.

A few of you might be thinking at this point “Well, that visual stuff is a lot easier when you’re something that’s watched instead of read.” To which I’d argue ‘No, it’s not.” As writers, we can still show a character pulling back in surprise, their eyes wide with fear or heart pounding. We can go even further—try showing a pounding heart in a film. Usually it’s accomplished by a character clutching at their chest or exclaiming “my heart is pounding!” but in a book? We can show that with relative ease.

Point being that simply because the medium is different doesn’t mean one has an advantage over another in presenting appearance, behavior, movement, reactions, etc. Each has inherent strengths, yes, and may appeal to a specific audience more, but neither, I would argue, is superior to one or the other.

Anyway, there’s another aspect of this strong character bit I want to talk about with regards to “selling” emotion, and this is something that good stories and characters get right while poor stories and characters get it wrong. You ready? Here goes.

Good efforts to sell emotion will convey it through the lens of the character, not as a sheen atop them.

Let me explain. Some writers and creators seem to view emotions like one might view water. You have characters. You need sad characters? Drape them in sadness. Now characters are sad. The same way if you had socks and wanted wet socks you’d just blast them with water and bam, wet socks.

In other words, some view it as an external factor applied over whoever their characters are. And this emotion is uniform. A wet cotton shirt and a wet cotton sock are the same when it comes to dampness, for example, and both are wet from the same element.

Real emotion, as a counterpoint, comes from within, and in every aspect will be tailored by the character it originates from, their situation, how they currently feel, and so on and so forth. Characters that experience joy should express it in their own ways, unique to them. This doesn’t mean that one character’s joy should be completely unique and unlike someone else’s (after all, we want to empathize with it, which means we as an audience need to be familiar with it, an there are common elements across emotion) but that whatever form or expression that joy takes to be shown to the audience is filtered through the lens of the character.

This means that in expressing emotion, you (and the audience) need to be familiar with who a character is, and/or the situation they’re in. For a very topical example, I’ve been working on Starforge and one element that’s been common across what I’ve written so far is that the characters are somewhat muted in their emotional responses because there’s so much going on. They’re all, as one character puts it, running with little time to think about things or let them settle in. Each of them reacts a little differently to this constant stress, but all of them are reacting to it.

Point being that their emotions and what they’re experiencing are each filtered through what they’re all going through and their personal experiences with it. And when each of us write characters, we should be looking to do the same, keeping that character at the forefront of each reaction, feeling, and portrayal of such.

Showing Visual Emotion

In line with that, I want to spend a moment talking about the “show vs tell” angle as well. Now again, as with all things show vs tell is a balance, not a replacement, and there are moments when “telling” about an emotion can work just fine. For example, in Jungle when Jake and Anna are discussing another team member’s reaction to the injury of a forth. They are “telling” the audience, and one another, how that character is reacting.

However, when it comes to their own emotions, emotions where the audience is present, showing emotion can be a powerful thing. More powerful, I will note, when kept in line with character, but we did already talk about that.

Point being that showing emotion, rather than telling, makes it more “real” for the audience because it brings a sense of permanence and realism to whatever emotions are being displayed. Being told that someone is “sad” is one thing, but being instead shown that their shoulders and breath are trembling as their face takes on a look of flatness … that sells what they’re feeling a lot more, and shows how they’re reacting to that emotion as well.

Reaction, by the way, is important when it comes to showing. Again, throug the lens of character, reaction can show exactly how strongly an emotion is being felt or even battled with. This can be done with small details, such as someone slowly clenching their hands into fists, or with large ones, such as someone repeating a shocked “No no no no” over and over again as they struggle to process things.

Like I said earlier, too, while it might be tempting to think that visual mediums have an easier hand in showing emotion and reaction, literature adds avenues that visual mediums cannot easily take, allowing us to seamlessly slip inside characters minds and perspectives (games can, in some cases, blur this line a little with their more focused viewpoints, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic).

But I do want to talk about that for a moment to talk about the importance of this aspect of things and why you shouldn’t ignore it by pointing out how much effort both Ori and Pixar’s films spend on the smooth expressions and reactions of their characters. Yes, the writing is strong, there’s no denying that. But much of the core emotional moments are often done in quiet scenes, with earnest, often small well-done visual cues.

The titular Ori reaching out to shake their adopted, now dead from starvation parent, for example (not a spoiler, like with Up that’s the first ten minutes of the title). There’s a lot of emotion at play behind the motion, and small nuances of expression have been considered.

Likewise, if we as writers want our emotional moments to have the same impact and weight, we need to consider how we present it visually. We can’t drop all the details on the audience, no more than someone watching the first fifteen minutes of Up can take in every single thing happening at once, and there is a central focus of every shot as there will be with our scenes … so what do we want it to be, and what do we want to show? Keeping this in mind, sometimes a physical reaction or motion from a character can say a lot more than words can (just like in real life). We should be conscious of that and carefully choose what we show.

Pacing and Melodrama

Now, with this, as with most times we talk about emotion on here, I do need to extend a caution. Two of them, actually.

Watch your pacing, and watch your melodrama.

Pacing first. Emotional beats in a story are good. But if you throw too many of them at a reader (or not enough of them when the audience feels that there should have been more) things can move out of whack. Sometimes a great emotional scene may not be in the proper place, as good as it may be. Or sometimes a little bit of emotion may add a human element to an otherwise listless bit of action. Consider the pacing.

Second, avoid the melodrama. Melodrama is commonly when a writer or storyteller tries to cram in as much emotion as possible, overdoing it and often resorting to tells to fit more in because “more emotion = good” in their head when all they’re actually doing is overloading the reader with deluges of emotion that are often used as indiscriminately as splashes of water.

Don’t do that.


All right, time to wrap this up. If I were to summarize this entire subject, I would say that good storyrtellers “sell” the emotions of their story to the audience by presenting them with vividly realized, realistic, and empathetic characters that act on their emotions in ways the audience can see and resonate with.

In line with that then, when we sit down to write our stories, to sculpt the collision of worlds and lives, we should give consideration to the emotions of our characters, how we will let them lens through those characters, and how we can present them so that the audience connects with them.

Easier said than done, I know. But that’s what practice is for. So with that said …

Good luck. Now get writing!

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