Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just like your plot has layers, consider the emotional layers of your story. 

Emotions are like a complex soup, where every sip brings a new experience and you never know what’s bubbling just under the surface. They might be scalding or cold, sweet or spicy, weak or cloying.

Often, they’re multiple feelings at once.

You might be happy for a friend who just got a promotion, but envious because you were passed over for one. Or thrilled for a sister marrying the man of her dreams, but worried because this is marriage number five for him.

“It’s complicated” is a real thing, and characters struggle with those same emotional challenges.

When diving into a scene, think about the various emotions your characters are feeling, and how you can use those layers to deepen the scene and connect with the reader. Ask yourself:

What's the protagonist's primary emotion for this scene? 

There’s often one feeling or mood that takes precedence—the emotion that’s driving the protagonist to act in that scene. This typically determines the kind of scene it is (but not limited to these of course). For example:
  • Fear = a suspenseful scene
  • Lust = a love scene
  • Sad = a reflective scene 
Say you have a dangerous chase scene. Odds are your characters will primarily exhibit fear, worry, or excitement, evoking those same emotions from your readers. But what if the characters aren't scared or excited? The scene will likely lack tension and feel more like a joyride than a pursuit. 

On a quieter emotional level, a touching family moment is typically wrapped in love and appreciation, and without those emotions, the scene might feel hollow or seem like the characters are simply going through the motions. (Which you can certainly do if that's the point of the scene--to show this "touching" moment isn't what it appears.)

Here are other ways you might use the primary emotion in a scene:

Conflict tip: To add more conflict or tension, look for ways to make the protagonist feel the opposite emotion of the primary mood.
Stakes tip: To raise the stakes, look for ways to add fear, worry, or apprehension about something in the scene.
Character tip: To flesh out the character, look for ways to add an inappropriate emotion that shows another side of the character. 

(Here's more with Are Your Characters Living in the Moment or Watching it Pass By?)

What are the protagonist’s secondary emotions? 

No matter what major emotion is driving the character, odds are there’s more going on under the surface. What other issues are they're struggling with? Is there anything keeping them from fully experiencing the primary emotion, such as fear keeping them from falling for the right person? 

Subtext can come into play here as well. Maybe a character is feeling something they don't wish to share, but it's leaking through anyway. 

Here are other ways you might use the secondary emotions in a scene:  

Conflict tip: How might an emotion cause a problem with the goal?
Stakes tip: How might an emotion cause the protagonist to make a mistake?
Character tip: How might an emotion reveal an aspect of the character?

(Here's more with Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing)

What are the protagonist’s conflicting emotions? 

Stories are about conflict, so there’s a good chance your characters are feeling conflicted over something in any given scene. How are their feelings ambivalent? Where do they emotionally disagree with other characters in the scene? What shouldn't they be feeling, but do anyway?

Conflicting emotions will be at the core of your character's internal conflict, as well, and even your protagonist's character arc. 

Here are other ways you might use conflicting emotions in a scene: 

Conflict tip: How might an emotion deepen the protagonist's internal conflict?
Stakes tip: How might an emotion cause the protagonist to fail?
Character tip: How might an emotional conflict cause the protagonist to make the wrong choice?

(Here's more with Busta Mood: Using the Emotional State of Your Characters to Craft Better Scenes)

What are the protagonist’s hidden emotions? 

People feel things they’d rather not feel all the time. We try to suppress envy or anger or even love, and sometimes we don't even know we're doing it. Is there anything your characters are trying to hide? Anything they’re trying not to feel? 

This is a good spot for unconscious goals or feelings to leak in, and another excellent location to work in some rich subtext. 

Here are other ways you might use the hidden emotions in a scene:

Conflict tip: How might a hidden emotion foreshadow later events or problems?
Stakes tip: How might a hidden emotion cause the protagonist to react in a way that adversely affects her?
Character tip: How might a hidden emotion hint at or show what the protagonist's character arc or emotional journey will be?

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

What are the other characters in the scene feeling? 

Your protagonist isn't the only one who gets to show a little emotion. If there are other people in the scene, what are they feeling? What are they trying to hide or pretending to feel? 

This is a great way to drop subtle hints or add tension to a scene if there’s clearly an issue no one is talking about.

Here are more ways you might use the other characters' emotions in a scene:

Conflict tip: What clues can the protagonist pick up on (or not) that show another character doesn't agree with them--and that this might be a problem?
Stakes tip: Where can an emotional non-protagonist character cause a problem or make a problem worse?
Character tip: Where might added emotions show a deeper side to a secondary character?

(Here's more with You're So Emotional: Describing a Character's Emotions in a First Person Point of View)

Are there any forced emotions? 

Sometimes a character is pretending to feel a certain way, even when they feel nothing. It might be out of compassion (little white lies to spare someone's feelings) or life-saving (pretending to still be the friend of the person you just discovered betrayed you). Is this a scene where your characters are faking it in any way?

Don't forget to explore both the good and bad reasons someone might fake an emotion. We "put on a brave face" when we don't want to reveal we're scared or unhappy, same as we tamp down our excitement if we don't want to rub our good mood in someone's face.

Here are other ways you might use forced emotions in a scene:

Conflict tip: How might this emotion spark the opposite effect than intended?
Stakes tip: How might this emotion make things more personal for the protagonist?
Character tip: How might this emotion become real, either in this scene or later in the story (bonus conflict if this causes unforeseen troubles)?

(Here's more with Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions)

Adding an emotional layer is a useful way to weave in subplots or character arcs. 

Even if the plot portion of the scene isn’t related to a subplot, the emotion aspect can give that scene multiple layers of complexity. A character who’s struggling with a blackmailer might act suspicious or distracted during a critical meeting at work and lose an important client (and maybe the job). Happiness or love might make someone oblivious to dangers they’d normally spot right away.

A character's emotions determine how they act, and how they act drives the plot. 

So don’t just think external when crafting your novel. Think about what’s going on internally as well.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and review one of your scenes for emotions. Does it layer the emotions? Could it be stronger if it did? Brainstorm different ways you might use the emotions in the scene to add more conflict, stakes, or character development. 

How much do the emotional layers drive your plot? Do you know a character's emotional state before you start writing, or do you discover that as the scene unfolds? 

*Originally published October 2011 Last updated April 2024.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Ah, interesting article.

    Since one of my characters has an interesting emotional range, the parts about "hidden" and "forced" emotions will be useful.

    Say, I should use his default emotion more often for some jarring contrast and some creepiness.

  2. Love this post! I've hopped over from Literary Rambles as part of the Blogfest. So glad I found you! :)

  3. I've never really broken things down this way, but I'm always asking what my character would be feeling during every scene. Heck, every paragraph (although including too much emotional involvement can drag down the pace.)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Like Susan, I came over from Literary Rambles. :) I'll be following from now on!

    Emotions are a big part of my story, but that's not to say that they aren't as deep as they could be...I like to write in layers as well, so I think my next draft this is one of the things I'll be using. :)

  5. I take a similar approach to writing my scenes but I've never fully broken down the process. Your outline of ideas is helpful to me. Thank you for sharing.

  6. This is exactly what I am working on in my current revision. The way you broke it down really makes sense.


  7. This is so well-explained. Thanks for the post!

  8. Thanks all!

    CO, a default emotion? What a great concept. Tell me more! How do you use that in your writing?

    Susan & Danille, welcome to the blog! Good to have you here, and I'm glad you found me.

    Terry, yeppers, asking is good, telling it all isn't, hehe. Melodrama here we come!

    Gail, I've found breaking down whatever process I'm working with really helps me figure out why I do what I do. I highly recommend trying it.

  9. I like the idea of a default emotion and would like to know more about that. Thanks for asking, Janice. This is all good. I'm getting a lot from the blog.

  10. Good stuff over here, Janice (as usual). I like how you bring up "hidden emotions"--so true!

  11. You've given us lots to chew on here. Thank you so much!

  12. Some scenes have complex emotional journeys for their character(s), as do some arc that last several scenes.

    I have a list which I add to all the time of emotions. I have printed the emotions on individual slips of paper. When I'm playing with how to write the scene, I pull out my list and slips, and choose every emotion I can see the character experiencing in the scene.

    Then I try to arrange them in groups of similar emotions, to reduce the total number (anger, fury, frustration might go in a pile) of steps in the emotional journey.

    Then comes the entertaining part: planning the character's journey through the emotions.

    In real life we jump around all the time, going from happy to sad to furious with a single thought. In fiction, I think it is better to guide the readers through the emotional morass in some kind of logical order, so as to give them a journey along with the characters. so I move the pieces and piles around until I have a spine for the arc - then I can write the scene that makes the arc fit.

    Pieces of paper are easy to move around - words on a screen are harder because they're already connected to sentences.

    The emotions can be 'expressed' by dialogue, hidden as inner monologue - even shown by actions - to get it all in there. I think this is the fun job of the writer - fitting it all in and making it plausible and seamless.


    1. I love that process, it sounds like a lot of fun. I used to put scenes on index cards years ago, and I can easily see doing that with an emotional journey. Very cool!

  13. This is one of my weak points. I have a lot of trouble sometimes describing how my characters are feeling in given scenes. It's one the main reasons for a high number of drafts for me (that and continuity errors).
    Thanks for this, Janice. It will help me a lot. :)

  14. As usual Janice you have given us lots of practical things to think about. Thanks! liebjabberings: I love the idea of your pieces of paper and arranging them for the scene to get at the emotions involved. That's something I see myself doing. Great idea.