Emotion vs. Feeling: How to Evoke More from Readers

By: Writer’s Digest, David Corbett, Award Winning Author and Guest Columnist, Author of The Art of Character

The difference between writing emotion and writing feeling is more one of degree than kind. Feeling is emotion that has been habituated and refined; it is understood and can be used deliberately. I know how I feel about this person and treat her accordingly. Emotion is more raw, unconsidered. It comes to us unbidden, regardless of how familiar it might be. Rage is an emotion. Contempt is a feeling.

Both emotion and feeling are essential not only in fiction but in nonfiction. However, given their unique qualities, rendering them on the page requires different techniques.  Both emotion and feeling are essential not only in fiction but in nonfiction. However, given their unique qualities, rendering them on the page requires different techniques.

To accomplish this, the POV character should:

  • Dig deeper: As with emotion, surprise is a key element. You need a starting point that seems unexpected, because nothing shuts off the reader like belaboring the obvious. Instead, seek a second- or third-level feeling in the scene.
  • Objectify the feeling: Find a physical analogy for it (e.g. She felt as though her shame had created a sunburn from within).
  • Compare the feeling: Measure it against other occasions when it has arisen. Is it worse this time? How? Why?
  • Evaluate the feeling: Is it right or wrong to feel this way? Proper or shameful? What would a more refined, stronger, wiser person feel?
  • Justify the feeling: Explore why this feeling is the only honest response for the character.
  • Examine the impact on identity: What does this feeling say about the character or the state of her life? Has she grown or regressed? Does she recognize the feeling as universal, or does it render her painfully alone?

Eliciting Emotion

Emotion on the page is created through action and relies on surprise for its effect. That surprise is ultimately generated by having the character express or exhibit an emotion not immediately apparent in the scene.

  • To create genuine emotion when crafting a scene, identify the most likely or obvious response your character might have, then ask: What other emotion might she be experiencing? Then ask it again—reach a “third-level emotion.” Have the character express or exhibit that. Through this use of the unexpected, the reader will experience a greater range of emotion, making the scene more vivid.
  • Surprise can also be generated through unforeseen reveals and/or reversals. This technique requires misdirection: creating a credible expectation that something other than what occurs will happen instead.

Types of misdirection include:

  • Misdirection through ambiguity: Any of several results might occur.
  • Misdirection through fallacy: Something creates a mistaken belief regarding what is happening or what it means.
  • Misdirection through sympathy: Intense focus on one character lures the reader into overlooking what another might do.
  • To ground a surprise in emotion you must develop a belief that some other emotional outcome—ideally, the opposite of the one you hope to evoke—is not only possible, but likely.

Exploring Feeling

Feeling requires introspection, which thus necessitates identification with the character and empathy for what she faces.  The goal is not to get readers to feel what the characters feel, per se, but to use the characters as a device to get readers to feel something on their own.

This means allowing characters to think about what they’re feeling, which accomplishes two things:

  • It makes the feelings both more concrete and more personal.
  • It creates time and space for readers to process their own feelings. If empathy for the character has been forged, this allows readers to ask themselves: Do I feel the same way? Do I feel differently?

Within such scenes, the point-of-view character:

  • registers and analyzes the emotional impact of what has happened
  • thinks through the logical import or meaning of what has happened
  • makes a plan for how to proceed

Putting Them Together: Writing Emotion and Feeling

A character changes through the emotions she experiences, the refinement of those emotions into feelings, and the evolution in self-awareness that this process allows. This gradual metamorphosis creates the story’s internal arc, providing the character an opportunity to move step-by-step from being at the mercy of her emotions to mastering her feelings. And through the use of surprise and introspection, you provide a means for the reader to traverse an arc of her own, expanding her emotional self-awareness.

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