5 ways to deepen emotional layering in your writing

Even experienced wordsmiths struggle to portray deep emotion in their writing. It’s as hard as mining copper from sulfur-laden rocks.

Writers may either tell about the emotion, for example, “He felt really, really angry.” Or, they may use the “dot-dot-dot” bypass popular when describing sex in 40s novels: “They entered the bedroom, the lights went out, and the next day…”

But effective writers know that emotion is a vital part of the human experience and pull it into their writing whenever possible.

Here are five way to deepen the emotional layering in your writing:

1. Accept the challenge that writing about emotion is hard. Good writers get immersed in their words, just as they hope their readers will. And writing about unpleasant emotions is difficult. Who wants to experience, even vicariously, the deep emotions of rage, grief, humiliation, sorrow, fear?

Delve into a time you, yourself had such a feeling. How did you feel experiencing it? What preceded the emotional outburst? How did you relive and rationalize your experience afterwards? Then write about the universal emotion that you felt, and that your character is also feeling.

2. Emotion is a daisy chain. Your character doesn’t immediately go on a rampage or experience an out-of-the-blue terror about high places. Something came before. Consider giving your characters a chance to delve into their back story internally. “This was just like the time when I was four, and the dog next door pushed through the fence and bit me.”

3. Emotion is physical. The old adage “show don’t tell” is critical here. An emotion courses through a person’s body, affecting their breathing, heart rate, skin temperature, stomach tension. Only then may it be reflected outward on the facial muscles: clenching the jaw, frowning, weeping. Finally it erupts into words: “You can’t mean that!” and actions: “He slammed the door so hard the glass cracked.”

emotional thesaurus angela ackerman



Angela Ackerman’s book, Emotional Thesaurus is highly recommended to help you begin this journey of writing about the inward and outward signs of physical emotions.




4. Emotion is slower than rational thought. Think of seven objects: an orange, the London Bridge, a deck of cards, a big tree, a mailbox, a white horse, a can of Pepsi.

Not hard, right?

Now, picture in your mind each of these: fear, terror, joy, amusement, irritation, embarrassment, hesitation…

Can you feel your mind stopping to ponder each experience before moving on?

Give your readers a chance to do the same thing. Don’t rush over emotion, but rather create a scene that can fully explore what’s happening. And then go back and lengthen it by twice.

5. There is an arc to emotion. In other words, the emotion will typically build in intensity.

For example, the character punches the alarm and sleeps too late. In her rush to get ready for work, the glass of orange juice spills to the floor, she trips on the rug on her way out the door, the car battery is dead…by the time she gets to the office, she explodes at her assistant over one small typo in a memo…

And a bonus concept to build your emotional writing skills:

6. Emotions are not rational. Your character in the middle of intense emotion is not going to stop and think, Oh, I am afraid.”

But afterwards, there can be a place for a rational assessment of what happened: “I was stupid for going into that dark alley alone.” “I really did a good job at that presentation, even though I was nervous.”

Or they may decide to do differently next time. “I’ve got to watch myself and not make such a fuss. It wasn’t my assistant’s fault I was late.”

emotional craft of fiction donald maas




Donald Maas, in his wonderful book: The Emotional Craft of Fiction, explains that the purpose of fiction is to get the reader to feel their own emotions, triggered by the words on the page.



Think about it. What authors do is time-travel. They are able to connect with anonymous readers somewhere in the far distant future.

Including deep emotions in your writing can layer, deepen, and enrich your work. This skill makes your reader eager to return a second, and a third time, demanding more. Exactly what you as a writer want!

The problem with human diversity

Double Rainbow – Sedona, AZ

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong.  Because someday in life you will have been all of these.  
–George Washington Carver

When I was going to graduate school in the late 80s, I didn’t know a lot about the gay community. One night, on the invitation of a friend, I visited a Gay Pride convention. They were hosting a musical performance called the Rainbow Connection. The location was Richmond, Virginia, a bastion of white conservatism, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Arriving there, I felt distinctly strange. I looked about me at couples—male couples, female couples, mixed sex couples. I was a straight person. They were them and I was me. I didn’t belong there.

And yet the energy and joy and love I felt around me was palpable. These people, these people who I was not a part of because of an accident of birth or genetics or choice were happy and joyful and inclusive. They let me in, with no problem.

My problem was, should I choose to accept their invitation or not? I accepted.

Last night I attended a hand bell choir. The flyers said “heart-warming, joyous.” When I got there and saw the performers, I was at first taken back.

Here was a chorus of individuals who were mentally retarded. Some had an unusual appearance, others had ticks or repetitive habits. Several were attended by parents or helpers, who prompted when attention lagged and got the performers back on track again.

For an hour, we listened to “Joy to the World” and “Jingle Bells” and “Come all ye Faithful” performed on electronic hand bells. The pace was slow, but the performers concentrated. The music was beautiful.

The audience consisted mainly of family and friends, brothers and sisters whose physical resemblance was sometimes uncanny, like seeing the same face in a distorted mirror.

Yet the attitude of the audience was total acceptance, and the room was filled with warmth and laughter.

Love is a strange and wondrous thing. Again I was moved, and again I was accepted.

The evening concert reminded me that sometimes the issue with human difference isn’t with them, it is with us.