Readers want to get emotional when they read a piece of fiction, whether it is a novel or a picture book. We concentrate usually on character and plot, but often forget the emotional thread of a story.
Emotions are one place where the author should “show, don’t tell,” or “show, then tell.” Show, Don’t Tell, refers to the idea that fiction should create the emotion in the reader by zooming in and giving enough details for the reader to feel as if they are in the story itself.
My modification is Show, then Tell, by which I mean that once you have Shown the emotion, you can also–not all the time, but selectively–also name the emotion. For example, if a girl comes along and slaps a boy’s face, the reader has to wonder why that happened. Is it anger, outrage, embarrassment or some other emotion that prompted the action? Just tell the reader. It’s OK. You showed the physical expression of the outrage, so just name the actual emotion.
Another consideration for creating emotion is where the emotion goes. There is a natural progression that should be observed most of the time: action, reaction, emotion. A car screeches on the road, the girl turns to look, and if horrified by a wreck. If you get those out of order, the reader is apt to be confused.
OUT OF ORDER: Gerry burst into tears of grief because of the car wreck that happened after the car squealed its tires and the driver lost control.
IN ORDER: Suddenly, a squeal split the calm, and Gerry whirled to see a mini-van careening out of control toward–oh no!–it slammed into an oak. She dashed toward the blue vehicle, but her stomach gripped in a sudden pain, grief already starting to overwhelm her. This was going to be bad. Very bad.
One problem with character emotions I see is that a character gets stuck on one and only one emotion. A teenager is full of angst and is angry, angry, angry. And angry. Or a child’s mother has died and she is sad, sad, sad. Very sad. Extremely sad. And further more, she is very extremely sad.
Instead, characters need a vivid and varied emotional life, with lots of variety to keep the reader interested. In a typed-double-spaced manuscript page of 250 words, I like to see 2-4 changes of emotion. Even at a funeral where everyone is sad, someone can joke about Aunt Flora’s awful fruit cakes, or that pesky cousin makes a snide remark and you want to slap her, or the boyfriend you’ve been fighting with has shown up to give you a hug and to murmur that he is there for you. Life is full of conflicting emotions and your characters should be also.
Here is a list of emotions to explore–which one best describes the girl in the photo?: anger, annoyed, anxiety, apathy, betrayal, bravery, bravado, confusion, contentment, curiosity, desire, despair, defiance, disgust, dismay, desperation, embarrassment, excitement, eagerness, fear, fondness, forgiveness, frustration, gratitude, grief, guilt, happiness, hate, hope, hostility, irritation, jealousy, loneliness, longing, love (parent-child), love (romantic), nostalgia, panic, pride, passion, remorse, reluctance, resignation, restlessness, revenge, regret, rejection, relief, sadness, serious, shock, shame, surprise, suspicion, sympathy, tenderness, tired, thrilled, terrorized, taken aback,uncertain, worries, waiting.
With the wide variety of emotions possible, don’t let your character get stuck on just one. No one likes a character who is jealous and jealous and jealous. And even more jealous. And furthermore, very jealous.