What Is Emotional Context And Why Does Your Story Need It?

Have you ever had an editor or critique partner say “go deeper”? And you throw up your hands and glare at the screen because you DID go deeper.

Deep point of view is a writing technique that aims to create an emotional connection for readers by immersing them in real time in the character’s emotional journey. Because this is something my readers frequently ask about, I’ve been exploring it at my blog. If you’d like to read up on it, you can find more information here or here. You might want to start with this post on how to know if you’re writing in deep point of view.

Something that trips writers up is that their character’s emotions lack context. Your character has a reason for feeling the way they do and reacting the way they do. In deep point of view, everything is filtered through your POV character’s perspective. What does this situation mean to THAT character, RIGHT NOW, based on their own unique past experiences, prejudices, fears/concerns, priorities, and goals (emotional context)? Even when a truly new experience presents itself, the brain is always searching for context, for something from the past that will help keep us safe in the present. Understanding this as a writer helps you show the WHY behind your character’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. 

Emotions Serve A Purpose

Emotions (I talk about them like they’re people – stay with me) are preoccupied with keeping us safe by giving us information, warning us about something, or raising a concern. The longer your character suppresses or denies an emotion, the louder and more insistent it should become. 

This is how emotions work. Take a look at one of the more emotional scenes in your WIP. Can you identify what function the emotions in that scene are serving? How are they trying to protect your character, warn them, or get their attention? 

The Kids at The Table

Back to emotions as people. Imagine your character has a table in their heads and around it sits their younger selves from key moments in their past, but the seat at the head of the table is empty. The character hasn’t decided how to act or what to feel yet.

When a difficulty arises, each kid at the table does a quick evaluation, and those with a concern raise a hand and start talking over each other. Each of them believes their concern should be the character’s priority and the solution they used last time is the way to fix this current problem. Why isn’t your character listening – this is IMPORTANT!! (The pitfall is that putting a terrified five-year-old in charge of the emotional reaction to your adult boyfriend’s anger probably isn’t going to be helpful. The concern can be valid while the proposed solution can get the character in hot water.)

Internal conflict isn’t when more than one kid at the table is upset, it’s when those kids can’t agree on what to do or which concern should be the priority.

This is where emotions gain context for our characters. Psychology tells us that our brains are constantly searching our past experiences to see what’s similar, what other experiences might apply to (or help us deal with) the current issue. The kids at the table have valid concerns and usually offer the solution that helped them feel safe (even if it was ultimately harmful or wouldn’t apply any longer). The five-year-old is afraid; they’re concerned about vulnerability and propose running away. The nine-year-old is afraid, too, but their concern is that they’re not good enough to accomplish something and propose working even harder (a coping mechanism to avoid fear). And the sixteen-year-old is full of fear, too; they’re concerned with maintaining control and their solution is anger (another coping mechanism for fear).

The kids want to keep the character safe – they mean well. Does your character just give the head seat at the table to one of the kids? Or do they acknowledge the kid’s valid concern and attempt a new way ahead with a different solution? In essence, which past experience is going to inform the current reality? The emotion your character prioritizes will be influenced by their goal for the scene.

Going Deeper With Emotions

when is telling emotion okay?

When I’m looking to “go deeper,” I brainstorm three or even five possible emotional reactions in a high-emotion scene. Get curious about which other kids (emotions/concerns) are present. The context of that feeling can influence the intensity, duration, or fallout of the felt emotion. 

If you can get curious about this, you’ll have a more specific and nuanced understanding of WHY your character is feeling what they feel, what’s behind their actions and thoughts. You’ve given the reader a reason to lean in and engage, to care, as the emotional context brings unique specificity to your character’s emotions. 

Once you’ve explored the emotional context for your character in their situation, consider the following questions to figure out what he or she will do: 

  1. Will your character give in to the emotional impulse or squash it? (There’s always a cost to squashing a kid with a valid concern.)
  2. How will a squashed or denied emotion/kid escalate things to get the character’s attention in that scene/book? (In real life, this will escalate eventually to psychosomatic symptoms: stomach aches, high blood pressure, migraines, trouble sleeping, inability to focus, etc.)
  3. What coping mechanisms does the character employ to squash an emotion? What specifically is it about that coping mechanism that silences the emotion? (A wrong or betrayal is explained away because they’re just being dramatic, too sensitive, etc.)
  4. What happens when the coping mechanism no longer works? How would they feel/react? 

Does the analogy of the kids at the table help you better visualize the variety of emotions and concerns a character could bring to any high-emotion scene? Is there another way you visualize this process?

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Lisa Hall-Wilson

Resident Writing Coach

If Lisa had a super-power it would be breaking down complicated concepts into digestible practical steps. Lisa loves helping writers “go deeper” and create emotional connections with readers using deep point of view! Hang out with Lisa on Facebook at Confident Writers where she talks deep point of view.
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This entry was posted in Backstory, Characters, Emotion, Point of View, Resident Writing Coach, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] This is part two to a post I wrote last week for Writers Helping Writers on giving characters emotional context. […]

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
4 months ago

I love the idea of exploring different emotional responses to one situation. That’s a great way to start recognizing how different feelings might be in play. Such a great way to add emotional depth. Thanks, Lisa!

Lisa Hall-Wilson
4 months ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

It’s an idea I cobbled together from a few different therapy sources that I found myself using in my own writing and thought it might help others as well! My students have loved this visualization technique.

ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
5 months ago

Thanks, Lisa. As I read this it reminded me of Pixar’s Inside Out. I remember thinking as I watched that how the analogy of emotions as people was a great way for kids and adults to better understand their own feelings. It can help us as writers too. 😉

Lisa Wilson
5 months ago

It’s definitely helped me to think of emotions that way. It’s funny – I actually had a sentence in a previous version of this post that said – something similar to Inside Out – but it didn’t make it into the final version. lol

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