We’re going to talk about the magic around emotive language in creative writing, and why every writer out there needs to use it!

Get ready to unpack a real-life excerpt, identify the emotive language, and investigate how to write for optimal emotional impact.

How to Write A Story, Part 3_ using emotive language in creative writing, writing with emotional impact (1)

“People don’t turn to stories to experience what you, the writer, have experienced— or even what your characters have. They read to have their own experience”

– David Corbett, Writer’s Digest

I read this wonderful article from Writer’s Digest discussing feeling and emotion, and how they both function within a story. Two quotes really stuck out to me, one of which you just read above. 

I love the idea that readers read for their own experience. And it is so true! They don’t want you to dictate facts or write dogma. They don’t want to be ‘told’. They want to feel the journey, the relationships, the conflicts, for themselves.

Which is great news for you, you fancy writer, you, because that’s what emotive writing is all about.

Second quote from David Corbett:

Feeling requires introspection, which thus necessitates identification with the character and empathy for what she faces. […] Readers process their own emotions and interpretation of events while the character is doing so, not necessarily in parallel or even consciously.

In order to feel the experience for themselves, readers have to identify with the character, and be put into their shoes. They do this through empathy or sharing feelings with another being through understanding.

** Essentially, if you offer an effective emotional experience, your reader will empathize with your character/story instantly. **

This means– you guessed it –emotive language is a huge part of creative writing.

Emotive language, according to Writing Explained, is:

… word choice that is used to evoke emotion.

The language is just as important as presentation. Strategic presentation = writing for emotional impact.

It’s not about stuffing your pages full of emotionally-charged words and calling it quits. You’ll overwhelm and confuse your readers!

Below, I’m keeping it simple. Purposefully. In our excerpt, you’ll notice the language is almost bare, while still being emotionally-charged. You’ll see how the few strong images, paired with precise word choices make a massive impact without being too much. A little goes a long way!

Hopefully, this will give you a solid understanding of how to write for optimal emotional impact! Let’s do this!

“People don_t turn to stories to experience what you, the writer, have experienced— or even what your characters have. They read to have their own experience”– David Corbett (1

I chose this excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 12: The Mirror of Erised

(Potterhead for life!!)

Now, if you know anything about Harry Potter, you’ll know that Harry grew up an orphan. His parents were murdered when he was a baby, and he spent his years growing up in an abusive house.

Even though he lived with his aunt, uncle and cousin, Harry received no love from them. In this excerpt, Harry is running through the castle at night as he’s chased by authority figures, and slips into a room to hide, when …

It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet. There was an inscription carved around the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. His panic fading now that there was no sound of Filch and Snape, Harry moved nearer to the mirror, wanting to look at himself but see no reflection again. He stepped in front of it.

He had to clap his hands to his mouth to stop himself from screaming. He whirled around. His heart was pounding far more furiously than when the book had screamed — for he had seen not only himself in the mirror, but a whole crowd of people standing right behind him.

But the room was empty. Breathing very fast, he turned slowly back to the mirror.
There he was, reflected in it, white and scared-looking, and there, reflected behind him, were at least ten others. Harry looked over his shoulder — but still, no one was there. Or were they all invisible, too? Was he in fact in a room full of invisible people and this mirror’s trick was that it reflected them, invisible or not?

He looked in the mirror again. A woman standing right behind his reflection was smiling at him and waving. He reached out a hand and felt the air behind him. If she was really there, he’d touch her, their reflections were so close together, but he felt only air — she and the others existed only in the mirror.

She was a very pretty woman. She had dark red hair and her eyes – her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green — exactly the same shape, but then he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time. The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy. It stuck up at the back, just as Harry’s did.

Harry was so close to the mirror now that his nose was nearly touching that of his reflection. “Mom?” he whispered. “Dad?”

They just looked at him, smiling. And slowly, Harry looked into the faces of the other people in the mirror, and saw other pairs of green eyes like his, other noses like his, even a little old man who looked as though he had Harry’s knobbly knees — Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life.

The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

How long he stood there, he didn’t know. The reflections did not fade and he looked and looked until a distant noise brought him back to his senses. He couldn’t stay here, he had to find his way back to bed. He tore his eyes away from his mother’s face, whispered, “I’ll come back,” and hurried from the room.

So let’s break down the scene progression, and how we process our emotions right alongside Harry.

1. Setup:

“It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet. There was an inscription carved around the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. His panic fading now that there was no sound of Filch and Snape, Harry moved nearer to the mirror, wanting to look at himself but see no reflection again. He stepped in front of it.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “as high as the ceiling”: very clear, extravagant image, creates an image of a massive wall of mirror, heightens the unexpected and absurd nature of Harry’s surroundings
  • “His panic fading now that there was no sound”: feelings of fear and anxiety fade, and we get a sense of silence and momentary safety

The setup is like taking a breath. In this scene, we just meet Harry as he escapes being caught. He’s relieved but surprised, and his panic seems to be fading. Think of it like the calm before the storm, the big shock. Our hero gets a moment of uncertain peace before things turn upside down once more!

2. Shock:

“He had to clap his hands to his mouth to stop himself from screaming. He whirled around. His heart was pounding far more furiously than when the book had screamed — for he had seen not only himself in the mirror, but a whole crowd of people standing right behind him. But the room was empty. Breathing very fast, he turned slowly back to the mirror.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “clap his hands to his mouth”: furious motion, the sound of clapping itself, the feeling of having your mouth covered quickly – these sensations and actions trigger an instinctual response in the reader, evoking fear, anxiety, danger
  • “he turned slowly back to the mirror”: evokes the image of prey being caught in a corner, caution, hesitation implied shows more than just stating ‘he was afraid’

The author follows the calm with shock, danger, and concern. In a dark room within a magical castle full of secrets, a foe in pursuit, and our protagonist suddenly suppresses a scream? We’re definitely on edge. Emotions=spiked.

Then, there’s a creepy, ghost-like element with strange apparitions in a mirror. We don’t know what they look like, or who they are. This is intentional because it lets the full effect of surprise take place. We aren’t distracted by details, or even Harry’s own thoughts yet. There’s a disturbance, a high danger potential, and an emotional reaction.


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3. Logical Investigation:

“There he was, reflected in it, white and scared-looking, and there, reflected behind him, were at least ten others. Harry looked over his shoulder — but still, no one was there. Or were they all invisible, too? Was he in fact in a room full of invisible people and this mirror’s trick was that it reflected them, invisible or not?

He looked in the mirror again. A woman standing right behind his reflection was smiling at him and waving. He reached out a hand and felt the air behind him. If she was really there, he’d touch her, their reflections were so close together, but he felt only air — she and the others existed only in the mirror.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “Or were they all invisible too?”: a very disturbing thought, uncertainty, fear, evokes a whirling thought process and assessment – this opens up the possibility for at least two interpretations of the scene, where the apparitions could be in the mirror, or are in fact surrounding him
  • “He reached out a hand and felt the air behind him.”: shows a motion we can all clearly see and imagine, the absurdity of the situation – gives the reader the sensation of anticipation. What might our hands brush against?

Now that it’s clear he wasn’t going to instantly die or be attacked, our boy is curious. We experience Harry’s inner dialogue, followed by a physical action to verify those thoughts.

As you can see, we are perfectly in line with Harry’s experience. So far, with the use of emotive language, we’ve felt his fear, his shock, his caution, and curiosity. A fabulous progression, and a great example of writing for optimal emotional impact.

4. The Details:

“She was a very pretty woman. She had dark red hair and her eyes – her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green — exactly the same shape, but then he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time. The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy. It stuck up at the back, just as Harry’s did.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “–her eyes are just like mine,”: this shows the beginning of a sinking realization, hesitation from Harry, hope, and wariness
  • “he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time”: an understated but bitingly clear image of pain and happiness intermingled, much of what Harry is beginning to feel himself
  • “It stuck up in the back, just as Harry’s did.”: the final piece of his revelation, paired with a very distinct image, the puzzle finally fitting together

Alrighty… we see a turn approaching. Dots are connecting. Heartbreaking truths lash out in flying colors. Harry is looking at an image of his parents (sob).

Now, notice how the author slowly expands the experience, but refuses to drag it out – and thank goodness! Nothing is worse than knowing exactly what’s going on for pages before the author decides to bring their character up to speed.

With this subtle build using emotive language, with the incremental release of information, lets us progress alongside Harry.

(Side note: I listen to a ton of audiobooks, and have recently been reduced to screaming out the obvious plot twists ahead of time because the author draws out scenes in an attempt to make them more ’emotionally loaded’. Don’t do it. You’ll inadvertently give too much away, and alienate the reader. Focus ONLY on details that progress the narrative.)

5. Realization:

“”Mom?” he whispered. “Dad?”

They just looked at him, smiling. And slowly, Harry looked into the faces of the other people in the mirror, and saw other pairs of green eyes like his, other noses like his, even a little old man who looked as though he had Harry’s knobbly knees — Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “and saw other pairs of green eyes, eyes like his”: this is a wonderful image; we can see dozens of blinking green eyes staring back that painfully juxtaposes Harry’s true isolation
  • “Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life.”: another impactful moment written out in an understated manner, evoking ‘at a loss for words’, wonderstruck

BOOM. She hit it! Oh, the feels!

6. Emotional Response:

“The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “and he stared hungrily back at them”: desperation, desire, craving for connection
  • “He had a powerful kind of ache inside him”: bruised flesh, blood pumping against a wound so painful it might burst, need, desire, age-old longing

I like how this excerpt gives physicality to Harry’s emotions. Like we talked about in the sensory details post, using physical touch is an excellent way to ground a character into the narrative, as you can imagine how it would feel to press your hands to the cold surface of a mirror. We can see him leaning in so desperately, hoping he could join them.

The conflict between joy and sadness adds another layer of complexity. We have happiness over seeing family, which is overshadowed by the knowledge that this is still only a mirror. They are not only inaccessible, but unreal.

And yet, we want them to be. Because at this point, don’t we want everything Harry craves? 

7. The Intentional Reaction:

“How long he stood there, he didn’t know. The reflections did not fade and he looked and looked until a distant noise brought him back to his senses. He couldn’t stay here, he had to find his way back to bed. He tore his eyes away from his mother’s face, whispered, “I’ll come back,” and hurried from the room.”

Emotive language of note: 

  • “How long he stood there, he didn’t know.”: frozen, enraptured, lost in time, still in shock, evoking the sublime, emotions so overwhelming it causes a dissociation from reality
  • “He tore his eyes away from his mother’s face,”: not wanting to leave, but needing to return to reality/sanity again, breaking away, revisiting loss

You can feel the hunger for hope, feel the pain. He’s had a taste of what he craves (as have we), and desperation emerges along with a stout confidence. Here, we see our hero process these emotions, and finally, make a decision based on what he perceives/feels: he’ll come back.

And that, my friends, is the power of empathy through emotive language in creative writing. We are essentially anchored into the story, immersed into Harry himself. Mission accomplished! *high fives*

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Want more info on emotional writing?

Read next: Using Sensory Details in Creative Writing


 

 

 

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