How To Correctly Use Emotion To Create Drama And Set The Pace

    I raced madly.

    I raced madly, but I didn’t care.

    I raced madly, but I was too excited.

    I raced madly, but something was gnawing inside of me. Something was about to go wrong.

    I raced madly, but I couldn’t shake the depression.


    What’s the difference between the first line and all the others?


    Yes, the first line is shorter. But it also lacks emotion.

    And while facts give the um, facts, they don’t tell us how you feel.

    In any given situation, ten people getting the same bowl of soup will respond in ten incredibly different ways.

    I saw the bowl of soup and my heart sank.

    I saw the bowl of soup and it flooded me with happy childhood memories.

    I saw the bowl of soup and I was surprised how hungry I felt.

    I saw the bowl of soup, but a feeling of hesitancy crept into my being.

    I saw the bowl of soup, and immediately felt overwhelmed.


    You get it, don’t you?


    The bowl of soup isn’t what the brain is searching for in the story.

    The brain is searching for the expression on your face. This search is embedded in who we are as human beings.

    When my niece Keira (she’s three, almost four years old) hears her mother shout at her, she almost always scans her mother’s face instantly.

    She’s trying to read her mother’s face to see: 

    Is she annoyed?

    Is she angry?

    Is she frustrated?

    Is she furious?

    Is she about to go bananas in a second?


    The reader of your article needs to know what Keira can see.

    They need to know not just what the event was all about, but why it was important.

    And how it was important.

    And the biggest clue comes from the emotion that follows the statement. Or the emotion that precedes the statement.


    A few examples…


    When the emotion follows the statement:

    Example 1: There she was, the girl I so cared for. And yet, there was a sense of disgust.

    Example 2: There she was, the girl I so cared for, and my heart lit up like the fourth of July.

    Example 3: There she was, the girl I so cared for. And then she was gone. I was frantic.


    Or you can create the scene using emotion as a precursor:

    Example 1: Little did I know that I would be disgusted. After all, this was the girl I cared for very deeply.

    Example 2: I wasn’t expecting the sudden burst of happiness on this gloomy day. But as I rounded the corner, there she was—the girl I cared for very deeply.

    Example 3: There was nothing to suggest that I’d be frantic in a second. Because right in front of me was the girl I cared for.


    The emotion sets the scene.


    The event itself is just an event. What makes it burst into flame is the emotion that surges through our system as a result of experiencing that event.

    And then of course, we can choose to bring in the emotion earlier, or let in hang a bit behind and then whiplash the event with its suddenness.


    But you can overdo the emotion.


    Emotions provide the roller coaster that lead the reader through your writing. And especially so, when you’re telling a story.

    Sadness and depression tend to linger longer, so it’s okay to keep the emotions going for a little while.

    Other emotions like surprise and fear can be fleeting; speeding through faster than a bullet.

    But you can’t keep going on and on, line after line, with emotions.

    The way to use emotion correctly is to bring it in and let the reader feel the happiness, sadness, disgust etc.

    And then move on.


    You set the pace.


    And you set it with emotions.

    Because ten people can drink soup.

    And every one of those folks feel totally differently about the soup.

    A soup is a soup is a soup.

    Until you add a dash of emotion. Maybe two dashes. You decide 🙂


    How have you used emotion successfully to create drama and set the pace? Do share in the comments!

    About the author

      Sean D'Souza

      Sean D'Souza is a writer, marketing guru and expert on sales psychology. Read more by Sean on

    • Awesome article.

    • It’s impressive that you are getting thoughts from this article as
      well as from our discussion made at this time.

    • NoahDavid says:

      When I teach students how to write poetry, I tell them to delete every word about their feelings. Instead, I teach them to use imagery to recreate the circumstances that CAUSED their emotions. One can write an emotional piece without using a single “feeling” word.

      Like @Eiko said, “show, don’t tell”. Easier said than done, of course.

    • Have been meaning for some time to say many many thanks for the WtD emails which I really enjoy – kudos! and very best wishes to all involved xoxoxo

    • As you said, emotion can be overused. So sometimes I might just say “he raced madly,” while other times I might say, “he raced madly, fearful that the threatening, murderous voices would mutate into bodies chasing him.” I rotate between very matter-of-fact, minimalist style to something a bit more emotional.

    • Thanks, good to remember.
      One also would want to keep in mind the structure of your whole story, “Show don’t tell” being the key. In emotionally intense scenes it may be more rewarding for your readers to have more Showing than Telling. While in others you would want to have some more Telling to get through exposition, description etc.

    • Your post is really interesting. It made me research more about emotions. As a life coach, I need to learn a lot about it. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Henri says:

      Mmm, my brain likes this, Sean.

      I’m going to apply it to the article I’m working on, or at least try. If nothing else, I’ll make lots of mistakes and learn stuff.

      I use a lot of my own personal stories in my writing, so I write about freedom, excitement and purpose, and do my best to convey how I feel those feelings. It seems to resonate, so I’m on the right path.

      Now off to write that article!

    • stella Nakuya says:

      LOVED IT

    • Showing versus telling seems to be the definitive line between the two!

    • arundebnath says:

      Without being emotional about it – I felt I found a little gem while collecting shells in the vast Atlantic beach near the Gypsy Market in Albufuria, Portugal. Anybody can write but writing without appropriate emotion is dull like one of those trillions of broken shells in the beach. Thank you Sean for your little gem that will surely help me in my writing [however dull that may be]. Arun

    • bert says:

      I once started a very short story with this first line:

      “My day had been one of those stormy ones, with nothing settled or understood.”

      my writing teacher hated it, yet I like it. From that first sentence, I explained the setting, then action… then the actual story unfolded. But I never did dislike that first sentence as I felt it made the reader wonder what was going on, what had happened before that never seemed settled or understood….. but, my teacher didn’t like it. I still do! It introduced the setting, then the characters and then the physical action…. and the real story was what happened after that.

      Oh well. Maybe its just a boring first line but the nestled nicely into the remainder of the story. Funny how some lines stick with you… that was was written in a beginning writing class from 1975!


      • Mirel says:

        Well, Bert, I’m not a writing teacher, but I like that opening sentence of yours too.

      • Harry Kingaby says:

        I like it. It tells me about your day, and about how you feel now without actually saying it.

        • Bert says:

          I love “groovy”! Thanks! The line actually had another word in it….

          “my day had been one of those stormy ones, with nothing really settled or understood.”

          Using ‘really’ in the sentence made (me) feel as tho this was a repeated action, a wearying of the soul, in a sense. This started from exactly that, then trying to sleep, then a fitful dream…..where I went down in the night to check on an odd noise. & ended up ‘meeting’ Truth, Death &’Honesty. Yes, I know these -abstracts- cannot be people but I saw them as very individual people whose separate message to me described their inner self…then I spent several wks on the physical descriptions and action of the story. It took place in my home with only a dim light in the room as they sat there, speaking one by one into the chaos of my life. Telling me my expectations against the reality of my waking life. The dialogue was -all- written that night & the descriptions worked over a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, the ending, their way of leaving, turned out to be easy to write.

          This all came from the chaos in my marriage, to falling asleep ( finally) while my husband slept the sleep of the innocent…..and I wrestled with reality vs truth, death & innocence. This was ALL from a dream mirroring my life then.
          It is amazing what our hearts write on the walls of our subconscious, isn’t it?

    • Kath says:

      Loved this post I am a people watcher, I watch people going about their every day lives and jot stuff down in the back of my mind to use on one of my characters.

    • Thankyou for the thought provoking words. I am in the middle of writing a boxing scene, and am tring to build the excitement of the crowd as the fighters clash. Bad for my blood pressure!


    • Harry Kingaby says:

      Reading this article made me realise that emotion, or rather putting emotion into my writing, has never been a considered response. It has come natural in the flow of the prose or not at all. Accordingly, this has made for writing that is hit and miss in the emotional stakes.

      And now I find my shoulders tensing, my breath a little short as it dawns on me that I may have to relearn my entire craft. It’s frightening to think that everything I’ve ever written amounted to cold words stamped on a page, that the flow from the heart had only been the bureaucratic reordering of a dictionary.

      Did I get it right? 🙂

    • I did this after reading an article from Mary about being spontaneous and also I sometimes go with the flow when the spirit moves me. The green-eyed monster reared its head in my comments from a source I felt I knew which made me laugh(yipee) so I knew I’d done my job right. So ‘Terror In The Paris Underground’ evoked lots of genuine interest and one ‘jealous guy’ who didn’t have the last laugh. It’s hard to find a follow up but will try now that you mention this subject.

    • MJ says:

      Invaluable information every single writer should practice for improvement.

    • Elke Feuer says:

      Great stuff! I have a tendency to use too much emotion without letting people seeing what else is going on in the scene. Some people like it, others don’t. Working on finding a balance.

    • Mirel says:

      Nicely explained, and yet, does the emotion always have to be explicit? Isn’t it at times obvious from the character’s thoughts?

      • Sean says:

        The answer is: it depends. It depends on what your example is, in the first place. But nothing has to be explicit all the time. And yet, there are times when it needs to be explicit. As a writer you get the choice. Most writers have the choice and aren’t aware of it. Or don’t use it as often as they should.

    • Jan Kardys says:

      Thanks for this interesting and helpful information. Jan Kardys, Literary Agent, Black Hawk Literary Agency, Chairman, Unicorn Writers’ Conference. Next conference is March 22, 2014 at Saint Clements Castle, Portland, CT – 25 agents will attend.

    • This is really great stuff! A book without emotion is BORING. It’s what we relate to, how we connect with the story. It also helps us visualize what’s going on and get inside the character’s head. Thanks for the helpful post!

      • Sean says:

        You’re welcome, Jessica. Glad it helped 🙂

    • Natalia says:

      Thank you, that was very useful posting.

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