3 min read

3 Emotion Problems to Avoid in Your Story Opening

3 Emotion Problems to Avoid in Your Story Opening

As writers, we know that the opening pages of a story are crucial - they're often the only chance we have to captivate readers and make them desperate to continue reading. And one of the key elements that can make or break those crucial first impressions is how we handle character emotion.

Emotion is the conduit through which readers connect with and become invested in our protagonists. If we can't effectively convey the character is feelings in those opening scenes, we risk losing the reader's attention and engagement. However, we need to be mindful of some common pitfalls when it comes to emotion in a story's beginning.

Not Enough Emotion

It's not uncommon to read an opening page or two and realize that the reader has felt nothing. There's been no emotional stirring, no sense of investment in the characters and their circumstances. This typically happens when the author hasn't given the character a meaningful emotional stake in the events unfolding.

For example, in the opening of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, we're immediately pulled into Katniss Everdeen's world and her high-stakes situation. The description of her anxiety and dread as she prepares for the reaping ceremony - the fear that her name will be drawn, that she'll be forced to participate in the brutal Hunger Games - grips us from the start. We feel Katniss' emotions viscerally, making us care deeply about her and what happens next.

Contrast that with the story's opening, where the protagonist seems detached or unaffected by their circumstances. In those cases, the reader wonders, "why should I care?" If the characters themselves don't seem to care, how are we as readers supposed to become invested?

The key is to make sure something impactful is happening in those opening pages - a conversation, a significant event, a relationship moment - that elicits a genuine emotional response from the character. That emotional stirring is what will spark the reader's feelings and draw them into the story.

Emotion That's Told, Not Shown

Even if the character is experiencing strong emotions, that's not enough. As the age-old writing wisdom goes, we must show those emotions, not just tell the reader about them.

Stating the emotion directly - "She was afraid." or "He felt sad." - is a passive, distancing way of conveying information. It puts the reader in a more detached, observational role rather than immersing them in the character's experience.

However, showing emotion through physical sensations, body language, and subtle behavioral cues becomes a much more visceral, engaging experience for the reader. They start to feel what the character is feeling.

For instance, in the opening of Tad Williams' Otherworld series, this line describes the protagonist's fear: "His skin felt like it was trying to glide to the back of his body." The vivid physicality of that description triggers our memories of that crawling, skin-tingling sensation, making the emotion palpable.

Similarly, in Gennifer Choldenko's novel Al Capone Does My Shirts, the author writes: "My face burns. My ears heat up like two heaters attached to my face." Again, these concrete physical manifestations of the character's embarrassment allow the reader to empathize and connect on a deeper level.

Showing emotion through the character's voice, body language, and thought processes rather than just stating it flat-out is a powerful way to pull the reader into the story and invest them in the protagonist's experience.

Too Much Emotion

Just as an absence of emotion can be problematic, so can an overabundance. When a character's emotional responses feel over-the-top, inauthentic, or more intense than the situation warrants, it can veer into melodrama - and that emotional inauthenticity creates distance between the reader and the story.

The best way to avoid this trap is to have a firm grasp of your character's emotional range and baseline. People respond to circumstances differently based on their personality, life experiences, and temperament. Knowing where your protagonist typically falls from reserved to demonstrative will help you write their reactions in a way that feels true to who they are.

For example, let's look at the opening of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, where the protagonist Vin is mourning the death of her brother Clubs:

"Vin knelt beside Clubs' body, her hands shaking. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she looked at the man who had been like a father to her. He was gone. The words kept repeating in her mind, over and over. Clubs is dead. Clubs is dead. She felt numb, yet the pain of his loss tore at her heart."

Here, Vin's grief is palpable and raw, but it never feels forced or over-the-top. The physical details, like her shaking hands and streaming tears, combined with the anguished thoughts racing through her mind, create a powerful emotional portrait that feels authentically Vin. Sanderson has a strong handle on her emotional baseline, so her reactions ring true to her character.

Contrast that with a character whose emotional responses fluctuate wildly from one extreme to another with no logical progression. That emotional whiplash can pull readers out of the story as they subconsciously recognize the inauthenticity.

It's also important to remember that emotions don't typically happen in isolation or jump around randomly. They generally flow along a continuum, building gradually rather than appearing out of nowhere. If you want your character to end up in a state of rage, for example, you'll need to thoughtfully transition them from a calmer starting point through stages of increasing irritation, frustration, and so on. Melodrama often results when that natural emotional progression is lacking.

By being mindful of these common pitfalls - insufficient emotion, told rather than shown emotion, and over-the-top melodramatic emotion - writers can craft story openings that hook readers from the very first page. Layering in authentic, well-executed character emotion is key to creating an immersive, engaging experience that pulls the reader deep into the story. With the right balance and execution, the opening pages can become a powerful gateway into the unfolding narrative.

The Emotion of Disappointment

The Emotion of Disappointment

Capturing the emotion of disappointment in a character requires understanding its complex nature and varied expressions. Here’s how you can...

Read More
The Psychology of Reader Empathy

The Psychology of Reader Empathy

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a powerful human trait that transcends cultural boundaries. In the realm of...

Read More
And Then One Day…

And Then One Day…

The term storytelling is bandied about under a thinly veiled attempt to make brands seem human. It’s often inaccurately associated with the task of...

Read More