Have you ever watched one of those movies where the hero gets shot six times and run over by a truck – then he gets up and races after the villain as if nothing had happened? You saw the conflict, but there was no sense of pain to go with it. The conflict was divorced from feeling and emotion.
Personally I feel short-changed by this. If something bad happens in a story I want to feel the emotions that this engenders. It will most likely be the emotion of the person on the receiving end of the bad thing, but it could be the emotion of an observer or even of the person who perpetrated the offence.
The emotion might be expected – “He hit me. I’m angry, so I’ll hit him back.” “He hit me. I’m afraid so I’ll run away.” Or it could be unexpected – say pity because the aggressor is totally unable to control his movements.
As a writer you can choose the response and follow it any way you want. What you should not do is ignore the emotion. “He hit me and then I went shopping and bought new shoes.”
OK, that’s a pretty obvious example. But in effect that’s what we often do. We show the response -‘ hit him back’, ‘run away’ and we short-change the reader on the actual feeling of anger or fear that produces the reaction. When you are angry, how does it feel to you? Think back to the last time you were angry and define the physical feeling within you.
If you want the reader to care about your protagonist and his journey you have to generate that caring by having him drawn in emotionally. A conflict happens then show the feeling that follows. That feeling will probably lead to the next conflict. Show how, show why.
Not by saying “He felt angry.” How do you, your spouse, your co-workers, neighbors and friends show anger? Watch and find out. One person might go red in the face, another might grind their teeth or curl their hand into a fist.
Become a collector of emotional clues – that way you’ll get it right when you need to show emotion in a story. Unless you are writing ‘hunt-’em-down, shoot-em-up’ stories be more generous in showing the emotion. It doesn’t cost you extra. It’s the ingredient that brings your characters to life.