Evoking the emotion

Sometimes you want the reader to not only understand a character's motivation; you want them to feel it too.

One way we can do that is to describe the goal in evocative emotional terms.

In this snippet, why do you think Tom Sawyer wants to be a pirate?

He would be a pirate! That was it! Now his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. How his name would fill the world, and make people shudder! How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the "Spirit of the Storm," with his grisly flag flying at the fore!

You probably get why Tom wants to be a pirate: it sounds exciting and dramatic.

But notice how the snippet doesn't tell us Tom's motivation.

  • It doesn't say, "Tom loved adventure and so to experience daily adventure he decided to be a pirate."
  • Instead it describes the experience of being a pirate in a way that evokes the underlying emotions of glory and power that are really what motivate Tom here.

The emotional effect is created through a combination of:

  • Evocative words (glowing, unimaginable, splendor, shudder, gloriously, dancing, grisly).
  • Poetic metaphor (his future lay plain, his name would fill the world, he would go plow the dancing seas).
  • Repetition (of emphatic adverbs (now, how—which also rhyme)—and exclamation marks!!!).

Also note the sentence lengths and punctuation—the way that short exclamations are used to build energy, and longer descriptive sentences paint a vivid picture.

All these elements are effective because of that link between motivation and emotion: if we can understand how someone feels, we can also understand what they want.

Here are a couple of examples that try to convey the emotional connection between a character and their goal.

We've highlighted examples of evocative words, metaphor, and repetition, but also step back and look at the overall rhythmic effect—these examples have a very different tone to the Tom Sawyer snippet.

The other passengers stared at Deshawn with the goose in his arms and its long neck draped around his neck and its black beak on his orange shoulder, and he felt the pressure of the city and all its machinery and the life he was scared to live, and he took shelter in the memory of tall grasses and honeyed sunshine and the ruffle of birdfeathers on the water, and in that memory he held the goose tight, saving it as it saved him, and as the train rattled on the tracks and the buildings flowed past the windows, through the fabric of his shirt he felt the bird's precious heartbeat.

She had to help them. They were her brothers. Lucky, Stilts, Smurf, even Jarret. They were her sewing buddies, her trail running team, the people with whom she drank from the cold stream in the mornings and watched the freckled stars at night. They were the source of bad smells, awful jokes, endless energy. And now they were blinded, confused, cut off, desperately striking out in the wrong direction—unless she could get into position.

Some suggestions:

  • Imagine your character and what they want, and tap into that emotion.
  • When you have the feeling, start writing from inside the character—how do they perceive the goal, what do they think and feel about it? (If you want to take a moment to set the scene, that's fine too.)
  • Find one device that fits with your vibe: rhythm or repetition; poetic metaphor; evocative words or images.
  • Stay in touch with the feeling and use that device as you write.
  • Once you have a first pass, go back and see if you can use the other devices to make the description even more evocative.
Describe what your character wants in a way that evokes the same feelings in the reader.

Before we move on, do you remember what we said earlier about chaining and nesting goals?

And how if you keep asking why someone wants something, you start to move beyond goals and into motivation?

Let's finish that thought.