Are You Feeling Me?
Ocieanna Fleiss

We writers can learn a lot from movies. Take the two DVDs I watched recently. The first, Fantastic Four, was cartoonish, verging on outlandish, but I couldn’t stop watching (past bedtime even!). The characters’ universal emotions—loneliness, insecurity, abandonment, fear—captured me.

I snoozed through the second Mr. and Mrs. Smith—boring! Despite the fast-paced suspense and A-list actors, the characters’ lackluster relationship left me uninterested, so their predicaments didn’t matter.

What can we do to prevent such audience disconnection? Stirring our readers’ fear, anxiety, compassion, empathy, or joy not only wards off boredom—it keeps ‘em reading. Follow these pointers to tap into those deepest emotions.

What’s at Stake?

In You’ve Got Mail, when Kathleen Kelly’s children’s bookstore goes out of business, my eyes moisten as I mourn along with her. But why?

Because it’s not just a bookstore.

By the time her competition ruthlessly runs it out of business, I’ve totally bought into why The Shop Around the Corner means so much. The aisles are filled with childhood memories of sweet times with Kathleen’s mother who has passed away. When it shuts down, it’s like “losing her all over again.” Because the emotional stakes have been established, when the “closed” sign turns for the last time, I experience Kathleen’s disappointment.

Takeaway: Build the stakes early by thinking first about what you want the emotional climax to be, and then go backwards from there.

Feel This Way

In the movie In the Name of the Father, the protagonist’s father has been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. His fellow inmates come to love him, and when he dies, these hardened criminals each release small scraps of flaming paper from their windows, lighting the night in a heartrending memorial. Consider the power of this display versus a more obvious scene: “I miss him so much,” one inmate could’ve sobbed. “He was such a great guy.” Yuck.

Takeaway: Show don’t tell. I know. You’ve heard it before, but building a sensory scene rather than littering a story with intricately explained emotions reaps a big payoff.

Know Your Characters

Another movie that exemplifies good use of emotions is Sense and Sensibility. Throughout the film, we understand the glaring difference between the two heroines. When stoic Eleanor discovers her beloved is engaged to another, she hides her feelings behind a mask of stalwart cheerfulness. When her ultra-emotional sister is jilted, on the other hand, she falls apart in fits of tears and despair. The screenwriter knew how these two would react to similar situations. How well do you know your characters?

Takeaway: Look around to uncover different ways folks operate. Watch how your spouse responds to the Sunday paper getting soggy, or how the barista handles a belligerent customer who ordered soy, not 2%—and take notes.


You’ve seen the movie Titanic? Boy meets girl, ship meets iceberg, and …well, you know the rest. Trauma results in drama—and we’re hooked. Why? How a character reacts to disaster reveals truth about him. For instance, Tricia Goyer in her World War II novel, Arms of Deliverance, shoves her main character Mary into just such a harrowing situation. A newspaper reporter, Mary’s feisty, self-sufficient attitude lands her in a fighter plane, exhilarated to get a story. But when the plane hits danger deep within enemy territory, Mary’s insecurities and fears surface. We experience a side of Mary we would’ve never seen otherwise.1 

Takeaway: Don’t be nice to your characters. Make them struggle—and emotion will flow naturally.

It’s not easy to develop authentic emotional tension in our fiction, but it’s worth the effort. And who knows? The next time you watch a movie, you may even glean a tip or two to make it easier.

1 Goyer, Tricia. Arms of Deliverance: A Story of Promise. (Moody Publishers: Chicago, July 2006).

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About the Writer:

Ocieanna Fleiss has contributed to many publications including MOMSense Magazine, The Christian Communicator, Marketplace, Hearts at Home, and Guideposts for Kids. She has a bi-monthly column entitled “Fiction with Fleiss” in the Northwest Christian Author. She’s a freelance editor for award-winning fiction authors such as Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey and also does substantive edits for Winepress Publications.