The Emotional Level

revision writing craft

Post written by Katie Wall.

Is the emotional level developed in your story? Or just the plot level?

In this picture you see my (Katie's) sunlit hand holding some dandelions, and in the distance you can see a little toddler running toward me over the grass.

"Oh, that's nice," you might think. "Her toddler brings her dandelion flowers."

What you don't know from this image—which is the equivalent to plot-level details—is that I nearly cried when he kept bringing me flowers.

And even if you did see the tears welling up and threatening to spill down my cheeks, you still wouldn't know why this moment was so significant to me.

That's where the emotional level comes in.

When you're developing the emotional level in your own novel(s), it's crucial to understand their psychological state, such as:

  • What insecurities do they hold?
  • What are their biggest fears?
  • Do they trust others?
  • Are they used to being alone?

However, you also need to push deeper than that; you need to understand the why behind those psychological aspects of their personality. In other words, what events have shaped your protagonist into who they are today?

To go back to this dandelion moment, we had a rough start, this baby and I. He was almost born at 32 weeks, which resulted in me being hospitalized for a month away from Andrew and our oldest (whom I had never spent the night away from before). Even though we were able to keep him in the womb until 35.5 weeks, he was born premature and required some extra care in the NICU. Then, after we came home, I dealt with postpartum depression and anxiety (PPD/PPA) that went untreated for far too long... which meant that I struggled to feel bonded with this little one and wasn't able to be the kind of mother I want to be.

So when he brought me flowers, it was truly a gift beyond just the flowers. It was a little reassurance that he loves me, that I'm his mama, that we are bonded even after everything that we've been through. It was a moment that gave me a glimpse into a brighter future of loving relationship between the two of us. It was a moment of being loved unconditionally by this little one whose mother had struggled with depression and anxiety and trauma for his whole little life. It was a moment that assuaged my deep fears of being inadequate, of being unloved, and of being a bad mother.

Now how powerful is that picture to you?

This is the emotional level. In our writing, we need to strive to create this emotional undertone in an organic way (no info dumps of backstory!) so that little moments like this one can be powerful in our readers' experience of our stories.

It's important to build this emotional level from the first sentence of a novel. That's why we have a small group coaching course that focuses specifically on your first pages. Join the waitlist here.

Note: If you are struggling while caring for a newborn or baby but aren't sure if you have PPD or PPA, please reach out to a mental health professional if at all possible. Sometimes PPD/PPA manifests as anger and irritability, not the signs we typically associate with depression and anxiety. And you can reach out to me, too: [email protected]. You're not alone!

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