Written stories have the power of creating an emotional response in the reader beyond what is available in other forms of storytelling because they give access to the interior world of the characters. In other words, readers come to written stories because they are seeking interiority. What is interiority? Simply, it is a character’s thoughts, feeling, reactions, and inner struggles revealed on the page.
Writers have a variety of tools at their disposal to convey emotion. One way is to name the emotion using words like joy, fear, frustration, or excitement. This form of telling is so broad as to be unhelpful and the terms don’t give insight into why the character is feeling this way. Fear, for instance, can come in a variety of forms and depends on the circumstance, the setting, and the individual. A character’s past experiences, or their future goals, will affect how fear manifests in any situation. Without interiority, the writer leaves the reader guessing why this emotion has surfaced, how it might derail the character’s goals, or drudge up past trauma. Naming the emotion doesn’t do the heavy lifting required of it.
Another way to convey a character’s emotion is to use physical tells, like gestures, facial expressions, and actions. To avoid telling, writers often show the external manifestation of the character’s thoughts, but the problem here is in interpretation. What does the reader understand about the clenched fist or furrowed brow? While using exteriority allows the reader to visualize the character in the scene, don’t rely on action alone. If the character’s hand is trembling, the reader might make assumptions that are contrary to what the character is really thinking. Dig deeper and consider why her hand is trembling and convey that to the reader. Pairing physical tells with interiority lets the reader not only visualize the scene, but how the character is feeling, thinking, and reacting to the situation.
Many writers include sensory details to reflect the character’s feelings. While using sensory details makes for a more engaging scene, the character’s inner thoughts are still unclear. Sensory details can make a scene more vivid, steep the reader in setting, and make the world come alive, but without interiority there is a danger the reader will be left wondering what is happening to the character and why they should care.
The most effective way to convey emotion on the page is through interiority. It lets the reader know who the character is as a fully formed person, including their worldview, desires, fears, motivations, and goals. While what happens to the character is interesting, it is the character’s reactions that really keep the reader turning pages. Any good story is about the protagonist’s transformation, and the reader wants to not only come along for the ride but also be invested in the outcome. The reader must connect to the protagonist on an emotional level and that means, as writers, we need to let the reader in.
Interiority is also a way to create tension by showing the conflict between what is happening and what the character thinks and feels about a situation. Relationships between characters are clearer when the writer shares the protagonist’s true feelings towards other characters, while their behaviour shows another element of who they are as people. If the story moves from one plot point to the next without the character’s inner reactions, we risk losing tension and the reader’s interest.
When sharing a character’s internal dialogue, there are a few things that one can do. Writers might sprinkle internal thoughts and feelings throughout a scene instead of writing a long soliloquy with no action or plot. Avoid signal words like “thought” or “wondered” because the reader will know they are inside the character’s head without being told and the interiority will flow more naturally between moments of action, dialogue, or description. In any scene, ask yourself a few questions about the character’s inner circumstances. What is their goal? What is happening in the scene? What is the character doing and how are they feeling at the beginning of the scene? How are they reacting to the situation? Are they conflicted? What are their thoughts and feelings during a conflict? How do they feel at the end of a scene? How will this affect them moving forward? How do they feel about their next steps or choices? While you might not answer every question for every scene, understanding how the character feels and thinks is integral to giving the reader a reason to care about the protagonist’s journey.
Conveying interiority is not just about sharing big emotions, describing physical gestures, or using sensory details. Interiority is about letting the reader understand what the character is thinking, how they are reacting, and how that makes them feel and evokes a response in the reader that can only be achieved by this means. It’s why readers, despite the myriad of other available choices, return to written stories time and again, and why writers need to get interiority on the page.
Liisa Kovala is a Finnish Canadian author and book coach.
Her first book, Surviving Stutthof: My Father’s Memories Behind the Death Gate (Latitude 46, 2017), was shortlisted for a Northern Lit Award and published in Finland under the title Stutthofin selviytyjä (Docendo, 2020). Sisu’s Winter War (Latitude 46, 2022) is her debut novel.
Her work is inspired by her Finnish heritage and the northern landscape she calls home. She lives in Sudbury, Ontario.