The Time a Feeling Takes by Naomi Kinsman

When I re-read my own writing or when I read my students' writing, sometimes I feel a vague sense of disconnect. Intellectually, I may know how a character feels. My heart, however, isn't connected. When I'm working with students, I might ask the question, "Why does she feel that way?" My student will point out how they've already written a sentence or two about the feeling. They may have even included body language or interior monologue to show rather than tell me how their character feels. But while I can see the emotion in the words on the page, I still don't feel it.

I've thought a lot about this puzzle. When you work with students, they ask uncomfortable "why?" questions. It's not enough to explain that a passage isn't working. I have to explain what isn't working in practical terms. I have to help the writer feel the problem herself. The difficulty is that so much of what a character feels already exists in the writer's mind. The writer fills the emotional gaps with her background knowledge to the point where she doesn't see the gaps at all.

In many cases, I've come to realize this disconnect is actually a time problem. Not exactly a story time problem, but more a reading time problem. Writers need to include enough material between one emotion and another to allow their readers time to transition between one emotion and another. Scientists have told us that when we read, we not only imagine the experiences of the characters, but we feel them as though they are happening to us. When we read, the synapses that fire in our brains are the same that fire if we encounter a similar real life situation. Maybe this is why we need time, as readers, to feel each emotion a writer asks us to feel. we can't hop from anger to disappointment, because our brains need time to feel each of those feelings fully. We end up feeling left out if the writer speeds ahead too fast, and our emotional connection to the character is interrupted.

This is not an argument to slow down everything in a story. Sometimes a fast pace is the perfect solution. However, when it comes to big feelings, and particularly a change between one big feeling and another, I find the best way to bring the moment to life is to feel my way, paying particular attention to time. I ask myself a series of time questions, such as, "How much time would it take to feel this emotion?" "How would I react?" "What would change my feelings suddenly?" "How would I react?" and so on.

For me, time is a key factor in making a story feel right. I approach each emotional moment in much the same way that I approach emotional moments as an actor. I think about timing, pauses, action, silence. I find that the most effective way to deepen a story emotionally is to feel my way to the timing that works best. Like many parts of writing, there is no real right or wrong, no way to know if I've allowed my reader enough time. And yet, I do find that by listening to feedback from readers, I gain a better sense of where I've rushed, where I need to slow down, and sometimes even where I need to speed up. I use them as my "audience" and put on my director hat to assess what's working and what may not be, yet.

I wonder how other writers approach emotional timing in their work, and whether people have specific strategies for addressing problem areas. If you do have one, please share! I enjoy gathering additional tools to fill my writer's toolkit, and we can all benefit from your insight, too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~Naomi Kinsman is an author, educator and creativity coach. She is the author of the FROM SADIE'S SKETCHBOOK series and recently collaborated with singer, Natalie Grant on the GLIMMER GIRLS series. Naomi is also the founder and Executive Director or Society of Young Inklings, which offers classes, mentorships and publishing opportunities for young authors ages 6-16.  Society of Young Inklings utilizes WRITERLY PLAY, the improv-based teaching methodology that Naomi developed, as the foundation for all of its programming.


  1. This is SUPER helpful. You're right that it can be so hard to analyze, and then put into words, exactly why something doesn't work in a piece of writing. Thanks!


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