March 25th, 2020

How to Write Compelling Emotional Triggers

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Writing emotional triggers, while optional, will take your writing to all-new levels of emotional connection for readers. This is a shortened sample lesson from my 5-week masterclass on writing in deep point of view.

In my book Method Acting For Writers, I talk about writing emotions in four layers: primary emotions (instinctive, knee-jerk, unthinking emotional responses), emotional triggers (optional), secondary emotions (thinking emotional responses to primary emotions), and behavior (what those emotions force the character to DO).

Don’t Google primary and secondary emotions—the clinical definitions are too nebulous to be a helpful template. In the context of fiction writing, whether an emotion is a primary or secondary emotion has more to do with what’s fueling the emotion.

Anger is almost always a secondary emotion—we’re angry because of/or in response to something.

But take attraction for instance; this can an instinctive response the character has no control over (a primary emotion), but it can also be a feeling that develops over time with familiarity (a secondary emotion). Thinking of emotions this way ensures the WHY is built-in for readers.

What Is An Emotional Trigger?

An emotional trigger, then, is a rehearsed or learned response to a known emotional scenario. Triggers skip the primary emotion phase and jump right to an over-the-top secondary emotion.

For example, your character spills mustard on their shirt. They may recall their dad berating them for having a stain on their shirt and shouting that they’re lazy. Instead of feeling frustrated or annoyed initially (which might be the case without an emotional trigger at play), they’re instantly over-the-top angry. The character’s response then may be to lash out at the hot-dog vendor, their secretary, or a passerby who startled them.

It isn’t that the primary emotions aren’t there; it’s that your character may not even be aware of WHY they’re reacting so strongly. The key to writing compelling emotional triggers is tiny bits of backstory dripped in. Over time, when a pattern is established in addition to the bits of backstory, the reader will be able to piece together what the trigger is. The reader will lean in, engage, participate in the story to figure out what’s going on with this character they care about.

Triggers Are Often Tied to Your Character’s Perceived Source of Identity

What does your character pride themselves on having, being, doing, possessing, needing, controlling, etc.? Do they rest their identity in any of these things? What does your character value most and fears having taken away?

Some common ones are: acceptance, respect, being liked, being needed, freedom, attention, being in control, autonomy, safety, etc.

How to Show and Not Tell an Emotional Trigger

Primary emotions are usually felt, and secondary emotions are usually seen. How does that work with emotional triggers when the character might not know what primary emotion is at play?

Eliza has shipped the kids off to Grandma’s for the night and gotten dressed up—as a surprise. But hubs is two hours later coming home than normal, without answering texts, emails, or phone calls to explain the delay.

By 7PM, Eliza has changed out of the sexy outfit she’d been wearing into a terry bathrobe. Without an emotional trigger, you might show primary emotions like frustration (feeling taken for granted), concern (did something happen at work), fear (was he in an accident), and/or jealousy (was there another woman). 

But if Eliza had an emotional trigger of say … feeling taken for granted, once he arrived home and admitted he’d forgotten to text her and then forgotten his phone at his desk—she wouldn’t be aware of any of those primary emotions and instead be instantly angry (feeling taken for granted acts as the primary emotion in this case, though she might not be aware of it).

The secondary emotion triggered will be very strong; these emotions can’t simply be shaken off or soothed. She might rail or shout at him that he doesn’t love her. No one loves her. She might think that her marriage is over. She might level irrational or left-field accusations at him—"You think I’m ugly. "

Ahhhh—do you see what I did there? Either she says these things or thinks these things, but do you see the hints there at what the primary emotions involved are, what the threatened identity or fears involved might be? This is how you make triggers work in deep POV.

What Do Other Characters Observe?

These night-and-day emotional hairpin turns are observable. They seem to come out of nowhere. One workaround, if the character wouldn’t organically THINK of what the trigger is, is to have another character point out the irrational behavior or inconsistent response.

The husband could put up his hands. “Hang on! What’s the big deal? I’m sorry I ruined your surprise, but it’s only seven o’clock. We can still have your romantic evening.”

Another character can observe that this behavior isn’t normal, it is over-the-top for that character, or their reaction isn’t fair or is irrational. The character themselves might be aware of those things, so you could use internal dialogue, even if they feel unable to stop or temper their emotional reaction.

Have you used emotional triggers in your fiction or has this post made you want to use them?

Make sure to visit Lisa’s free Facebook group Going Deeper Writing Emotions for tips, free content, and other goodies.

About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels. Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com

7 responses to “How to Write Compelling Emotional Triggers”

  1. Lisa Wilson says:

    Thanks for having me again!

  2. ecellenb says:

    Great post!
    I've used emotional triggers while writing fiction but didn't think about what I'd done until reading your post.
    When I ponder primary emotions I immediately think of fear, which drives a lot of secondary emotions depending on the fear. Interesting!

  3. drjohnnd says:

    Great article- there seems to be a lot of emotional triggering these days!!

  4. littlemissw says:

    I really struggle with emotional triggers. This article was very helpful.

Leave a Reply to littlemissw Cancel reply

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