Emotion in Writing

What is the Greatest Commandment of Writing?

The Greatest Commandment is a rule so important that you should break other rules, if it helps you keep this one “Prime Directive.” There really is one rule to rule them all, and its source lies in emotions.

“The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.” – Michael Hague

This is close to the Prime Directive, but there’s still more to it: Which emotions are most important to writers? Emotions are like colors, with an unlimited variation in hue, saturation, and brightness. Dr. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is an example.

According to Dr. Hugo Lövheim, the master “color palette” of emotions is primarily made up of three brain chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, grouped under the intimidating name of monoamine neurotransmitters. Dr. Lövheim arranged these as three dimensions of a cube (the “Lövheim Cube of Emotion”). His cube only listed a few emotions. I put them in a chart to accommodate more emotions. If some are in the wrong place the error is mine, not his.

Lövheim Cube of Emotion

Dopamine is at the root of habits and addictions to substances such as crack cocaine. This neurotransmitter ramps up when we are awaiting a call from a lover, plotting revenge, or listening to a clock tick toward a dreaded deadline. Authors can also raise their readers’ dopamine level with vivid scenes of enticing vices, forbidden fruit, or the call of the unknown. The top half of the chart lists high dopamine emotions.

Serotonin has to do with how we feel. If serotonin is high, we feel good, and if it’s low, we feel bad. High levels are associated with well being, happiness, self-confidence, inner strength, and satisfaction. Some theorists divide emotions into pain and pleasure (Mowrer), or happiness and sadness (Weiner).

“As far as the concept of emotion in general is concerned, the defining feature that we consider most reasonable and least contentious is that the appraisal underlying the emotion be valenced, either positively or negatively.” – Dr. Andrew Ortony

The chart is split down the middle, with low serotonin on the left and high on the right.

Noradrenaline, also called norepinephrine, gets our hearts pumping for fight or flight, even standing on the bleachers screaming at our team. What matters for writers is that adrenaline enhances memory, and a surprise or shock can create a “flashbulb memory.” Alternating rows of the chart have high/low noradrenaline emotions.

Since this essay is for writers, the chart favors adjectives over nouns and includes synonyms, as well as colorful words that don’t even have emotion as the primary meaning. The duality of some words prevented any satisfactory placement on the chart. Nostalgia is a happy memory of something lost, which is sad. We can be both hurt and angry about being neglected, violated, debased, degraded, victimized, or abused. Sympathy and pity mean we feel sorry for someone else, usually because our own situation is much better.

Much of what would pass for comedy I put in the lower right corner of the chart, which may be surprising, but consider this:

“The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” – Mark Twain

Dark Side: Low Serotonin

Dead Zone: Flat serotonin

Sunny Side: High Serotonin

High Dopamine, High

anger upset hate
bitter furious tense rage frustrated hatred resentment jealous annoyed
betrayed impatient irritated pissed dissatisfied outraged agitated
exasperated resentful indignant sullen spite insulted incensed loathing
envious grumpy scorned livid petulant sulky vengeful wronged miffed cranky
mistreated slighted unappreciated testy

determination serious engaged
“I’m busy”

enthusiasm desire passion
courage excited triumph lively cheerful amused jolly anticipation fascinated
lust arousal zeal ecstatic transcendent eager playful impulsive exuberant
zest expectant glee adoration overjoyed gaiety entranced enthralled jubilant
jovial giddy infatuation rapture bewitched spellbound euphoric exhilarated
mesmerized enraptured

High Dopamine, Low Noradrenalin

fear concerned
doubt stress worried threatened nervous anxiety desperate reluctant terror
suspicious troubled defensive shy terrified uneasy unsure dread desperation
apprehension distrust paranoid timid hesitant unsettled intimidated suspense
aversion flustered petrified disconcerted perturbed foreboding unnerved angst
conflicted jumpy fretful

interest confused
puzzled curious calculating thoughtful bewildered intrigued baffled bemused
contemplative perplexed befuddled “I don’t know”

love hope happy
trust warm content pleased encouraged secure friendly comfortable glad
satisfied confident proud calm acceptance grateful relaxed caring inspired
tender peaceful appreciated belonging affection optimistic enjoyment sunny
admiration generosity familiarity sentimental bliss thankful mellow serene

Low Dopamine, High Noradrenalin

shock disappointed
panic crushed stunned alarmed horrified overwhelmed distressed devastated
appalled dismayed anguish hysterical stricken distraught aghast

disbelief startled
astonished incredulous dumbfounded “I don’t believe it!”

surprise relief wonder
touched discovery delighted amazed revelation realization merry awe thrilled
enchanted dazzled elated epiphany

Low Dopamine , Low Noradrenalin

pain lost alone
sorry broken empty hurt rejected sad isolated vulnerable inadequate resigned
ashamed defeated guilt depressed trapped regret despair embarrassed grief
useless miserable helpless insignificant disillusioned brooding moody humiliated
desolate adrift forlorn wistful heartbroken disenchanted mortified

boredom bored detached
indifferent distracted ambivalent apathy numb aloof disconnected
disinterested skeptical “I don’t care”

contempt dislike superiority
disgust disapproval distaste scorn smug disdain sardonic revulsion repulsed
self-satisfied gloating snobby schadenfreude
“Jackass the Movie,” crude comedies and cackling villains


Consider “information dumps,” for example. Dumps answer questions instead of raising them, so they don’t raise dopamine. We need to start a story by making people curious, not satisfying their curiosity. Dumps give people information, but they neither build empathy nor make people feel either good or bad, so serotonin stays neutral. Dumps are never exciting, so noradrenalin will be low. Consult the chart to see the emotions for low dopamine, neutral serotonin, and low noradrenalin (middle column, bottom row).

Here are my top rules:

1. Raise Dopamine. This is the greatest commandment. Use dopamine to make readers addicted to your writing. Soak them in the anticipation of experiences yet to come.

“When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term?” – Andrew Stanton

That’s the key to raising dopamine. With dopamine, readers will forego sleep and stay up all night reading to see what happens next. Without it, the reader will close the book at the end of a chapter, set it on the nightstand, and never pick it up again. Look at the top rows of the chart to see what emotions are associated with high dopamine.

2. Avoid the Serotonin Dead Zone. Look at the middle column. None of the feelings here are as strong as the ones on either side. It’s dangerous territory when readers are bored, confused, or have lost their “willing suspension of disbelief.”

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” – Mark Twain

Whether you’re writing setting, dialogue, or action, use it to build emotion. Every. Single. Page.

“To be quite honest—content, I’m not interested in. I don’t give a damn about what the film’s about. I’m more interested in how to handle the material to create an emotion in an audience.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“Probably the greatest story commandment … is “Make me care” – please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.” – Andrew Stanton

“Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is, but make damn sure he or she feels something. The stronger, the better.” – William M. Akers

3. Give readers a noradrenalin fix. A story needs exciting, high adrenaline moments to be memorable. You don’t need or even want to have high adrenaline all the time. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) advised using a “scene and sequel” technique, whereby a high adrenaline disaster scene is followed by a low adrenaline reflection sequel.

4. The harder and more frequent the unexpected reversal, the wilder the roller coaster ride. Putting our highs and lows close together makes each feel more extreme. A “dark night of the soul,” or black moment (lower left corner) is necessary to make a great triumph.

If you can’t recall all of the above rules, then just remember the first and greatest one — choose emotions to make your readers obsessed with finding out what happens in the next chapter. More concisely — raise dopamine and they’ll never want to put your book down.


Akers, William M. (2008) Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great.

Hague, Michael (2006) Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.

Hitchcock, Alfred (Link is to the second in a 40 day series on emotion in screenwriting by Scott W. Smith).

Lövheim H. A new three-dimensional model for emotions and monoamine neurotransmitters. (2012). Med Hypotheses, 78, 341-348

Lövheim cube of emotion

Mowrer, O. H. (1960). Learning theory and behavior. New York: Wiley.

Ortony, A. & Turner, T.J. (1990).  What’s basic about basic emotions?  Psychological Review, 97(3), 315-331.

Plutchik, Robert (1980), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion 1, New York: Academic Press.

Stanton, Andrew. The clues to a great story.

Weiner, B., & Graham, S. (1984). An attributional approach to emotional development. In C. E. Izard, J. Kagan, & R. B. Zajonc (Eds.), Emotions, cognition, and behavior (pp. 167-191). New York: Cambridge University Press.