Other Pages To See...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Writing BIG Emotions

The manuscript I'm working on is packed with big emotion. By big, I mean the kinds of emotions that result from heartbreak, betrayal, rage, mortal danger, and all-consuming love. This is a good thing, right? The more emotion we can pour into our writing, the more we connect with our reader. And that's the goal. A story that touches a reader's emotions on a personal level is one they will likely remember.

In the prologue, a traumatic event alters the course of the hero's and heroine's lives forever and sets the stage for the rest of the story. Great! The emotions taking place there are raw and primal. The conflict separating them seems insurmountable. Even better! The rest of the story should write itself.

The question is, how do we get these big emotions on the page in a way that has the most impact? How do we "show" the emotion without going into long descriptive passages about how the character is feeling?

Yes, there's the rub.

In the prologue, my hero's life (to that point) and even his love is being ripped away from him. I keep going back to two paragraphs in particular, at the point where hero realizes what's being done to him. And I ask myself, "What is he thinking here? What's he feeling?" I know I need to have something more than him just sitting there listening while the rug of his life is being jerked out from under him. But what? I know that too much description can actually rob the moment of its impact and immediacy. Anything, if it's overly described, turns into "telling." When that happens, the emotional connection with the reader is broken. At times like this, I remember something Mary Morrow taught me long ago -- "Less is more." But sometimes I worry that less is not enough. I want the reader to "get" the depth of emotion the character is experiencing, but how do I accomplish that without beating her over the head with a lot of descriptives?

I guess this is where our writer's instincts come into play (and I'm beginning to think I may have been at the end of the line when they passed those out). Also, it doesn't hurt to have someone read the scene in question and point out where more emotion is needed. I remember getting pages back from a crit partner (helloooo, Jan) that had, "But what is she feeling here?" written all over them. Since then, I've been very conscious of "Where's the Emotion?" and I'm always afraid I haven't done enough. I think every writer's style is different when it comes to this and what works for one may not necessarily work for another.

How about you? Is your preference more for -- Hero stared at the man before him, stunned, disbelieving. His heart pounded faster. This couldn't be happening. Not now. He'd worked too hard, had too much on the line. etc. etc.

Or...do you go more for the short and to the point -- Hero knew he'd been had. (and wait until a break in the action to clue in Hero's physical reactions and internal dialogue)

In your opinion, which is the most effective and why?

Happy writing!



  1. Devon, check out this web site for some excellent examples of emotion. http://www.margielawson.com/

    She's teaching a new class May/June that I'm going to take. I'm so tired of the cliche visceral responses that I right that SHOW the emotion -- her heart thudded in her chest -- that kind of thing. I want to dig deeper and find a better way of showing emotion.

  2. Devon, of your two options, I think I'd choose the first.

  3. I tend to lean towards the more action oriented. It's fine for him to think internally a little bit, but showing is better.

  4. Jan, thanks for the link! I went to the site but didn't see any examples. Only saw the list of workshops.

    All the pounding heart stuff really came home to me when I went through an entire ms. and tried to layer in more emotion. There's only so many ways to "show" it, only so many ways the body can react. If there are other ways to show emotion without just flat out telling what the character is feeling, I'd like to know about it.

    It does get really tiresome and I rack my brain sometimes trying to come up with some kind of visceral reaction that I haven't already written the paragraph before. It gets even tougher if you have a lot of fright and action scenes.

    Hope you learn something helpful from the class. I can't help thinking about that "Don't Bleed in the Water" class we took. Honestly, that's the only thing I retained from it, don't even remember what the class was supposed to be about.

  5. Jennifer, I like the quick snapshot, too. A brief line that says it in a nutshell. These can be so effective and make a big impact on the reader with just a few words. It's kind of like "scene and sequel." The brief descriptives while the action is occurring, then later the more in-depth internal dialogue to let the reader know exactly how the character was affected. Yes, we have to dig around inside the character's head *while* the action is taking place, but I tend to carry on with it too long sometimes so I'm making an effort to keep it brief, then add more later if it's needed. I sometimes can't judge unless I let it get cold and then go back and read it.

    The problem I have with trying to show the emotion while the character is in the moment is exactly what Jan referred to. There's only so many visceral reactions and they start sounding soooo repetitive.

  6. Magdalena, I like the more descriptive paragraph, too. (it's kinda nice, even if I do say so myself ;o) The only problem I have with it is, where do I go from there? I'll fess up. The brief one-liner is the one I have in my ms. It actually reads -- Trey knew he'd been had. I got rid of the more descriptive paragraph because the tension, his anger, his disbelief at what's happening continue to escalate as the scene progresses. There was no way you could know that from my post, but that's what happens. I'm such a putz. But you see now where I'm going with this. How do we keep building on the emotion? What kind of terms can we put it in that go deeper, show more pain, than the same ole, same ole racing heart and kick in the gut (one I greatly overuse).

  7. Hey Devon! I haven't caught up on my blog reading for a few days, but I wanted to tell you something exciting! I ordered a Kindle this week... and the first book I downloaded to it was "Angel in the Rain"!

    I started reading last night, and even tried the feature where the Kindle will read it to me, sort of like an audio book!!!


  8. Wow, Amy! Congrats on the Kindle! I've heard about the audio capability on the new one. Please do a blog at some point and tell us about that. I just can't imagine.

    And THANK YOU for downloading Angel. I'm honored to be your first! I know you're not a big fan of westerns, so that makes it doubly nice. :o)


Welcome to Romance in the Wild West! I love to hear from you so feel free to leave me a comment.