Guest Post Time! Introducing Charlee Allden, writer of the fantastic Arena Dogs series! Take it away, Charlee!
Authors know that emotion is the key to engaging readers in the story, but we’re often urged to trim backstory and inner dialogue and focus on driving the story forward. Let’s look at six practical tips to get that critical emotion on the page without bogging down your story.
Let Your Compelling Emotional Premise Be Your Guide
The very first thing you need is a compelling and emotional premise. Not talking about the plot here (a tough New York cop thwarts the terrorists holding hostages in a high rise building in LA) but the driving emotion (an estranged couple rediscovers the strength of their love when the building they are in is taken over by terrorists). Those both describe the movie Die Hard, but which is more emotionally compelling? The emotional weight of your story is generated by the perceived personal stakes for the characters in your story. The key is focusing on the personal rather than the external. The personal stakes for a historical heroine who finds herself pregnant and unwed will be higher than a hero who is tracking down an ancient artifact in a thriller, unless of course, you add some higher personal stakes for him as well. Once you figure out the emotional premise of your story, you can use that to add emotional weight to every scene.
Tap Into Universal Emotions
Help your readers identify with your characters by tapping into universal emotions. While we don’t all have the same experiences as our characters, the emotions behind many experiences are universal – there is some element that nearly everyone can recognize. Readers identify with the emotion, because they’ve felt something similar. For example, maybe someone hasn’t experienced the loss of a child — but they’ve probably experienced loss at some point in their life. Maybe a divorce or the loss of a parent. As a writer, you’ve experienced these deeply universal emotions; heartache, joy, terror. Use that connection to help you get your character’s emotions on the page in an authentic way for your reader to experience. Tapping into universal emotions can help you tie into whatever your character is feeling in any given scene, on any given page of your manuscript.
Let the Personal Stakes Determine When and How You Show and Tell
Writing teachers often set showing versus telling as if you must choose one over the other. I prefer to you the conjunction “and” instead, to clarify that you will use both in your writing. It’s just a matter of knowing when to choose each and how to best execute the method you’ve chosen in that instance. Showing readers describes what is going on externally and internally and allows readers to experience the story with the character. It allows time for sensory detail and for coloring your prose with emotion. Showing, when done well, is more engaging, more vivid. Telling gives readers information quickly and efficiently.
When choosing which technique is beast for a scene or moment within a scene, consider what’s at stake. If a scene is the transition from one scene to another and the stakes are low, then telling might work best. There are times that telling is needed to move the story along. If there are high personal stakes in the scene, such as a scene with a woman hiding from a killer in the woods, you would choose to show. Showing would allow you to make use of sensory details, visceral responses (pounding heart, pulse racing, mouth dry) and body language to allow the reader to experience the scene with the character.
Character Perspective, Make it Personal
Now, let’s take things from universal emotion to something more personal. While there are things about emotions that are universal – we’ve all been happy, sad, confused, heart-broken, ecstatic, scared, and so forth – the way we experience and express those emotions vary widely from person to person. So when you’re putting emotion on the page, think carefully about how this specific character would react. This means getting a handle on your character’s perspective.
When facing a killer, one terrified character might crouch in a shadowed corner while another might be standing on the balls of his feet, ready to spring into action. Both are afraid, but they react to their fear differently. It depends on the individual characters as well as their personal motivation and conflict. If you show your character’s emotion in a way that is consistent with their individuality, the reader is more likely to buy into the emotion.
Do it with Dialogue Tags and Descriptive Beats
My next tip involves dialogue tags and descriptive beats. If you need to add emotions in a scene that is built on dialogue, you can easily add it to these workhorse tools. Show how a character reacts to what’s being said. Often this type of beat or tag is crucial to the interpretation of a characters words. In the example below, notice the husband’s reaction as shown through descriptive beats and body language. Is he devastated by the loss of a child or playing the blame game? Try reading it without the dialog – just reading tags – to see if the emotion is clear even without the words.
Excerpt from Night Sins, Tami Hoag, pg 67-68
“We had an emergency at the hospital,” she said softly, her eyes on her husband’s. “I was late picking up Josh. I had Carol call the rink to leave word, but when I got there he was gone. I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find him. The police are out looking now.”
Paul’s face hardened. He sat up, shoulder’s squared. “You forgot our son?” he said, his voice as sharp as a blade.
“Christ,” he swore, pushing to his feet. “That damned job is more important to you-“
“I’m a doctor! A woman was dying!”
“And now some lunatic has made off with our son!”
“You don’t know that!” Hannah cried, hating him for voicing her fears.
“Then where is he?” Paul shouted, bracing his hands on the table top and leaning across into her face.
Choose Your Words with Intent
My final tip deals with word choice. One word can pack a big punch. Remember, you’re trying to create a scene that’s so vivid, your readers can imagine themselves inside it, living it alongside your characters. So choose your words wisely. Dynamic words provide a sense of action. They’re more specific, and can pack together several different sensory impressions. So, rather than telling us your heroine hurried down the hall, why not say she strode, trudged, or raced? Each of these choices convey a different emotion to illustrate what the character is feeling as she moves from one end of the hall to the other. Sometimes word choice is about writing fresh. It can be about using one surprising and information packed word or adding fresh and creative descriptive phrases that drag the reader deeper into the scene.
Before I go, I’d like to remind you that, while these techniques have worked for me, there is no one right way. I hope you’ve found new things you can use, but I also encourage you to use what works for you and set aside the rest. Ultimately, I think you’ll find that balancing emotion and pacing will deliver the emotional impact your story needs to keep readers turning pages and push a scene or novel beyond competent to unforgettable.
Note: This post is based on parts of a workshop I present with fellow writer Priscilla Oliveras. She is a great writer and a wonderful resource for learning to write romance. You can find her at: http://prisoliveras.com/.
Charlee Allden writes sexy sci-fi romance and is a writing craft geek. She love to talk about either, so get in touch with her through www.charleeallden.com or on facebook at www.facebook.com\CharleeAlldenAuthor.