May 27th, 2013

WriterStrong – Getting Fresh Emotion on the Page

By Laura Drake

Cover - The Sweet SpotNormally I’d be too nervous to claim a WriterStrong post, but today I’m emboldened by my debut release. After fifteen years of work, tomorrow, I become a real live author at last!

I want to celebrate with my WITS buds by giving away The Sweet Spot to two random commenters. Stop back; we’ll announce the winners on Wednesday’s post!

My goal is to learn something about craft with every new book I write. The Sweet Spot was my lesson in portraying emotion. All I can say is, thank the writing Gods for Margie Lawson. I knew what I wanted to say before her classes, but didn’t know how to get it on the page.

We’ve all read the usual heart-pounding, stomach churning, blah, blah, blah emotion. It invites skimming by the reader, because we’ve seen it all before. In fact, we’ve seen it so often that it can be considered cliché. It’s also almost ‘telling.’

If we’re not feeling the emotion in a deep POV, then the author is ‘telling’ us, right? It’s lazy writing.

Hey, I’m guilty of it too.

When I find one of those in my writing, I make myself stop, close my eyes, and put myself in the character’s situation. I actually picture the scene happening to me. Then I note what I’m feeling. Here’s a few examples from The Sweet Spot:

  • The homing beacon in the Valium bottle next to the sink tugged at her insides.
  • He hadn’t heard that delighted, tinkling sound in over a year. It slammed into his chest like a fist. Who made her laugh again?
  • She understood then, saw clearly the fork in the river, but in the, churning current, sinuous shapes slid past, baring teeth. Hungry, guilt-tipped teeth. Petrified to numb cowardice, she let him leave, and floated away on her life raft of Valium.
  • She felt around the edges of her mind. She’d forgotten something. Something important. It barreled from a tunnel and slammed her to reality. The hollowness in her chest made her gasp and she hugged herself, afraid she would implode.  Benje is gone


Have you ever read a character’s emotion that is so real — said in a way that you’ve never read before? One that makes you think — That’s just what it feels like!

One of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult, does this many times a book. There’s a reason she’s NYT – with every single release. It’s a lofty goal, but one worth striving for.

  • Agitation amped until a fine hum of electricity ran right under his skin, making him want to jump out of it.
  • Her chest spasmed like a fibrillating heart; having forgotten the skill of breathing.
  • Did she dare trust that softened spot on her freezer-burned heart?
  • Oh, she’d been mad at Jimmy, plenty mad. In the beginning. But after the initial rush of words, the mad was gone, just like that. As if the anger were a heavy bucket of water she’d toted around; she’d gotten used to its weight. Apparently there’d been a hole in the bottom, and the anger had leaked out the past year, unnoticed. Now, without it, she felt kind of . . . naked.
  • Hands busy, he shot her his, “I-may-be-wrong-but-I’m-not-admitting-anything” look.


Sometimes the most powerful description does not mention the emotion itself. The author trusts that the reader will get it.  It’s like a scary movie; your mind conjures scarier things than the cameraman could ever show you. Try this in a black moment, or a key turning-point scene.  It’s subtle, and can be powerful.

  • Myfaultmyfaultmyfaultmyfault. The taunting litany chided her as she groped her purse for her keys. Finding them, she dropped the purse, scattering former essentials of her life onto the cement floor. After a few fitful tries, her shaking hands managed the lock.
  • Hearing a rapid tapping, she looked down to see her foot bouncing on the bleacher. She made it stop.
  • She muttered, staring at the login screen for their accounting software. Password? She tapped in the first number that occurred to her, the date of their anniversary. The program popped open to the business checking account. A single, sparkly bubble rose from the depth of her mind. “Nobody changes those things once they set them.” The bubble popped.

Short and pithy:

You can give flavor of genre or your story world with short succinct descriptions. They showcase your voice. Done well, they can ‘show’ the reader the mood in just a few words. Capture it, and your reader will be in the scene.

  • A strange calm radiated from her chest to fill her body, a liquid balm that cooled her hot skin and stilled the roar in her head. Sounds came to her; the drone of a lone cicada and the soft burble of water as it tumbled over rocks in the river’s bend.
  • Stetsoned cowboys strutted around glittery ladies in a barroom mating dance. The females flitted and flirted, choosing their mates for the evening.
  • Bella wore the black faux leather like chain mail.

So, what do you think? Have you ever tried any of these to get the emotion on the page? I’d love to see some of yours posted in the comments!

49 comments to WriterStrong – Getting Fresh Emotion on the Page