Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 24, 2012

Too Quick To Tears: Emotional Timing Is Everything

A Big Writers in the Storm Welcome for Our Guest Blogger today, Tiffany Lawson Inman (also known as NakedEditor). 

Mark your calendars because Tiffany will be sharing her knowledge with us the last Friday of every month, starting TODAY!  Yeah!


            Writers are always told to show, show, show!

            SHOW emotion.

            SHOW visceral reactions.

            SHOW emotive body language.

But we aren’t always taught when or how much. This is almost MORE important than the showing itself.

Have you ever read a book where the characters are too quick to tears? Or they are too quick moving from decision to decision. Was it believable? More importantly, did it keep you interested?  Readers need to marvel at the character’s ability to stay strong. And readers need reasons to root for their character. Who is going to root for the crying-at-every-challenge character in the corner?


Can you imagine if Scarlet cried buckets after every obstacle thrown in her way in Gone With The Wind?  In Hunger Games, what if Katniss made the decision to save her sister and then proceeded to cry when anyone mentions her home, family, or sisters.  If we wrote our characters like this, readers wouldn’t have characters to root for.  Let alone, a plot worth its dramatic weight in publication gold.

It’s a thin line to walk when thinking about your characters. So many of life’s elements test our strength and push vulnerabilities.

  • Frustration
  • Love
  • Loss
  • Guilt
  • Hate
  • Death
  • Happiness
  • Panic
  • Jealousy
  • Fear
  • Embarrassment

These are the very tools we use to create drama.  And yet if we let them rule, our go-to reaction is usually to cry.  So, when is the right moment to let the flood gates open?

When your character has done everything BUT cry.  Of course it is different with each character, plot, and genre – especially YA,  yadda yadda.  I am saying for you to let us see the struggles, up hills, smacks in the face, and bombs.  And let us watch your character flounder a bit before the first tear rolls down that cheek.

In the theatre, actors are told that the more a character fights the tears back, the further in your audience will be drawn. Actors are told that if they allow their characters to burst into tears during a dramatic scene the audience won’t be crying or emoting as much as when they get to watch the character battle the obstacle and finally be broken by it.  My director would say he didn’t want to see me cry, he wanted to see me try not to cry, it was more interesting.

And, turns out, he was right (of course he was right, he’s being nominated for Tony’s!)

Theatre and literature are very similar. 

Actors, writers, directors are pushing characters to the breaking point, page after page. Scene after scene. We can’t afford for them to be boohooing when they rip their trousers at the school dance, or at the sight of their dead brother when a killer is on the loose.

Can we?

No – we need them to act! What we don’t need is to see every single thought or feeling that goes through their head.

How much emotion should we show? Depends on where you are in the characters' struggles. Depends on where you are in the plot. One variable that is always the same: your readers want to have an experience.  So let the reader put the puzzle pieces together. Show your characters emotions through their actions, reactions, body language, and vocal cues. No spoon feeding allowed.  You can show sorrow without putting a whole heart on the table.

I’m a big list person when it comes to plotting, editing, characterizations, setting, etc.  Usually these lists start out with questions and end up with fleshed out details to plunk into your drafts.   It’s no different with emotional timing.

First. List your all of your characters obstacles from big to small. Or list them like the Thai place labels their curry  *wink wink*

  • Lost keys = timid
  • Lost job = mild to medium
  • Lost love and betrayal = medium to hot (depending on the extent of betrayal and who it was with)
  • Loss of loved one = medium to hot (depends on how death occurred)
  • Lost security: kidnapping, torture, battle between good and evil = hot to sweaty forehead hot
  • Loss of humanity: bombs, apocalypse, war = sweaty forehead hot to loss of sensation in tongue hot

Second. Look at your plot line.  Place the obstacle on the plot line. Now start asking yourself questions.  You might get an answer that makes you challenge where the obstacle is in the plot, or what it is.

  • How strong or how vulnerable is your character after each obstacle?
  • Where in the plot is it feasible that your character would have a breaking point?
  • Do you think it will deepen characterization and intrigue if your character is shown to become stronger after one of those obstacles?
  • Do you need to teach your character a lesson early in the plot so that they are better prepared to handle the obstacle towards the end?
  • Does what you are showing from the character strengthening the reader’s connection with that character?  Does the event invite sympathy? Or does it throw up a wall?
  • Are your characters reactions consistent with their character and each situation? (keep in mind with YA, this is a whole different ball of wax…)

I bet some of you are rethinking those tears in your third chapter, am I right?  Well, my intention was not for you to rewrite your WIP, but if these questions prod you to create a more realistic emotional timeline that gets you closer to publication, then I have succeeded!

Tell us a few of your life or character obstacles and how you chose to show the emotions to your readers.  Did some of the reactions catch you off guard? Or, just say hi!

Comment below and your name will be in the hat to win a free spot in one of my online classes offered through Lawson Writer’s Academy.

77 Secrets To Writing YA Fiction That Sells!  OR  From Madness To Method

Thank you so much for popping over to WITS today!  It’s an honor to be here.  In fact, I’m going to be honored to be here the last Friday of Every Month on WITS!  So, come back!  MUCH more to learn!

About Tiffany:

Tiffany Lawson Inman (NakedEditor) claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. Here, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. She teaches for Lawson Writer’s Academy and presents hands-on-action workshops. As a freelance editor, she provides story analysis and editing services.

For more writing/editing  tips n’ tricks: http://tiffanylawsoninmanisnakededitor.com/

0 comments on “Too Quick To Tears: Emotional Timing Is Everything”

  1. Great post, Tiffany! It's true,I'm going to have to go back and check that first point of tears. I love your director's point--we want to see how they try not to cry! Exactly. A Lawson class would be awesome. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Excellent post. Tears should always be a last resort I think. Rarely in real life do we cry--our situations must be extreme. And so it should be for our characters!

    I'm in Tiffany's Triple Threat Behind Staging a Scene class right now and vouch for how awesome it is! Definitely check out her classes and take your writing to the next level. 🙂 Thanks for the contest and looking forward to more posts by you Tiffany!

    1. Thank YOU Angela!

      I am lucky to have your talent in my class 🙂 Now if you just lived a bit closer, we could go grab some tea and talk shop! OR you could come to an In The Flesh Workshop!

      Got one coming up this summer....Colorado is beautiful...less oxygen makes for better writing!

      Alright, I may have fibbed on that last bit.

  3. My in laws were actors and my mother in law would say, if you cry on stage, the audience doesn't have to.
    Let the reader weep while your character suffers.

    Excellent post.

  4. "In the theatre, actors are told that the more a character fights the tears back, the further in your audience will be drawn."

    That really put it in perspective to me. I'm a person that tears up with anger (HATE that), so I have to watch my characters and remember they aren't me. This is a great checklist to go by. Thanks!

  5. Sandy, I love your mother-in-law's advice! And the Yoda-isms & quotes! Cool stuff on a Friday morning!
    When it comes to crying, I think I may have the opposite problem~I write with a lot of action/adventue and I think sometimes I forget to show some emotional reactions to situations (beyond frustration, that is). Something to keep in mind during editing!

    Thanks Tiffany & WITS!

    ~Roni Lynne
    YA Adventures in the Paranormal...and Beyond!

  6. Oh, am I glad I read this before my next scene, Tiffany! You're right - your character fighting tears, when the reader knows she would be bubblering by that point, makes a character NO ONE can put down! Thanks so much for this!

  7. Are you crying? There's no crying. There's no crying in baseball!

    Sorry, had to get that out of my system. Great post! I love Sandy's comment. I think I'm going to tape that to my computer. "Let the reader weep while your character suffers." Love it! I want a hoodie. : )

  8. What a great idea Tiffany to put all the crises in order, then check for intensity. I so need to do this. Sometimes I'm so intent on ramping up that moment, getting my characters feelings amplified that I need to back off and realize that amplification might be too much for that chapter. Add another element to the checklist, check for escalating emotion!.Check!

    1. Sorry WITS, got kicked out of comments AGAIN. Tiffany, I am so glad you will be here each Friday. What a wonderful gift to all us regular readers.

      Most of my stories are about NYC women, and although I am sure people in the rest of the country may not agree, there is a certain element of toughness in us die-hard New Yorkers. A subway strike the day after New Year? Thousands walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to work. A major snow storm? Get out the cross country skis you never used and glide to work. Newspaper strikes? Someone can read you the news over the radio. It has to translate to the way a woman might react to divorce, lost opportunity, fear ... how would she approach a mystery? Thanks, this marvelous blueprint can help me even more to show the reluctance of my characters to give in to emotion. After all, if she can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in frigit cold, she can hold off the tears for a while 🙂

      1. There is a certain toughness that all city dwellers grow on their skin. I think it takes about a year to adjust to that city mutation. 🙂

        Thanks! That's a good thing to think about with any character's environment.
        Yeay - a regular reader - that means you will be regularly reading my guest blogs on the last Friday of the month, eh? Neato!

    2. Bingo! Crack open any Carson McCullers story and you will see that she is showing you an active story in such a way that the reader can't help but feel for those characters. Tissues are for the reader NOT the characters! CHECK.

  9. Great guidelines! I'm in the process of reacquainting myself with my WIP since the planning, plotting, characterization stage last fall. I'm going to add this step before I begin drafting. Thank you 🙂

  10. This is a great concept to keep in mind. My protagonist starts out as a naive, love sick teenager and throughout her adventures she grows more self assured and mature. My problem is keeping it all consistent. I think I'll try mapping out a plotline with key events and see where I can safely have her break down into crazy tears 🙂

    1. Carrie - teenagers are different! YA's are different. There is another kind of emotional line you need to draw for your characters and THOSE readers.

      What kind of line? You'll have to take my April YA class and find out 🙂 I can't share EVERYTHING in my blog! teeheee!

  11. Really good thoughts, and timely too. I am rewriting my WIP for the fifth time in as many months, and this time my protag is much stronger, but she is also in the roughest place in her life, possibly ever (until the conclusion). So she's got some serious emotions. That said, looking over this, I think I may be laying it on a little too thick. After all, she's puked, cried, sobbed, puked again and passed out and I'm only at chapter three. (Mind you she is still acting and moving forward throughout, but, ya know..)
    I obviously can't keep up this level of emotional response - she'll be dead of sheer exhaustion by chapter 4, so yes, I do need to scale it back, save a little emotional juice for later.
    I also love your (and your director's) comment that no one wants to see you cry, they want to see you trying not to cry - it's not only more interesting as you both point out, it's also more powerful in the end.
    Well done, great food for thought.

    1. HOLY EMOTIONS! crying and puking and passing out all before Chapter 4? WOW! I can't wait to read it!

      Yes, spread out that emotional juice. We start out with only so much, however, there is opportunity to recharge.
      I don't know what your WIP is about, so I can't say for sure. But ON OCCASION there is that one story out there that warrants ALL of that emotion. You have to be absolutely positive that your story fits. And be careful how you show it to the reader. Let the reader take some of the emotional heat off of your character and your character might be able to endure more! But please, no more puking 🙂

      Thanks for popping over here Bree! Maybe sometime I'll get to peep at your writing?

      1. Tiffany - absolutely. Just have to get this re-write done and then I'll be sharing with anyone who wants to take a gander at it!! May in the tipi at the very latest 😉

  12. Tiffany --

    You are sooooo smart! And I'm not just sayin' that because we share DNA. 🙂


    In my EDITS System, tears aren't considered a visceral response unless they're accompanied by at least one strong visceral response, heart and/or respiration. I recommend nixing most tears and showing emotion with other visceral responses and the full range of body language.

    TIFFANY -- You provided the reason WHY having a character cry does not strengthen a scene.

    Smart. Smart. Smart!

    I'm glad I get to claim you as my daughter! And I'm glad you're teaching for Lawson Writer's Academy too. 🙂

  13. Thanks for the tips. I think I'm going to go back through the book I'm sending query letters for, just to make sure I haven't made the hero overly sensitive. I enjoyed reading your post. It was helpful yet witty.

    1. LOL - you must be gathering quite a collection now.

      I have my lists on cardstock, taped together like an accordion - when I edit or write - I unfold it and stand it up like a U-shaped fence around my laptop.
      Not sure what i'm going to do when I want to add another list...

  14. Fantastic blog, Tiffany! We're so happy to have you here at WITS. 🙂

    Now I'm off to scour my fiction to determine when the waterworks start. I'm pretty sure that, since I'll do about anything to keep from crying in front of someone, that my characters are the same way.

    1. It's weird. I used to think I was tough like that and able to keep from crying.

      But my voice gives me away. As soon as I try to talk - the tears start to flow. I must have a double infused wire in there or something. Because I canNOT break that connection.

  15. Great to see you here, Tiffany! I'm taking tons of notes....and loving your Triple Threat Class BTW!

  16. This was something I had to watch for in my ms. The teenage character was struggling after her brother committed suicide. I had to be careful that the water works weren't on all the time (she hate crying in front of people, so I got to show her fighting it). As the book progress, and she starts to come to terms with his death, she cried less.

    1. Nice!
      Teenagers are difficult in person and in fiction. Darn them fluxing hormones!

      I think the ones that are put into adult situations or are faced with life and death - those are the ones that are really interesting to write because they are two faced. Both kid and adult. And the fluxing hormones will swap the faces in an instant!

  17. Thanks for your post, Tiffany. I think I'm one who is too quick to have my characters cry. I remember in DiAnn Mill's fiction mentoring class having to write about the worst emotional upheaval I had ever had. I started crying while writing. My frustration over bookkeeping this week didn't come close to the emotional battle when I lost our grandbaby. Thanks for the reminder

    1. Remember those feelings and how you connected with them again - don't tuck them too far away. I know it hurts, but most people can't touch that side of themselves and be able to use it creatively .
      Yes - the difference in what is behind the tears is HUGE in art. and being able to show those subtleties to a reader something that takes you closer to literary perfection.

  18. Hi Tiffany,
    I liked your post. I had not thought about the placement of tears before. I did add tears in my YA when the stepfather was murdered. I had my MC too non-reactive before.
    Last night at a P/T conference, I found myself repeatedly poking the table when the teacher brought up my son's Spanish pronunciation. Mama Bear had to explain his extensive speech therapy and that he'll never have a "trilling R". I caught myself doing the poking and apologized.
    I will tuck that motion away for future books!

    1. WOOT ! Heck yeah Barbara! You recognized an action connected with emotion and you can absolutely use it.

      Remember - YA is different than regular fiction because of the hormone flux in those young bodies. Tears might come sooner for them - but it's the reality behind the tears that changes. MORE to learn about that in my April class :))

  19. I enjoyed the post, Tiffany. It got me to thinking about my characters and their emotions and responses. Now, I believe I look beyond tears to see what else is more interesting, more them.

  20. Nice post, Tiffany. I am learning so much from you (another Triple Threats person here). In real life, I tend to cry at Hallmark commercials, so this is definitely something I will need to be aware of in writing. Thanks for all the tips!

  21. Excellent Tiffany, will share on FB next for all my writer friends to read too! You've given me a jab up the behind, because I have this one subsidiary character who cries a lot in my WIP and even I find her annoying. It's like they say, that the little inner voice which keeps nagging you to do something with your book actually has it right. And yet I keep on ignoring it! I now resolve to go back through and perhaps on every second or third occasion she can fight the tears back instead of letting them flow liberally all over everything all the time!
    Yvette Carol

  22. Hi Tiffany,

    I know your mom. she puts up with me on occasion in her classes. Love her.

    I heartily agree with the blubbering over spilled milk. No one wants a weepy heroine. It gets boring.
    My heroine blubbers all over the hero in chapter two--BUT we're in the hero's POV. It's fabulous. Your mom even had visceral responses.

  23. Tiffany: I love the visual imagery of the emotional hits like little bottles of Thai curry. I hope it will help me season the emotion out through the novel. Thanks so much for an enlightening post.

  24. I have been taking course after course and believe it or not I find that I get more help from the blogs that I read. I'll be back, this is very helpful. Thank you.

    1. Mary - Imagine not only reading Tiffany's wonderful blog posts, but seeing her apply her skills and training to YOUR WIP. =:-D

      I'm in her Triple Threat class, and THAT's what she does, the awesomeness that you'll get in a Tiffany course. (Oooh - sounds EXPEN$IVE. 🙂 LOL!)

  25. I heard the same thing in my college acting class. Our teacher mentioned Meryl Streep as an actress who did a great job of trying not to cry and still getting those tears to stream down her cheeks. It's a great mental image for writing characters. We all want to see the protagonist pushed to the brink so that when their sorrow, anger, courage, or whatever comes out, it pops. Great advice, Tiffany. Loved it!

    1. Oh my heart beats for Meryl Streep. L O V E H E R !

      I wish I could lunch with her sometime. To watch her be herself would be a treat too.
      When people are free with their gestures and clued in to their emotions as she is...wow.

      Thank you, Julie!

  26. I like the chili pepper scale but I question how high up the scale you should go for a YA. Sure I know kids like to be scared but maybe it goes too far in some instances. Does a story have to have such a hot hot hot obstacle in all cases?

    Terry Grignon

    1. Terry,
      It's linked in to the plot and emotional maturity of your POV. The hotness level is up to you. In Rick Riordan's series he has some pretty scary and adult situations happening and yet you see his characters compute the challenges like 12 and 13 year olds. They don't suddenly grow an adult brain to deal with death.

  27. Excellent post, Tiffany. I need to print this out, sit down with it and make some changes again. Someday, I want to take one of your classes again in a month in which I don't have four other deadlines. To anyone reading this far into the comments, take one of Tiffany's courses. You'll get a lot out of it, and it'll give your writing a positive charge. .

    1. I swear I did NOT pay Rhonda to say such nice things...but maybe I should? Ha!

      Instead I will pay her with kick-butt edits throughout class and her WIP will be that much closer to publication. That seems like reasonable payment, eh?

      And Rhonda, don't worry bout feeling bogged down with other deadlines. Work at your own pace, darling.

  28. Great post, Tiffany! I especially like your comment about writing a realistic emotional timeline. I'm looking forward to tuning in the last Friday every month for more stellar advice.

  29. Hi. I enjoyed and learned from what you wrote. My WIP is drawn from my life. The heroine is losing her LO to dementia, and struggles to keep him engaged and active while she fights her guilt at not trying harder to bring him home. She is older, lonesome, and breaks into tears each time she leaves the nursing home. But she knows she can't give up.

    1. Mary Ann -
      I think this will work too. Be careful not to take us through the tears step by step each time, and give us variety. Mix it up a bit. Show us different parts of her and her sorrow and her growth with each progression.

  30. Tiffany,
    What about happy tears? For instance, I cry on Wheel of Fortune⎯when a contestant wins. I’m happy for them⎯a little over the top. My family laughs at me, but the tears are real. Then there’s laughing so hard you break into tears. I’m not saying I disagree with you, but I would like to know your take on happy tears. Are tears still tears? You mentioned there is difference in YA writing, and I couldn’t agree with you more. My teen protagonist finds herself in a mystery. Life is a mystery with a teenager, with hormones in a constant state of flux. Tears are pretty common, but I would lose interest in a character if he/she cried all the time. Really interesting stuff! Hope to learn more ☺

  31. I am takiing a class from your mother right now and have learned why I don't like what I've written so far. Now, I am learning from you. I am delighted that you are following in your mother's footsteps and are teaching. It is good to have a master or two or three. Thank You.

  32. Tiffany, THANKS 🙂 This very issue is something I've been worrying about with my current WIP. I like your Thai curry way of thinking! 😉 Will sit down and think more carefully about the tears before going much further. (BTW I'm taking a Margie course ATM and *love* this stuff. It's so obvious, in a why-hadn't-I-noticed-that kinda way.)

  33. Thank you for such a great post. Loved the Thai heat level comparison. That really worked for me since I love Thai food 🙂
    Having readers cry rather than the characters is a great goal to keep in mind during writing and the polishing stage.

  34. Hi Tiffany - Thanks for this excellent post. It made me think about how awkward it is in real life when someone cries in front you. I'd never considered until now that a character crying puts the reader in that position and that definitely should be done with purpose and sparingly. I’m going to use your rating method to help one of my characters in particular get her act together. Also, I LOVE the point about Scarlet and Katniss. I definitely wouldn't like them as much (or maybe not at all) if they were crying all the time.
    Looking forward to more insightful posts!

  35. This answered a question for me. I was going to change my WIP to have the MC start to sob, now I'll leave it. I was worried it would make her seem cold (her boyfriend is murdered) but I'll leave the emotions showing in other ways.

    1. If it's the right time for a breakdown, then let her do it. Just don't make it impossible for her to move the story forward after that scene. Show her trying to get through the event - show how hard it is for her - and if you do it right, the reader should be emoting with you. Good luck! Maybe I'll see you in one of Aprils classes!

  36. The paragraph on 'actors being told the more a character fights the tears back, the further in your audience will be drawn', was fantastic advice. I have always struggled with keeping my heroines strong throughout the story, but you have given me a clear image to keep in mind when I am writing so I don't reveal my heroine's inner emotions to other characters too early. Many thanks Tiffany for sharing this.

  37. And the WINNER IS ------------- MAGGIE LE PAGE ! Congrats to you 🙂

    I'll see the rest of you fabulous writers NEXT month for another eye-opening blog from me to you. AND another chance to WIN WIN WIN a class from ME ME ME!

    I will be hitting up a few more blogs between now and then, in case you are interested. You can win a free onscreen edit from me next month in the Dirty Fighting Contest on Jenny'sblog: http://jennyhansenauthor.wordpress.com/ while you take your turn in the ring with fists and word flying action scenes. How could anyone resist such a challenge???

    Check my blog for guestblogging updates.

    note to self - update guest blogging page!! http://tiffanylawsoninmanisnakededitor.com

    Cheers to you! And thank you again for reading and commenting this weekend!

    ~Always be learning
    Tiffany Lawson Inman (naked editor)

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