Writers in the Storm

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May 27, 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 on “WriterStrong – Getting Fresh Emotion on the Page”

  1. Congrats on your publications...from the sound of things, well deserved. I like the idea of a fresh way of conveying the emotions, with new images and metaphors. Inspired now to go back over my manuscript!

  2. Laura, I am so excited about tomorrow, I feel like I am there with you !! Love this book and will continue to shout it out whenever I can.

    This is from the middle of Framed in Black and White.Meet my head-strong photographer ... Toni:

    She arrived at Walter Reed. Magazines and puzzles, a jar of candy, each hand full of gifts, her camera heavy on her chest. The room was white, sanitized, pristine and empty. The meaning clear. Doctors buzzed through the halls. No one noticed her in the empty room, clutching her small, useless gifts, sitting in molded plastic next to his empty bed.

    When the third set was complete, Toni hung the prints and stood back. There was no celebratory excitement, no sense of accomplishment. The prints strung out on the wall like a row of pine boxes.

    At the end of the row, the promise of the young boy's blue eyes looked out from a woman shrouded in black. Her hands clutching a small photograph, she sat in front of a box draped in the colors of the nation that sent her son to die before he had lived.

  3. Excellent tips! I'm actually going to save these as a guide to refer back to. Thanks for sharing.

    Congratulations on your debut novel. I'm glad you didn't give up. May many more follow.


  4. Congrats on your first published book!! I loved the examples above. I haven't been able to take a live class with Margie, but I bought her lecture packets for more than one course 🙂

  5. This is the most important post I've read in awhile! Thanks so much to Laura Drake for sharing this information with the Writers in the Storm followers. I plan on buying some of Margie's wisdom soon! In the meantime, I'll continue to follow these wonderful authors and their information loaded posts!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! And yes, Margie's lectures are well worth it. If you can take one of her online courses or do an in-person workshop, even better!

  6. Thank you for your post on this - it's always great to be reminded of the different facets of writing - especially emotions! Good luck on your published book!

  7. I find myself getting lost in my characters' emotions more often lately. I do think it is making my revised versions more engaging.

    Congratuations, Laura, on getting published! I look forward to reading offerings from Margie grads.

  8. Congrats on the publication of your book!

    I'm taking one of Margie's online classes and it's helping me to write fresh emotions. It's challenging but it's taking my craft to another level.

  9. I love these tips! And Margie Lawson is a name I've heard a few times now, so I better look her up! Great examples, Laura. I'll be bookmarking this page to come back for more tips and reminders as I'm writing my book too.

    1. Holy crap, Jess, I haven't nagged you about Margie yet?? You need her classes, ASAP. You will lvoe them, and will feel so empowered. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jenny - you all know it wouldn't have happened without my WITS/Crit partners!
      I was so lucky that day that you decided to take Fae AND me in (even though you only wanted one new member.)

  10. I can't tell you how perfectly timed this post is. I am stumbling through a difficult section of my novel at the moment and I truly believe that focusing on my protagonist's emotions will really help me put some power behind what is happening. Thank you for the incredible wisdom and the great examples. Wishing you much success with your debut!

  11. This is a wonderful post, Laura. Congratulations on your publication! I bet it's packed with honest emotions. There are terrific examples here.

  12. Wonderful post. I'm so happy for you, Laura! Can't wait to read your book.

  13. Congratulations on publishing your book! Thanks for sharing these examples. I need to go check out Margie's website and classes--her website has been open in my browser since her post earlier this week.

  14. Thanks everyone - like Randy Pausch said,
    Walls are there for the people who don't want it as badly as you.
    Don't ever stop writing, and you'll get there. I'm proof!

  15. A great article Laura. Here's a couple of my favorites from yet to be published story.

    "Monitors hung dark and silent, intravenous tubes wrapped and stowed. Evidence of her struggle had been scrubbed clean. Her face pale as the white that swaddled her, lips once filled with the pink of life, was now … a blue of cold forever."

    "My dejected spirit needed to be alone, among whatever ghosts still lingered. If I was to be kept in the dark, I might as well sleep there."

  16. Congratulations on your debut novel!!

    Margie Lawson is amazing. I, too, have learned so much from her. Your examples are great! she actually shared a snippet of your work at our recent writer's retreat in Lake Tahoe. It was very good.

    Good luck with sales.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  17. Great post, it's something I've wanted to work on without having the emotions sound cheesy. These sound like great examples.

    And congrats, too. 🙂

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