Writers in the Storm

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July 1, 2013

Once More with Feeling

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly

by Shannon Donnelly

Emotion. It’s what we read for in fiction. We want the thrill, the sorrow, the laughter, and the tears. Unfortunately, words are abstracts. Emotions are visceral—they’re in our bodies. That means the illusion to bring about emotion has to be studied and learned. And it’s the same challenge with every book—how to do you get more feeling. Here are some tips:

1 - Show the character’s emotions. This is where show don’t tell really does have power. He was angry, she was sad, he was upset, she wanted to laugh. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show emotion on the page.

To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character express anger? Does he get quiet, or hit something? Is he a yeller, or someone who bottles things up, or is he a bully who takes his anger out on the weak? What about sadness? Does it show up in her stomach, or her chest, or in a headache? Does she cry easily over anything or does she cover up her feelings with lame jokes? Put your character into actions that show that character expressing emotion—let the reader connect with the characters physically.

2 – Go past cliché. It’s too easy to have anger expressed as someone who yells. It’s too much the cliché to have tears appear at anything sad. It’s been done, so look for a fresh angle for your characters. Maybe anger shows up in a man’s shaking hand, or in a woman who actually cries when she gets furious. Look for fresh ways to layer together actions that better express someone’s feeling.

3 – Develop habits (for your characters). We all have mannerisms, physical habits that betray what we really feel. Your characters need these, too. Does your hero have a habit of smiling when he lies, or does your heroine fuss with her hair when she’s nervous? Gamblers know how to look for these “tells” that really show what someone is feeling.

4 – Let your characters lie. We all use white lies to get along better with others—and sometimes the lies aren’t so white. Let your characters talk about everything except what’s really going on—use subtext (talking about one thing while meaning something else). Have them change topics, not answer questions, and have them use their words to try to get what they want.

5 – Make sure every character wants something in every scene. This is great advice from Kurt Vonnegut—and this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water. That “want” will give you stronger conflict and is automatically an emotion to help improve the tension in the scene, particularly if you add in conflicting desires.

6 - Do remember to get the emotion onto the page. If you’ve got action, that’s great, but the reader still needs to know what the character feels about all that action. Is it fear, worry, anxiety, fury? When you edit, do an edit just to make certain you have your character reacting to things that happen. For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn't show emotion?

7 – Let your character surprise you. Yes, you want your characters to make sense, but they can also act out of character. This needs strong motivation—we all have to be pushed out of our habits. But this is where you have a chance to show a new side of your characters—this is where the young timid girl can become a lioness if pushed too far (or if she has to protect someone she loves), or where the strong guy can shed more than a few tears if he’s lost the thing he values more than his own life.

Push your characters—and push yourself. And put emotion ahead of everything, even those pretty “writerly” phrases.

About Shannon

BurningTire_finalShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. And her latest Regency romance, The Cardros Ruby, a RWA Golden Heart finalist, came out this May.

32 comments on “Once More with Feeling”

  1. Excellent advice, as usual, Shannon - thanks so much for the reminder of characters lying. I need to do this more in my book! LOVE the title of your book, and your cover! It looks good - I'm going to get it now!

  2. I love this post, Shannon! You make some great points here. I especially love the last one about letting characters surprise us--the whole point of putting a character in conflict and turmoil is to see how that character is transformed, and that can often be done by having the character react with different emotions than she/he might have reacted to that same conflict in the past.

  3. Shannon, thanks for the blog. Emotions are always a tough issue. I especially like you point about making sure every character in the scene wants something.

  4. Great advice, Shannon. And timely. I'm working through my manuscript, giving more depth to my characters. You've given me lots of angles to work with. Thanks.

    1. It's a great idea to do an edit just on each of your major characters to see if you can push the emotion, or to make sure the character arc makes sense (and is well motivated). I find that very useful.

      1. Oh, Shannon, I love that idea of doing edits focusing on a different major characters each time. I focus on different aspects with each edit but didn't think about that - duh! *rubbing hands together* Thanks! 🙂

  5. Shannon,

    Ditto on Laura's comments! Fantastic cover. Can't wait to start reading it along with the first one in the series.

  6. Great blog, Shannon. Very interesting, that number five on the list (a character wants something in every scene). I've not considered that before. I can see where doing that could add life and depth to the scene.
    Màiri Norris

  7. Shannon, of course ... ditto to all comments made thus far. Great post and stellar advice. What I hung my hat on was something that reminds me of layering our edits. To do an edit on each of our characters. I have a book that has evolved from blah to better to I'm almost there and it's exciting to watch as I layer each event, each emotion to my two MC's. I do decoupage and have been facinated with color and textures of mere paper. What happens to glass or wood by layering. It happens with stories also. But I never actually knew that's what it was until the last edits on my first mystery.

    Love so much when you visit here at WITS ... thanks again 🙂

  8. Wonderful advice. I especially liked 3 and 5. I'm editing, so it is timely! Of course, I expect great wisdom from a fellow horsewoman 🙂

  9. Great advice, Shannon. Showing a characters' emotions is one of the trickiest parts of writing, and the most fulfilling for me. I love researching an era and historical setting. It's fun to dream up an involved, fast-paced plot, but all of that is in a sense just stage dressing for the emotional involvement of the characters. That's what I read romance for and it's why I write romance.

  10. Great article. This is something I struggle with. My characters are constantly blinking to avoid crying when they're upset. This gives me some other ideas to work with.

    1. I always ask myself, "Would he (or she) really do this?" And, "What am I really showing the reader?" It's those surprising reactions that I'm always looking for.

  11. It was great, thanks! I just found out your blog (I'm trying to read more stuff in english!) and It'll be a pleasure to follow it! (hope I didn't make to many grammar mistakes! :P)

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