Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 6, 2014

A Writer's Greatest Crime

by Shannon Donnelly

JailThere are a lot of crimes a writer can commit—the torture of sentences, the mangling of meaning, the wrecking of words through using the wrong one at the wrong time. However, the greatest of these is the crime of lack—to forget to put in the emotion.

Now, emotions come in lots of ways and there are lots of opportunities to layer them in, but you have to remember you’re not just putting down words. You are constructing a believable scene with what should be memorable characters (people in other words). And people come with emotions.

Let’s look at the ways to make sure you get the emotion into your scenes.

1. Add emotion through actions.

This goes back to the old ‘show, don’t tell’ advice. You want to show your characters in action so the reader sees who your characters are. Does a character slam a door when he’s angry, or talk softly? Does a character laugh when nervous? Or pick her nose?

Little bits of actions can say a lot about a person. The man who stops to polish his side mirror on his corvette and wipe the speck of dust from its apple-cherry paint job reveals his love of his car. The woman who is always twirling a strand of hair is a flirt. The boy who pops his gum whenever his mother is talking is showing how little he listens to her. Those actions all say something about that character—they show emotions at work.

2. Let emotion color descriptions.

When you describe a room, you’re not just putting in description so the reader can “see” the room. That description can be colored by the viewpoint of the person seeing the room, and it can also be used to create emotion. This is why dark, dank creepy places are so popular in horror novels—these words have loaded meanings. This is also why rich men in beautiful clothes are more popular with romance writers.

Descriptive words can add emotion. This is also where the right word really matters—and it had better be right. You want evocative phrases, but no so colorful the writing stands out and becomes more important than the story (or the emotion).

3. Have characters react with believable emotions.

The key word here is believable. You can have a woman scream, or a man cry, or a child laugh manically—however, if that reaction is not in line with the cause (a reaction to match the triggering action), you are heading to farce. The woman’s scream had better be a reaction to something she views as menacing (even if it is a mouse). The man’s tears need to be a reaction to something that could really draw tears, and not just a melodramatic, over-the-top moment that makes the reader’s eyes roll. Now, it’s better to go too far and then pull it back, but learn when you’ve gone too far and too dramatic so you can pull it back.

4. Put emotion into dialogue.

This is a great place to put emotion—and not just swear words. Put in sarcasm, let characters say one thing and mean another, give your characters great words.

This does not mean to put a lot of words around your dialogue. It’s not “he shouted” or “she cried” that puts emotions into dialogue. You want the dialogue itself to be great without any tags around it. Give your character terrific lines to shout or cry out, but let the words carry their own weight.

5. Layer in emotion with your word choices.

This was mentioned earlier, but let me stress it again. Some folks get “writerly” and fall in love with the words. You can get too fancy. Beautiful prose is lovely, but it can also take you down the road where the words start becoming a distraction.

Watch those wonderful words. In particular watch out for their misuse. A lot of things slither, but if a man’s foot slithers across a room, that’s going to stop a reader right there because the reader is now going to try and imagine how a foot can slither. Or if an unsteady ship undulates across an ocean, that’s another stopper—do ships really undulate? The reader is now thinking more about that word choice, instead of reading the story.

Pretty words are great, and they can (as mentioned above) evoke mood and emotion. But they can also trap a reader, particularly if it’s the wrong word for what you really meant.

6. Finally, you can just put in the emotion.

You can name it for the reader. It’s okay to say: He was angry. Or: She was sad. But don’t stop there. People are complicated, meaning we hardly every have just one emotion. A lot of times we’ll hide a deeper emotion under a surface feeling—or we’ll feel one thing, but also we’ll have guilt for that emotion.

Let your characters be layered and complicated. Dive into their emotions and don’t settle for what’s on the surface. Dig into what’s under that anger or sadness, and figure out what your character is going to do with that emotion.

Above all, get your emotions onto the page any way that you can.

If your writing isn’t moving you, you need to look at why. Why are you holding yourself back? Why are you dipping a toe into the shallows instead of diving into everything that’s inside you—and inside your characters?

Writing takes not just courage but a willingness to be stupid, to reveal your flaws, to be silly, and it takes a lot of self-awareness. Bring your feelings to the keyboard next time you write and open yourself up to your own humanity—it’ll make your characters a bit more emotional on the page.

About Shannon

???????????????????????????????????????Shannon 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."

She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.

31 comments on “A Writer's Greatest Crime”

  1. I really needed this post, so thank you so much, Shannon. I am revising my fifth novel and want to make sure every character is really "showing" their emotions through dialogue and movements. Great day for me to read this.

  2. Lots of helpful advice in this article. I especially appreciate the tips you shared about a character would reveal her emotion by how they would describe a room--that's a great way to show not tell.

  3. Excellent post, shared it with some writing buds. Though I have to wonder about the last one- " You can name it for the reader. It’s okay to say: He was angry. Or: She was sad. But don’t stop there." Any time I used to do this in critique groups, I was told it was lazy writing and the emotion should always be shown, never named.

    1. It's not lazy writing to say: He was angry. Heck, read Raymond Chandler. A lot of times you may want the beats that a short sentence will give you--you want that smack of just a few words. Now you may expand on that and detail HOW he was angry, or you may use that short sentence to sum up an emotion, but a lot of time you need that short sentence. It's about using the words for a specific effect. And there are no rules--if you're using that sentence for a specific impact on the reader that's far from lazy. (Time to smack your critique group down on that one, or find a new group!)

  4. Really great advice, especially the last paragraph about being willing to reveal your flaws and to bring your feelings to the keyboard. Thanks so much for this post!

  5. Excellent thoughts, Shannon. Perfect for new writers and a timely reminder to old hands.

  6. When a writer is fully engaged by his/her story, and truly cares about the story's characters, all that's needed is a capacity for empathy, for being able to imagine the world as it is lived by someone else. In the absence of a capacity for empathy, I'm afraid all the advice on how to develop emotion, all the checklists and how-to handbooks are useless.

    1. I actually think it's more than empathy--that implies the ability to feel for someone's condition. A writer really has to step into that skin and become that character--and sometimes that means you need the tricks first until you really get deep into the story. I'm a big believer in "fake it until you make it."

  7. Thank you so much for writing this article, Shannon! I'm concerned that I might be doing too much telling and not enough showing in the novel I'm writing. So anytime I find a resource with recommendations on the topic, I read it carefully. I'm even printing your article right now for future reference.

    1. Telling is not a bad thing. I think the best advice is to show more within scenes, and tell when you need transitions or to get in and out of scenes. But a lot of great writers have great narrative--lean on your strengths. (Besides you can never tell the balance of things until you have it done and can go back and edit -- so don't worry until then.)

  8. I've 5 draft novels and now working my way through the edits of the first one that's 3 years old. Lots of telling and I'm glad I didn't finish it at the time. Your post is a very helpful reminder of what we all need to look out for. I'm not 'writerly' and have to remind myself to add some descriptive.
    Many thanks

    1. I have a theory that there are two types of writers: those of us who overwrite and have to cut and those who underwrite and have to add. I've friends who fit into the underdone category, but I'm one of those overdo ones and I have to watch for that. It's always something that adds a challenge.

  9. Great post! Thank you, Shannon. I tend to overdo my emotions while writing and find myself sinking. It really comes down to balance. Happy I found this! 🙂

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