April 10th, 2019

First Pages and Character Emotion

by Becca Puglisi

As I’m sure you’ve heard roughly a gajillion times, your story’s first pages are very important. Editors and agents typically request just a portion of your story’s opening, and potential buyers read only a sampling when they’re looking for books to buy. So whichever publishing route you take, those first pages are the only chance you get to win over the gatekeepers—to introduce your story in a way that sucks them in and makes them realize they simply have to have it. 

There are a lot of elements you want to include in your story opening, but I’d like to focus on the one that plays a huge part in winning over readers: emotion. If you’ve hung around Writers Helping Writers at all over the past ten years, you’ve heard Angela and I nattering on about the importance of character emotion in our stories. That’s because we believe it’s the key to triggering the reader’s emotion. The character is the one readers will relate to, the one who will make the reader feelsomething as they’re turning pages. So we have to convey the character’s emotions as early as possible, in a way that will engage readers. Otherwise, that first sampling is all they’re going to see.

Thanks to the Critiques 4 U contest that we run monthly at the blog, I’ve read quite a few first pages, and I see the same emotion-related problems cropping up over and over. I’d like to address those today.

Not Enough Emotion

It’s not uncommon for me to get all the way through someone’s first page and realize that I have felt…nothing. My emotions haven’t been stirred at all. And when I look back over the sample, I realize it’s because the character hasn’t felt anything, either. If the reader can’t tell what the character is feeling, how are they supposed to know how to feel themselves? And if a scene event doesn’t affect the character’s emotions, why does it matter?

The key here is that the author needs to make sure something impactful is happening. Maybe this comes in the form of a conversation, where the protagonist is reacting to the information being shared or the character who’s sharing it. It could be a moment between friends that shows how important the BFF is to the protagonist. Maybe it’s an actual event or occurrence that has meaning, such as a wedding, a job interview, or the cat yucking on the carpet when the character’s running late for work. 

Once you’ve ensured that meaningful things are going on, the character will need to respond appropriately to what’s happening, even in a small way. Which leads us to problem #2.

Emotion that Has Been Told

While it’s important to get the character’s emotional state across to readers, that’s unfortunately not enough. We have to do it in a way that engages their emotions. Engagement rarely results from telling, because telling doesn’t pull readers in. It takes them out of the active role of a participant in the character’s story and puts them at a distance, just sitting back and listening to events being told to them.

While it’s important to get the character’s emotional state across to readers, that’s unfortunately not enough. We have to do it in a way that engages their emotions. Engagement rarely results from telling, because telling doesn’t pull readers in. It takes them out of the active role of a participant in the character’s story and puts them at a distance, just sitting back and listening to events being told to them.

On the other hand, when we show that emotion, it seems more real to readers. They feel like they’re involved in the character’s experience. Their own feelings are stimulated and a bond begins to form, one that will pull the reader further into the story. For instance, here’s an example of emotion that has been told:

He was afraid.

And here’s the same emotion being shown:

His skin felt like it was trying to glide to the back of his body. (Tad Williams, Otherworld series)

Both of these descriptions express the same emotion. But the second one gives you an impression of what that character might physically be experiencing in that moment. We’ve all had that “crawling flesh” sensation; when we see the character going through it, it triggers our own emotional memories and helps us to associate better with the character, inviting us into his experience.

Here’s another example of emotion that has been shown, from Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts:

My face burns. My ears heat up like two heaters attached to my face.

The author doesn’t need to say that the boy is embarrassed; the physical indicators do that for her. We’ve experienced that feeling before, and we get a hint of it through the use of the bodily cues associated with that emotion.

It’s important to keep in mind that emotional responses don’t have to be big to be effective. Maybe a vocal cuecan be used, such as the volume of the voice increasing or decreasing. The character’s hands may start to fidget, or their body posture may shift. Even something as minor as a sigh or an eyebrow being raised can indicate a stirring of emotion. Use the character’s voice, body language, or even their thought process to help you show their emotional state in small ways, which can help you sidestep another emotion-related problem.

Too Much Emotion

Just as too little emotion is problematic, so is an overabundance of it. Melodrama happens when a character’s emotional responses are over the top and don’t make sense for the situation. This is a problem because it’s not authentic, and anything inauthentic is going to create distance for the reader as they realize something is “off” and subconsciously pull back. 

The best way to avoid melodrama is to know your character’s emotional range. Each person has a unique range of emotions, meaning, you can have two people in the same situation and they’ll express themselves differently. Knowing what this looks like for your character will enable you to write their responses in the way that best fits their personality.

So think of that range as a spectrum—a straight line with demonstrativeon one end and reservedon the other. Ask yourself: Under normal circumstances, where will my character fall on this spectrum? If you can figure this out in advance, you’ll have a snapshot of how they’re likely to respond to everyday scenarios, and you can write their reactions consistently.

It’s also good to remember that emotions don’t bounce all over the place; they follow a continuum. So, if your character starts the scene contented but will become angry at some point, you’ll need to move him gradually toward that end emotion. Maybe you start by adding something that causes him to become irritated. Then he moves to frustration. And finally…anger. A character shouldn’t jump from contentment to rage unless there’s a psychological reason for doing so. Knowing the natural progression of emotions will enable you to write your character’s responses logically and keep you from falling into the melodrama trap.

Listen, I understand the pressure to get our first pages right. There’s a lot riding on them, but the emotion piece can definitely contribute to success. With these tips, you should be on your way toward strengthening your opening and encouraging readers to become more fully invested in the character and the story. For more information on how to write character emotion well, you can also reference the newly released second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus.

Do you have a question about getting the emotion right in your WIP? Want to share a tip about writing emotion?

ABOUT BECCA

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including the latest member of the family: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.


13 responses to “First Pages and Character Emotion”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    This reminds me of what James Scott Bell said about openings. The worst place to be is with happy people in happy land.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      James Scott Bell is the bomb. He also said that the only backstory we should be including in our opening pages is strategic backstory—meaning, any that helps the reader bond with the character. I'll take pretty much all of his advice on improving our first pages ;).

  2. Laura Drake says:

    So with you, Becca. I teach a First Five Pages Class (coming up at Savvy Authors 4/29, hint, hint).

    Before almost anything, you have to make the reader care about the protagonist. Emotion is key to doing that.

    Great post!

  3. Becca, thanks for a great post! I like that you point out that it's not enough to just show the character's emotion, you have to find a way to get it across to the reader. I immediately started thinking about my WIP and going, "Hmmm."
    PS I bet you never natter.

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    I like to think I do a pretty good job with the openings of my fiction work.

    My product and movie reviews follow a formula I have to follow, but I try to make sure they're not dry.

    denise

  5. […] While we’re talking about characters, here is a post by Becca Puglisi on First Pages and Character Emotion at Writers in the […]

  6. […] First Pages and Character Emotion […]

  7. Wonderful, useful advice. Thank you!

  8. Adele Marie says:

    I loved this post. I am on the right course with opening pages and love to "show" the readers how my character reacts to the situation the book opens with. Mind you, it's taken a lot of work and years of re-writing to get to this place. Thank you for this post.

  9. […] Beginning the first draft of your novel? K. M. Weiland tells us how to use your outline when writing your first draft, and Becca Puglisi takes a look at first pages and character emotions. […]

  10. mcclellanelias says:

    Late to the party but that is EXCELLENT stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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