April 19, 2019

I’ve read the same wording about tears in too many books. 

Tears stream and streak, glint and glisten, flee and flow, prickle and trickle. 

They slip, slide, run, roll, seemingly unstoppable.

Tears blur vision, soak hair, get wiped, get blinked.  But some tears are unshed, unspent, unspilled, or unspecified.

Sobs can choke and rack and wrench. Characters sob on shoulders and in showers, often uncontrollably.

I could go on about crying and bawling and weeping and wailing. But I won’t.

You all get it.

Let’s dive in and play in words.

Five Tips for Writing Tears that Carry Power

  1. Write Fresh -- Write sentences about tears and crying that we’ve never read before.
  2. Nix Some Tears -- Give your characters some different reaction

In real life, eyes fill to the brim with tears more often than we want to see on the page. And a single tear may slide down someone’s cheek. 

But you’re in charge of your characters. You don’t have to stick with what pops on the page in your first draft. 

Nix some of the crying and tears in an early draft—and give your characters a different reaction. Could be dialogue, an action, body language, a facial expression, a dialogue cue, a visceral response, or a powerful thought. And give it some fresh elements.

You can make the reaction fit your character, and not be predictable. You’ll keep the reader immersed in your story, locked on each page.Amplify – If it’s important, give the reader more.

3. Amplify the emotion in a variety of ways.

Every example in this blog is amplified.

4. Play with Style and Structure – Use a wide range of rhetorical devices, provide plenty of white space, vary sentence lengths.

If you know me, you know you’ll see examples of style and structure.

5. Check for Compelling Cadence 

Read your work out loud. With feeling.

Always. Always. Always.


I’m not saying writers shouldn’t ever use some of those common words and phrases I mentioned at the beginning of the blog. But if you use some, twist, play, and amplify. Give them a boost, and give your readers and reviewers a smile. 

As always, I’ll share some examples and what you can learn from them.

The Butterfly Bride, Vanessa Riley, 3-time Immersion Grad 

1. She should slap Hartwell or pull away from his heavy arms, but there wasn’t much fight left in her, just a sack of tears in her chest she refused to spill. 

Deep Edit Analysis:

Power Words -- slap, pull away, heavy, fight, tears, refused, spill

Rhetorical Device – Structural Parallelism: 

  • sack of tears in her chest 
  • she refused to spill. 

Compelling Cadence

Look how Vanessa Riley deepened characterization. She showed what the character thought she should do, but didn’t. Then she explained why. 

Vanessa also shared that the POV character felt like crying, but wouldn’t give Hartwell the satisfaction of seeing her break down.

But smart Vanessa didn’t rely on my overused phrases. Her sack of tears was fresh.

2. No one would see her cry. None of the duke’s friends, especially the leeches.

Deep Edit Analysis:

Vanessa amplified that basic first sentence. She shared specifics, and backloaded with the strongest power word, leeches. 

Never Let Me Fall, Abbie Roads, 4-time Immersion Grad

1. (Crying)  She clung to him—the only safe place—as the battle for her soul and sanity raged. And then it was over, and she hiccupped against his shirt as she tried to catch her breath. 

Power Words: clung, safe, battle, soul, sanity, raged, over, breath

Compelling Cadence

Deep Edit Analysis:

Rhetorical Device-- Alliteration: soul, sanity

2. Tears burned in her sinuses, then filled her eyes and spilled to race to her hairline. These weren’t sad tears. They were angry tears. Tears filled with fight. 

Abbie Roads packed power and rhetorical style in those 28 words. 

Deep Edit Analysis:

Power Words: tears, burned, filled, spilled, race, sad, tears, angry, tears, tears, filled, fight

Rhetorical Devices– 

Alliteration: filled, fight.

Assonance: filled, spilled, filled

Anadiplosis: …tears. Tears…

Backloaded with the most important power word, fight.

Compelling Cadence

Bound by a One-Night Vow, Melanie Milburne, 4-time Immersion Grad, USA Today Bestseller

  1. She had worked hard to get herself strong again.

Must not cry. Must not cry. Must not cry. 

Deep Edit Analysis:

Power Words: worked, hard, strong, not cry, not cry, not cry

Compelling Cadence

2. She swallowed and blinked a few times, the tears drying up as if she regretted losing control. Her expression tightened as if all of her facial muscles were holding in her emotions and only just managing to contain them. 

Deep Edit Analysis:

Power Words: swallowed, blinked, tears, drying, regretted, losing control, tightened, holding in emotions, just managing, contain

Love how Melanie Milburne deepened characterization by amplifying with two similes. And the second simile is mega-amplified. I see that barely-in-control expression.

Compelling Cadence.

Dear Wife (Advanced Reader Copy), Kimberly Belle, 5-time Immersion Grad, USA Today Bestseller, International Bestseller

Dear Wife, will be released June 26th

Four Paragraphs:

To my absolute horror, my eyes grow hot, the tears welling so quickly it’s impossible to blink them away. I choke on a small but audible sob. “I can’t even tell you how much.”

The Reverend takes me in with a kind expression. “Are you all right, child?”

I wipe my cheeks with my fingers, but new tears tumble down before I can mop the old ones away. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Or I will be. I don’t even know why I’m crying.” I force up a throaty laugh. “I promise it won’t be a regular oc­currence.”

I hate to cry. For the past seven years, my tears have been slapped, backhanded, punched, yanked, kicked, squeezed and one time, burned out of me. Tears are a sign of weakness, fol­lowed always by punishment. Only losers cry. 

Deep Editing Analysis:

Power Words: horror, eyes hot, tears, welling, quickly, impossible, blink, choke, sob, Reverend, kind, fine, tears, crying, force, laugh, promise, hate, cry, seven years, tears, slapped,backhanded, punched, yanked, kicked, squeezed, burned out of me, tears, weakness, punishment, losers, cry

Deepened characterization. Used crying to slip in powerful backstory.

Asyndeton:  No and in the first sentence.

Compelling Cadence

One Paragraph:

These past four months, I’ve shed a shitload of tears. More than I’d like to think about. But I stand here, in the middle of the church aisle and bawl, and for the first time I don’t feel ashamed of my tears or wipe them away with a sleeve. I let them fall because these are the good kind of tears. The—well, if not the happy kind, at least the everything’s-going-to-be-okay kind. 

Deep Editing Analysis:

Power Words: four months, tears, more, church, bawl, don’t feel ashamed, tears, fall, good, tears, not, happy, okay

Amplification: Tears. All 73 words are about her tears.

Alliteration: shed, shitload

Fresh Hyphenated-Run-On

Compelling Cadence

Since You’ve Been Gone, Christa Allan, Multi-Margie Grad

1. I pounded my fist on the desk, my pens jumping up in the air, my coffee leaping out of the mug. This rage was a hand grenade whose pin had been pulled, and there was nowhere for it to go. I had no tears left. Just a raw, aching wound. 

Deep Edit Analysis:

An example of NO TEARS. Christa Allan showed her character’s rage.

Power Words: pounded, rage, hand grenade, pin, pulled, no tears, raw, aching, wound

Rhetorical Device-- Metaphor, Mega-Amplified.

Compelling Cadence.

2. I’d moved past tears, past sobbing, to a convulsing, ragged-breath squall.

Deep Edit Analysis:

That sentence seems simple. But it’s brilliant and powerful.

Power Words: tears, sobbing, convulsing, ragged-breath, squall

Compelling Cadence

3. If only I could be like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and schedule my cathartic crying. My eyes dripped, my underarms dripped, and my emotional reserves dripped. All in a medical building lobby as I waited for Mia to come up with a plan, and I wiped my face with a crumpled Starbucks napkin. I counted on her to save me from myself. Now wasn’t the time for her to forgo the life vest when I was drowning in the sea of my own irresponsibility.

Deep Edit Analysis:

Love the humor hits, and the juxtaposition of those humor hits with her reality. If you’ve read this book, you know her reality is emotionally challenging.

Power Words: cathartic crying, eye dripped, underarms dripped, emotional reserves dripped, medical, plan, counted on her, save me, forgo life vest, drowning, irresponsibility

Backloaded: irresponsibility

Rhetorical Devices – 

Alliteration: Holly Hunter, cathartic crying

Allusion: Holly Hunter

Metaphor: life vest, drowning

Asyndeton and Symploce and Zeugma:  My eyes dripped, my underarms dripped, and my emotional reserves dripped.

Compelling Cadence

If you’ve taken my Deep Editing course online (or lecture packet), or Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing, or an Immersion Master Class, you know the terms I used, or you figured out the structure they referenced.

If you haven’t taken my Deep Editing course, I’ve been talking Greek to you. I shared a quick explanation of all the rhetorical devices but epistrophe and zeugma.

Symploce:  The word or words at the beginning and end of three or more phrases, sentences, or clauses, are the same (my, dripped).

Zeugma: In a series of two or more, the last one is an idiomatic mismatch. It’s not like the other. Eyes and underarms are part of your body. Emotional reserves are not. 

Want to learn more about my deep editing techniques? 

My blogs share a few deep edit points out of hundreds. And that’s not hyperbole.

Drop by my website and check out my online courses and lecture packets. Your writing career will be glad you did. 

A big THANK YOU to Vanessa Riley, Abbie Roads, Melanie Milburne, Kimberly Belle, and Christa Allan. 

If these examples impressed you, check out their books. I bet you’ll love them!

BLOG GUESTS:  Thank you so much for dropping by the blog today.

Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner.

You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy valued up to $100.

Lawson Writer’s Academy – May Classes

  1. Write Better Faster, Instructor: Becca Syme     

      2. It’s All About Character, Instructor: Elizabeth Essex

      3. Crazy-Easy Social Media for Authors, Instructor:  Lisa Norman

      4. Virtues, Vices, and Plots, Instructor: Sarah Hamer

      5. Taking a Book from Good to Sold, Instructor: Shirley Jump

      6. Getting Series about Writing a Series, Instructor: Lisa Wells

      7. Creating Compelling Characters, Instructor: Rhay Christou

Please drop by my website to read course descriptions and register: www.margielawson.com

I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS on Sunday night, at 8PM, Mountain Time and post them in the comments section.

Like this blog? Share with your friends. Give it a social media boost. Thank you soooo much!

I love the brilliant WITS gals. Thanks so much for inviting me to be your guest.

Margie Lawson—editor and international presenterloves to have fun.And teaching writers howto use her deep editing techniques to create page-turners is her kind of fun.

She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean. 

To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2019, in Palm Springs, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com

Interested in Margie presenting a full day workshop for your writing organization? Contact Margie through her website, or Facebook Message her.

Interested in attending one of Margie’s 5-day Immersion classes? Click over to her website and check them out.

Margie’s newsletter is going out next week. Sign up on her website, and you’ll be in a special drawing for a 5-page deep edit from her!

April 17, 2019

SEO for authors... It's a catchphrase that makes all my writing pals shudder. As one of our gals at WITS said, "I know how to spell it, but that's about all." SEO doesn't have to be hard. In fact, some of the best techniques are the easiest for writers, because they involve writing.

What is SEO?

Wikipedia says, "Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's unpaid results - often referred to as "natural," "organic," or "earned" results."

What it really means to authors is: How do I help people find me? How do I stand out? How do I get to Google's first page?

Those are all the things that will help build your platform and sell books.

Good SEO can go really deep, down into the programming and structure of your website, but we're writers. We don't want to do all that. We just want to write.

5 easy SEO methods you can use NOW

1. Research the keywords that apply to you.

Search engine optimization is rooted in keywords. But what about your words? You want to find the words that readers will use to search for you. Help your readers find you by tagging your posts and videos with 3-10 keywords that describe you and your work.

Remember, you are very likely be at the top of the search results for keywords you create. That's a pretty big deal.

You can be on page 3 on search engine results for "great YA reads," or teach your readers how to search for you with your words. Words like your book title or your name. You're likely to be on page one with those. And yes, you have to already have a platform to do this.

Most people just piggyback off other people's keywords. You could spend hours looking these words up, but you can minimize the time spent by doing some brainstorming and mind mapping.


Or you might want to go the other direction and find out which key words will take you to readers. Two ways to do this is by searching in Google (for “keyword” + “forum" or “keyword” + “board”) or going to a site like BoardReader that will search the boards for you.

Backlinko, a site full of great SEO info, provides  a comprehensive article on keyword searching and ways to identify the key words that define your markets (called Niche Cloud Maps) if you want to study this in more depth.

2. Make your titles work for you.

Do you see that title up top? It starts with the entire point of this post: "SEO For Authors." It ends with the other key point: "Search Ranking."

The easiest tip for great titles is to keep them direct and to the point and focused around your topic and keywords.

SmartBug Media wrote a fantastic post on capitalizing on both the titles and the tags inherent in platforms like WordPress. Another great article from SmartBug Media has SEO tips for titles that emphasizes "the big stuff":

  • The best link structure is short, descriptive and helps categorize your site. Did you know you can customize your URLs, especially in WordPress? It's a great way to help the search engines find you.
  • Put keywords or topics towards the front of the title. Whatever's first wins, at least for search engines.
  • Optimize Page Titles. SmartBug recommends you use title tags, which tell search engines and searchers about your page. "Since Google will only display between 50-60 characters in the title tag, you should keep title tags under 55 characters and try to drive people to click with compelling copy."

3. Use a mobile-ready theme for your website or blog.

Here's what you need to know: in March of 2018, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing. That means that it indexes the mobile version of any website first. This is the reason why having a mobile-ready theme is important.

Search Engine Land put out a great article on mobile-first indexing and whether it will affect SEO rankings.

Some things to focus on to improve your mobile SEO:

  1. Verify the mobile-friendliness of your site and/or your theme.
  2. Make sure your site is responsive and don't use a lot of redirects.
  3. Don't use pop-ups.
  4. Tell Google about your site.

In 2014, almost 40 percent of organic search traffic was done on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. In 2018, 70% of web traffic happened on a mobile device. [Great stats here.]

If your site's design isn't mobile-friendly, many searchers won't be back. If you aren't in charge of this, ask your web designer. If you are a DIY-er, be sure you pick a mobile-ready theme for all your marketing, whether it's your site or your email newsletter.

4. Write descriptive mini-blog posts for your YouTube videos.

This was an excellent piece of advice from 21 Actionable SEO Techniques You Can Use Right Now that I LOVED. We're writers - we can rock this one!

Note: YouTube is owned by Google, another reason they run high in search rankings.

The article states:

Using 200+ words in your video's description will push you up the rankings for both YouTube and Google.

"Don't mindlessly toss a few words into the description box. Instead, [let Google] rely on your video’s text-based title and description to determine what your video is about. Not only does this extra text-based information help you rank better for your target keyword…it also ranks your video to any closely related long tail keywords."

Here's that author's guide to great SEO strategy for YouTube videos.

5. Create posts and pages with at least 1,000 words.

This requires more work on your part, but it is the reason why "slow bloggers" like Anne R. Allen and social media Jedi Kristen Lamb often crush the competition in terms of social sharing and backlinks to their blogs. Yes, they are both great writers, but they also write long posts filled with useful information.

Brian Dean at Backlinko says this about why long posts work.

"First off, long posts show Google that you’re providing in-depth information for searchers.

"In-depth content flips an important emotional switch that pushes people to share online content: awe.

"University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Jonah Berger found that content that elicited awe made people 30% more likely to share it."

I like that number, don't you? Long posts take more work, but they're worth it.

SEO is a huge subject for such a tiny little acronym, and things change constantly. But we've got enough changes to worry about in these crazy writing lives of ours. We don't need to spend energy worrying about change.

Right now, we just want to worry about these five tips that we can implement now.

Do you have SEO questions you've been wondering about? Will you share any great (EASY) techniques that have worked for you? Let's talk about how to get our work noticed.

See y'all down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes news articles, humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.

April 15, 2019

It’s here. The fourth anniversary of Write Up a Storm.

We’re writing up a storm from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00p.m. EDT. If you missed the tips, you can read them here on our Facebook page.

Seventeen hours of opportunities to connect with others, meet goals, and get your words “on paper.”

We’ll be writing from the top of every hour for fifty minutes. In the interest of health, we’ve planned a ten minute break at the end of every hour for walking around and other physical necessities. If you need to work on a different schedule, say around breaks and lunch at work, that’s fine. Keep track of your progress and, when you get a chance, let us know how you’re doing.

During that ten-minute break, you’re welcome to post your word or page counts and anything else in the comment section on our Facebook Event page. (No other electronic “stuff” which might end up being a time sump and stealing your planned writing time!) We’ll tally numbers and post them every hour. Or so. Heck, we’ll be writing, too!

We’re hoping for at least a novella-length combined word count. Fae is betting we can get a novel’s worth of word count.

You can commit to hours or only a fifteen minute block of writing time. Just follow through on your goal. That’s how you finish a book. Today is a chance to make headway on finishing your book. As Laura Drake says, “You can’t sell a book if you haven’t finished one.”

So let’s support each other and make this fun. Because it can be, with a community. Writing is, by nature, a solitary endeavor. That doesn’t mean you have to feel alone. Join us.

Here’s your dance card:

Laura Drake will start the party from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. EST.

Fae Rowen, Jenny Hansen , and Julie Glover will check in during the day at the top of the hour. Don't panic if we miss an hour or two of check-in. Heck, we're writing, too, and might misplace our schedule!

Of course, we’ll all be checking in throughout the day, even when we don’t have “formal” responsibilities.

You can let us know you’re writing as you begin, or you can share what you’ve accomplished when your writing stint is finished.

Today’s the day. 

Write Up A Storm.

Share your experiences and word counts on our Facebook page.

Fae Rowen

Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak.  Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present.  As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen.Share this...

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April 12, 2019

Julie Glover

I recently passed my 10-year anniversary of Writing In Earnest. I began the novel that became my first full manuscript after I evacuated to my in-laws’ house to escape Hurricane Ike, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast in September 2008. When I returned home, I committed to writing one full hour each day, which quickly turned into two to four hours of writing until, finally, I had a complete book.

It’s been a long road since then.

The road included seven manuscripts and multiple short stories; pitches, submissions, and rejections; finaling in various contests, including RWA’s Golden Heart; classes, conferences, and craft books; landing my dream agent; more submissions and rejections; co-writing three novellas; self-publishing that trilogy; and much, much more.

Although every writing journey has unique aspects, a 10-year anniversary demands that I share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Nothing else matters if you don’t finish the book.

A great story idea and a wonderful cast of characters, a perfectly structured plot, well-crafted scenes, etc. equal a Big Fat Zero if you don’t finish the book. And I don’t mean the first draft, though that’s very important.

To me, a finished book is one that’s ready to go to your beta readers or critique partner or be submitted to an agent/editor or even published. Dig deep, write, edit, and finish the book.

2. Know why you’re writing.

At first, I wrote for me—just to see if I could write a whole novel. Then I wanted people to read it. And now I want to also make money so I can pay my bills and keep writing. As my goals have changed, I've needed to shift which aspects of writing I'm focusing on.

If you’re a hobbyist in the writing world or crafting a single family memoir, some of the intense write-or-die advice doesn’t really apply to you. But if you need to eat on the money you make writing, you might focus less on the sweeping epic you dream of writing and more on rapid release shorter works.

It all depends. Be clear about why you’re writing so you know which advice to take and which to take with a grain of salt.

3.  Learn your craft.

Too many writers think they already know how to write, since they read a lot. Funny, because I never once thought that visiting my massage therapist once a month qualified me to get a therapy table, charge customers, and start rubbing backs. Substitute your own analogy, and you understand what I'm saying.

There are authors, good authors, and great authors. Do everything you can, within your resource limitations, to become a great author. If you write fantastic books, readers will keep buying what you write.

4. Story beats prose.

However, don’t focus so much on crafting words and phrases that you lose sight of being a wonderful storyteller. Our brains are wired for story (see Lisa Cron), and that’s what people ultimately want. It’s why novels that aren’t all that well-told still sell when a great story underlies the less-than-spectacular prose.

Of course, putting together a wonderful story and well-crafted prose makes for a standout combination. Don't forget: Story beats prose.

5. Find a writing community.

We say it all the time on Writers in the Storm, and we promote it by bringing writers together for conversation, but it’s important to be in community. Not only will you feel a sense of belonging and experience encouragement, you learn from other authors. I’ve learned as much from conversations with other writers as I have from classes, conferences, and craft books.

Join a chapter in your genre, connect online, and/or form your own group. But find a writing community.

6. Put your work in others’ hands.

This is one of the hardest things to do at first! You’ve spent hours and hours and hours on your novel, and now you’re going to share it with a beta reader, a critique partner or group, contest judges, an agent or editor, or your own family member.

What if they hate it? What if they red-pen it everywhere? What if they just don’t get you?

It’s tough, but if you want readers who pay, you have to be willing to start with readers who don’t pay who will give you honest feedback.

7. Don’t listen to everybody who critiques your work.

That said, not everyone who critiques your pages has the same quality of feedback. Be choosy about who you send to, consider their viewpoint, and then make your own decisions. At the end of the day, it’s your book.

You need to be very, very open to critique, but also willing to stand your ground when your story’s integrity is at risk.

8. Be an entrepreneur.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking: But I don’t want to be an entrepreneur, I just want to be a writer!

Sorry to break it to you, but I fought this for far too long. I’m saving you the years of grief I experienced, resisting the inevitable. If you’re writing in the 21st century, you’re a business.

You can be self-published or traditionally published, agented or unagented, and still you are a small business responsible for your own career, marketing, and finances. Learn what you can about running your business well.

9. Embrace your own writing process.

Writing advice based on a particular writer’s process abounds. Write every single day. Write first thing in the morning. Plot first, then write. Don’t plot, just write. And on and on and on.

Reality check: Successful authors run the gamut on how they actually manage to go from story idea to book-on-shelf.

Go read about various authors’ processes and try things out, but don’t feel like any one particular approach is the be-all-end-all. The only thing they all have in common is they finish books (see Point #1).

10. Remember, writing is a journey.

As I write this post, I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee, a destination that took over 13 driving hours to reach. My journey involved some great roads and scenery and some not so great moments where I wanted to pull to the side of the road and give up.

Most journeys are like that, with ups and downs. So is writing. I’ve learned that I will have super-highs and dispiriting lows, but neither represents the whole journey. Don’t get too caught up in the mountaintops or the valleys. Most of the way is a steady drive, and you’ll get where you want by focusing on the destination.

*  *  *  *  *  *

What have you learned in your writing journey?

About Julie

Julie Glover usually writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. But she recently branched out to co-author the Muse Island Series with Kris Faryn, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn. You can visit the series website here, follow the Facebook page here, or head to her Jules Lynn website to learn more.

April 10, 2019

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?


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.