October 21, 2020

by Barbara Linn Probst

Kill those darlings.

We all know the cliché (actually, it was Faulkner, not Stephen King, who coined the phrase) and, accepting its wisdom, do our best to kill those beloveds no matter how much it hurts. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes get deleted, leaving a cleaner and stronger narrative.

These darling are deleted from the story, but not from our laptops or minds. Many of us (okay, me, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one) squirrel them away, hoping we’ll be able to squeeze them into a future manuscript. 

Of course, simply shoehorning them in—because we have to use them somewhere, right?—seldom works. Unless, by some amazing chance, a grandfather scene exactly like the one I just deleted is precisely what the new book needs, the darlings need to stay in their coffins.

However, there are other possibilities for this excised material if we abandon the idea of keeping our darlings intact as chunks of prose and consider, instead, what they indicate, arise from, and serve.  We can explore these “other possibilities” by zooming in and zooming out to consider them from different perspectives.

Zooming in

Just as we do with a camera lens or font size, we can zoom in closer to get a magnified look at a smaller amount of terrain. With prose, that means focusing on smaller units, extracted from their context.

An image, a descriptive detail, a gesture, a sentence or two of dialogue—that may be all that’s worth saving from a passage that otherwise has to be deleted.  Taken as stand-alone bits of language, freed from their context and associations, these small “usable items” might worth saving for use in a new story.

In stockpiling these usable phrases, it’s good to note their referents so you’re clear about how they might be used later. Does a phrase denote arrogance, an emotional softening, a sense of foreboding? Later, you might be searching for a way to convey that very quality, and you’ll have a private dictionary to turn to. Retaining the meaning, along with the words, also helps to check the tendency to insert a phrase where it doesn’t really belong, simply because you can’t stand not to use it somewhere – the hallmark of a soon-to-be-dead-again darling.

Zooming out

In contrast, we can step back from the specific words to their source. What was that “memory of grandfather” scene really about? Was it about the remorse at having taken someone for granted, nostalgia for a sense of safety that’s no longer possible? The yearning to be someone’s favorite again, for no reason other than her existence? A child’s confusion to see someone she thought she knew growing feeble, his presence diminishing? What was the human feeling at the scene’s core, and why did it matter—to the character, and to the narrative arc?

These sensations, intentions, aversions, and desires are only accessible when you zoom out and view the passage from a wider perspective, letting the trees blur so you can see the forest—ignoring the words so you can see their source.

Once you find that, you can change certain words and sentences to fit a new story. Rather than transplanting the passage exactly as written—or, on the other hand, tossing out the whole thing—you can re-use the essence.

To give an example: In an early, long-abandoned novel that (fortunately) will never see the light of day, the adult daughter of my protagonist was writing a master’s thesis on Georgia O’Keeffe.  The “reason” I had her doing that was (ouch) so I could sneak in a backstory scene in which the protagonist had a profoundly transformative experience, years earlier, while viewing O’Keeffe’s masterpiece Black Iris. The adult daughter’s thesis served no purpose in the story, however—nor, in fact, did the museum scene. Both were, appropriately, killed off. I mourned and moved on.

Yet there was something about the O’Keeffe painting that stayed with me—something it evoked that I yearned to express. That “something” noodled around in that murky in-between part of the brain where creativity often occurs, and then burst into life unexpectedly a year later, providing the genesis for a much better story that became my debut novel, Queen of the Owls. I feel safe in saying that without that now-dead darling, Queen of the Owls wouldn’t exist.

Make use of both!

Zooming in and zooming out are inverse processes. In the first, context is discarded, freeing the words from their moorings; the focus is narrow, precise. In the second, words themselves are discarded, freeing the intention or emotion that gave rise to them; the focus is wide, diffuse. In neither case is the “darling” preserved intact, in the hope of shoe-horning it into a new slot. We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work.

Sometimes, of course, darlings can and should stay dead. But not always. To delete and destroy all darlings would be a shame since they often contain much of value.

That’s why we love them.

Your turn. Do you have a file of deleted material -- chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences? What fresh possibilities might the material offer to your story? How have you been able to use them in the past? Please tell us about your darlings down in the comments!

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About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novel (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and the forthcoming novel The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.

Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.

October 19, 2020

By Becca Puglisi

We know the importance of making our characters authentic, believable, and memorable for readers. But relevance is important, too, because it makes them relatable. Readers see characters who are facing the same issues they’re facing or dealing with the same struggles they’re dealing with, and a bond is formed.

As an example, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. It was written in 1960, but this story about children navigating a racially-charged culture that is altering their safe and comfortable world is still relevant to us almost 50 years later.

Are your characters relevant?

Relevance in your stories is about finding an element for your character or story that your reader can relate to in the real world. It might be heavy (a theme, social or political issue, moral quandary, or mental obstacle) or minor (a hobby or interest, dominant character trait, or common missing human need). Either can be effective. And if you can come up with a common thread that hasn’t been used a million times, that’s always a plus.

To that end, I’d like to share a real-life malady I’ve recently learned about that may be incredibly relevant to readers today.

Introducing "Compassion Fatigue"

When Angela and I were writing our latest thesaurus on occupations, we were researching the nursing career and stumbled over a term we’d never heard before: compassion fatigue. It’s defined as:

Exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, apathy, or indifference experienced by those who have been exposed to repeated trauma, tragedy, and appeals for assistance

This condition is all-to-common in occupations where people are constantly exposed to trauma (e.g. first responders, social workers, journalists, therapists, animal welfare workers, etc.) The frequent exposure to horrible events inherent in these jobs leads to a necessary psychological withdrawal as these workers try to distance themselves from what they’re seeing. While a certain level of withdrawal is healthy, serious cases can lead to problems on the job, relationship conflict, and debilitating mental conditions like PTSD.

Well, you might think, that’s interesting, but my character doesn’t have that kind of job.

Due to the 24-hour cycle of social media and news networks, compassion fatigue is becoming much more widespread. The public’s constant exposure to the suffering of others—sometimes on a hard-to-fathom scale—is taking its toll.

Compassion fatigue presents with the following symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion 
  • Moodiness
  • Increased apathy
  • Lack of focus
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Isolation
  • Feeling hopeless or powerless
  • Loss of interest in things that once brought joy
  • Self-blame (for not doing more)
  • Decreased efficiency at work
  • Denial

This should give you an idea of how detrimental compassion fatigue can be. You may even recognize some of these symptoms in yourself as you navigate the constant barrage of news coverage. This malady is becoming more common, and therefore more relevant, for today’s readers. As such, it might be something that could work in your story, but as with any real physical or emotional affliction, it needs to be handled responsibly and thoughtfully.

Questions to help you decide:

1. Does It Fit for My Character?

The first consideration is whether or not compassion fatigue actually works for your character. We’ve all seen the results of authors trying to force certain habits, personality traits, or emotional responses onto their cast members. The inauthenticity is almost unbearable, leading to a disconnect with readers.

As with any other aspect of characterization, you have to do your homework and make sure it makes sense for the character. Compassion fatigue might be a reasonable outcome for someone who…

  • works in a job where trauma and tragedy are frequent.
  • lives, works, or volunteers in a war zone or area of high crime.
  • is a caregiver to a chronically or terminally ill loved one.
  • consistently sees trauma second-hand (on the news, social media, etc.).
  • is highly empathetic and compassionate to begin with.

Basically, if your character consistently witnesses circumstances that naturally arouse their empathy but they’re unable to do anything about those situations, they’re at high risk for compassion fatigue. If this is the case for your character, it may be something that can be written into your story.

2. Have I Done My Research?

Compassion fatigue is a real ailment and, like any real-life element, it needs to be represented accurately. If you’ve suffered with this condition, you’ll have firsthand experience and it will be easier to write. If you haven’t, get to work researching.

  • Find people who have dealt with it and talk to them.
  • Read medical journals and legitimate sources.
  • Join discussion groups and online communities.

Gather the information you need so you can write this condition accurately and realistically for your character.

3. Does It Serve My Story?

Like any physical or mental ailment, compassion fatigue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It will have far-reaching effects on your character that will impact your story, so it should only be included if those effects serve your purposes. Here are a few natural outcomes of compassion fatigue that might do your story some good:

  • It Provides Organic Conflict Options. Insomnia, lack of focus, moodiness—the symptoms of compassion fatigue are going to cause problems for your character at work. Likewise, increased apathy and withdrawal will make it harder for him or her to connect with loved ones. Good stories require conflict in every scene, and compassion fatigue can provide that conflict at home, on the job, and everywhere in between.
  • It Impacts Human Needs.Basic human needs are universal to everyone. They’re important to us as authors because when one of them is threatened or removed, it becomes a motivator, driving the choices and actions for your character. Compassion fatigue can impact many of these needs. So whether you need your character to make a monumental error, hit rock bottom, or recognize their need for change, it can be used to position them exactly where you want them.
  • It Contributes to Character Arc. What changes does your character have to make in order to grow and evolve by the end of the story? Maybe she needs to learn that she is as important as the people she serves, and she needs to take better care of herself. This might relate back to a wounding event she’ll need to finally confront and deal with—one where she was devalued or mistreated in some way. If compassion fatigue can tie into any of this, it will make it easier for you to map out that arc.

Final Thoughts

Compassion fatigue is just one example of an element that could provide a sense of relevance for your readers. The options for writing stories that feel very “now” are endless.

 If you can find that one element to connect your character with today’s reader, it won’t matter how different they are in gender, age, race, time period, or geographic location. It will be enough to start that empathy bond that can carry readers all the way through the story to make sure the character comes out okay.

What’s relevant about the story you’re writing? Or have you read a book recently that resonated with you because it felt very now or current? Please share it with us down in the comments!

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About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies and are available in multiple 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.

October 16, 2020

Writing is an odd often-spooky dream to nurture. We write happy. We write scared. We write sick. We write tired. We write in every mood because we are dream-chasers, and dreams matter, even when we get scared.

[Take heart, y'all. We are writers. We are mighty beings formed of stubbornness, creativity, and caffeine. We've got this.]

Every writer falls differently on the fear spectrum but most of my pals have some form of The Big Two:

  • Fear of Failure. Ex: What if I never finish/format/publish my book?
  • Fear of Success. Ex: What if I go "all in" with this dream and my life has to change?

Many of us have some extra worries that extend beyond The Big Two. It's almost Halloween -- the perfect time to open the door to the spooky parts of our psyche. So, let's chat...

Named Fears are Less Spooky

Studies show that admitting to a problem or fear out loud lessens the anxiety associated with it that worry. Put simply, named fears are less spooky, whereas unnamed fears tend to grow larger and larger in our minds until they crowd our rational thoughts. As the line from Harry Potter goes, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.”

In case you haven't noticed this phenomenon yet, many writers have brains that lie. Our pesky brains will snatch a worry out of the air and pounce on it like a hungry cat.

Fae Rowen, one of our founders at WITS used "fear" as an acronym to express this concept to her logical mathematician brain:

FEAR:
False Evidence Appearing Real

She put that up where she'd see it every day to assure herself that most of her fears and worries were not real. We ALL do that. For her, the fear of not being able to do something perfectly kept her from sending her writing out for years. Now she has one book released and another on the way.

She remembered her dreams, and she persevered. She wanted to see her book on the rack of a bookstore or a grocery store or a gift shop.  She wanted to share her stories with others.

I'll bet that you have some specific dreams yourself. Think about those for a moment. (I'm going to ask you about them in the comments.) Think about why you spend time nurturing those dreams.

Why We Chase Dreams

Dreams are important and scary and real – for a writer, chasing them is the hardest game in town. I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for the sheer doggedness that keeps us going.

Why is chasing dreams so scary? How does our traitorous psyche manage to kick our butts so soundly?

Because we worry. We creative types worry about the darndest things! And we often allow that worry to defeat us. Chuck Wendig wrote a post almost a decade ago at TerribleMinds where he discussed how “Writers Must Kill Self-Doubt Before Self-Doubt Kills Them.” (It's wonderful!)

So what do writers worry about the most?

I've narrowed it down to some version of the following five items:

  1. What if I write the book and nobody buys it?
  2. What if I write the book and everybody buys it…can I be that brilliant again?
  3. What if I can’t meet the deadlines of a publishing contract or schedule?
  4. Who would want to read what I have to say?
  5. When I say what I have to say, they’ll know who I am.

Every time an artist creates, they’re shouting to the world: “This is who I am.” What a heady, frightening, mind-blowing thing! For most artists, if our work is found wanting, it feels like WE are being rejected too.

How is the worried artist supposed to cope?

Titanium Panties - BEST
(These are for you, Karen Debonis.)

Laura Drake and I are HUGE fans of titanium panties. We just strap on the proverbial Big Girl Titanium Underpants and do the next thing. For myself, if I stop and think about the fear, I’ll hyperventilate or (worst of all) I'll freeze. I have to keep going, even if I work on something different than the thing that’s scaring the crap out of me (like my memoir).

What have I observed other writers doing when things are in the crapper? When rejections roll in and plots stall, when blog posts bomb and the WIP rises up like a scary beast?

  • They depend on friends and family when the going is rough.
  • WINE.
  • A supportive critique group.
  • COFFEE.
  • A writing network is priceless. This could be your local writing chapter, or online groups, or Twitter communities.
  • GUMMY BEARS.
  • Okay, I'll stop. I'm making myself hungry.

5 things to remember about this writing life:

  • It never gets easier. We simply adjust.
  • Remember: Your brain lies. Some of that fear is manufactured by US.
  • Writers are wicked brave. It takes courage to persevere.
  • We have weird habits. (I want to hear about those in the comments too!)
  • Writers must write, even if it's only to ensure our family can stand us. (I don't know about you but I am nicer when I write. Also funnier and more attractive.)

How do you deal with the fearful part of your dreams? What dream are you chasing right now? What are your weird writing habits and rituals? We’d love to hear about it down in the comments!

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About Jenny

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is More-Cowbell-Headshot-300x300.jpg

By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate 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 Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

Top Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.

October 14, 2020

Writers constantly juggle deadlines, word counts, obligations, and self-care. Often we whine about it (at least I do). Often we shipwreck our own creativity. However, one of the best qualities of any writer is resilience.

Today, I'm taking you on a virtual journey to meet a writer named Anna McLean. She's writing a book about rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic, based on her real experiences during a rowing contest with her brother, Cameron. The two of them faced many obstacles -- 60-foot waves, sharks, and illness. They handled their obstacles with MacGyver-like skill, using limited resources from their tiny rowboat in a competition called the Talisker Whiskey Challenge (2020).

Their journey offers great lessons about how mental outlook can sharpen a writer’s focus and inspire a wave of creativity.

Being tossed at sea can be a good metaphor for writers during these uncertain times but, despite our societal turmoil, we can refrain from spiraling into an emotional tailspin. As a break from the chatter diverting our writerly attention, I offer this post as a life-vest of analogy to lift your spirits.  

A bit of backstory on the McLean "Seablings" (along with my thoughts in blue).

They began their voyage on the Canary Islands and rowed in constant 2-hour shifts until they reached Antigua 43 days later. Talk about work ethic! This puts my daily writing sprints into perspective as no one but my muse is waking me through the night to swab the deck.

Soon after launching, their navigation system broke. They steered with their feet until they were able to repair it themselves. The mechanical parts breaking would be my cosmic message to turn back to safe, dry, land. I can relate to that rudderless feeling, and the pull of self-pity and doubt.

Their water pump, which provided their allotted 500 milliliters of daily fresh water, also failed, jeopardizing both their health and their goal. Under those circumstances, I would have called for a water taxi and requested some iced tea.

Anna McLean faced real privation during the experience that led to her book.

Yes, she chose to enter the rowing contest. But she was forced into a level of action that few writers must endure in order to tell her story. Below are three quotes inspired by her incredible journey that might help re-energize your creative life.

1. “Teamwork is Dreamwork.”

The rowing pair used this mantra as their motivation and to avoid distractions that could set them off course. They worked as a team, communicating and accepting more of the workload when needed. Anna once rowed 36 hours without a break as her brother recovered from an injury. Cameron, in turn, rowed for three days when she could not get through her nausea. 

They didn’t do it all alone.  When times were exceptionally tough, they called one of their 70 supporters for encouragement and advice. Even in the open ocean our modern technology supports us in ways our predecessors only could imagine.  How lucky we are to be a phone call away from others who can be the wind in our sails and keep our focus on our writing goals.

Close-to-home example of "Teamwork is Dreamwork."

I have seen examples of teammates stepping in at WITS in the past months as members, writers, and readers offer support.  Our writers at WITS have suffered illness, loss of loved ones, and faced natural disasters with fires, floods, and deadly smoke levels in the last month. This blog couldn’t be the treasure trove of resources without the contributions of every writer.

The WITS team stepped in and wrote extra blog posts, writers switched days (and months!) while one writer healed from surgery and another was forced to deal with an insane COVID-world workload. 

Writers work better as a team when a man is down. Like Anna and her brother, the WITS team finds a way and keeps this blog we all love afloat. We appreciate your readership and support! And I'm sending an “Aye, Matey” to the large team of contributors who provide invaluable weekly writing insights.

2. “Row to compete, not just to survive”

If the thought of spending 43 days in the open ocean conjures up nightmare stories like Life of Pi or of Tom Hanks in Castaway, you are not alone.  The rowing pair agreed to see their circumstance as a competition to avoid the traps of disillusionment.

We may not feel we have the energy to move forward but when we dig deep and find that mini burst, it can jump-start our creativity and get more words on the page.

Even if writers compete primarily against themselves, the mindset of overcoming obstacles can help keep a project on course. Pushing the limits of word count and timelines, the market, the constantly changing climate of publication, the drive to create your perfect story, can all become worthy ‘foes’ to motivate you towards your goals. 

Likewise, each of us has our own writing supports. (If you haven’t discovered yours - keep looking! Consider joining Nanowrimo, for example.) Writing supports are key to success as a writer. And don't forget to support yourself. Our biggest support can be the most powerful when it comes from within.

3. “What’s on your search engine?”

Anna shared advice she received to bolster the mental challenges of rowing 3000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.  

“Our minds are like a search engine - you type in a word and it gives you other words related to it.  So, [on our journey] if we thought about positive things, that led to more positivity.  Every day, I still think ‘what am I putting in my search bar?”

The McLean siblings broke a World Guinness Record traversing the ocean in a 24 x 4 foot boat.  They returned to their Gloucestershire home in victory, but within a few weeks COVID 19 set them once again into confinement. 

Anna now writes and does public speaking engagements via her computer.  Some of her presentations have been shared with up to 6 different countries in one day. She's remaining positive about the perks of working without having to travel. 

Final summary

  1. Teamwork is dreamwork.
  2. Row to compete, not just to survive.
  3. What's on your search engine?

We all have stories inside us, dying to burst onto the page. But they can only come into being if we put our keyboards into action. Our proverbial rowboats are equipped to deliver our messages, but are we at the helm? Are we prepared for the realities that await in the depths of the sea we call publication?

What are your thoughts? Where are you today in your writing journey? Had you heard about Anna McLean? Share your insights, and hope you lift up some writer pals today.

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About Kris:

Kris Maze author pic

Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character driven plots. After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she started to write her own books. Her first dystopian sci-fi romance, IMPACT, was published in 2020.

She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award-winning Writers in the Storm Blog. You can follow her author journey at her website at KMazeAuthor.com.

October 12, 2020

by Lori Freeland

A writer’s blank page is like an artist’s empty canvas. It takes a lot of work to get from here—

—to here.

An artist doesn’t create a masterpiece in one sitting with a single layer of paint. He has to use several layers, sometimes letting each one dry in between.

As writers, instead of using watercolors or oils or charcoal to wow our audience, we paint pictures with words. With those words, we not only build a visual but a mood and a story. One way to do this is to use the five key elements below in every scene.

  1. dialogue
  2. internal thought
  3. description
  4. action
  5. emotion (voice cues, facial expressions, body language, visceral reactions)

We don’t have to use each one equally. That’s guaranteed to mess with the flow of your scene. But make sure all of them at least make an appearance. If your scene isn’t working and you’re not sure why, chances are you’re missing one of the elements.

In order to layer, you need a place to start—a plumb line. The backbone of your scene. Any of the first four key elements will work. We’ll save emotion for the end. That’s the polish on the prose. And the last thing I put in.  

Your plumb

line will depend on your genre, what’s happening in the scene, and what comes easiest for you as you stare at the blank page.

Mine is dialogue. My characters talk to me before they do anything else, so we’ll start there.

Example:
“Are you kidding me?” Her everyday alto shoots past soprano.

1. Dialogue

Dialogue is what your characters say out loud—and only what your characters say out loud—not what they’re thinking about. It’s always inside quotes.

What Does It Do For You?

Dialogue is a powerful tool. What your characters say and how they say it tells a lot about who they are, what they’re thinking, what’s happening in the scene, and their relationships with each other. Sometimes what I remember most about a book is the witty conversation.  

Watch Out For

  • He said/she said. Avoid long chains of back-and-forth conversation with no other scene elements.
  • Characters not reacting to revelations, not answering questions, or not responding to dialogue in a way that makes sense.

Exception: If you character is doing any of the above on purpose, make sure we see some sort of hint that it’s deliberate and/or a motivation behind it.    

Note: For a more in-depth look at dialogue, see Dive Deep into Dialogue.

2. Internal Thought

Example:
I’ve been an adult half a day, and it already sucks.

Internal thought is what your characters don’t say out loud. It’s what they’re thinking. And it’s never inside quotes.

We can only use internal thought with the POV character—the character telling the story in that particular scene.

Note: If you want to know why, and for a more in-depth look at POV, see P-O-WHAT? Understanding Point of View.

What Does It Do For You?

Internal thought supports dialogue. Example: “That’s not possible.” And it wasn’t. Otherwise, I would’ve already tried.

Expands Dialogue. Example: “You can’t take a freshman to the senior prom.” That was like unwritten law or something.

Contradicts Dialogue. Example: “You would know.” I force my voice level, blowing off the way he’s talking to me. But inside, I’m an off-the-rails rollercoaster.

Internal thought also adds motivation to a character’s actions. What people appear to do isn’t always what it seems. It’s a great way to redeem an unlikeable character or foreshadow what’s to come. Just like we can learn a lot about a person by what he’s saying, we can learn even more by what he’s thinking.

What To Watch Out For

  • Rambling. Too much internal thought can interrupt the action, break up conversation, stall your pace, and kill your tension.
  • Isolation. Having a character alone for too long in a scene results in huge chunks of internal thought. While we do want to know what your character is thinking, we don’t want to know everything he’s thinking for pages and pages. 

Note: For a more in-depth look at internal thought, see The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue.

3. Description

Example:
Sunlight streams through the wall of windows overlooking our pool, highlighting Vi’s lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors. I’d kill to shop where she buys her confidence.

Description is setting plus everything else a reader can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in the scene. It’s objects (the couch, the coffee cup, the tree). It’s people (your characters, the other people in the background). It’s locations (a room, a park, a car).

What Does It Do For You?

Description sets your stage and builds out the scene in a way no other element can. Think about the props you see in a movie. Or the way a room is decorated. Or the location chosen for the shoot.

When you open a scene, the reader enters an empty white space. How you “fill” that space sets the tone, the mood, and paints the visual. Think a well-lit great room with a roaring fire versus a shoebox bedroom with shadows swaying against the walls.

Description is the backbone for worldbuilding. It lets you really show readers the depths of your imagination and helps them dig into theirs.

What To Watch Out For

  • Overkill. Too much detail, especially when your pace needs to be fast, can kill the mood and weaken the action.
  • Underkill. The first time you introduce a character or a location, that’s where we need the most description and the important details. Is your character in a wheelchair? We need to “see” that upfront. Is it winter? Put him in a coat.   
  • The wrong message. When we meet a new person or go to a new place, we form an instant impression. Make sure your description makes the reader feel the way you want her to feel about your people and places. 
  • Missing pieces. We can only “see” what you actually put on the page. Not what you thought you put on the page. Check for the details as you edit.

4. Action

Example:
When I see Dad standing next to Vi, my flip-flops slap to a sudden stop.

Action is what physically happens in a scene. Description and action go together. What people, animals, objects, or the even the weather is doing usually involves the world around them.

What Does It Do For You?

  • Brings your scene to life. What characters are doing is as important as what they’re saying. The cliché that actions speak louder than words is true.
  • Amps your tension and accelerates your pacing. Think the car chase in a thriller or the slow reveal in a mystery when the murder is finally solved and the killer pointed out. 

What To Watch Out For

  • Impossible action. Visualize your scene like a movie. If you’re not sure that what your characters are doing physically works, act it out. A three-hundred-pound man can’t effectively hide behind a door.
  • Accidental action. Characters who do something contradictory to what you intended. A calm person wouldn’t knock over a table just because. 
  • Unnecessary action. Don’t just add action for the sake of having a character do something. Make it work for the plot and the scene. Use it as an opportunity to build out your character and show the reader something new.

5. Emotion

Example:
A rushing river fills my ears, swallowing all the sound. Invisible fingers fist inside my chest—squeezing, squeezing, squeezing. Smothering my heart. Muffling the sluggish beat. Dissolving, disintegrating, I sink into myself, like I’m being vacuum-sealed from the inside out.

Emotion makes your scene shine. Adding in this last layer is my favorite part. It’s all about showing rather than telling. And when you stop telling your reader how your character feels—and how she should feel—you let the reader experience what your character is experiencing and feel it for herself.

Note: For a more in-depth look at showing, see Show, Don’t Tell: The 3 Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary.

Here are Some Ways to Add Emotion with Examples

  • Dialogue Cues: The way a character says something. This description should go right before or right after dialogue.  

Example: “I don’t think so.” Her voice barely carries across the table.

Example: “He’s just a teenager.” He said teenager the same way I said stupid.

  • Facial Expressions: The “body language” of your face. Watch people’s expressions. They give away how someone really feels.

Example: Then her eyes start to clear, the superpower of my lips wears off, and she’s looking at me like she has kisser’s remorse.

Example: In one barbed look, he manages to nail me with equal amounts of accusation and disappointment.

  • Body Language: Non-verbal cues that have to do with a person’s actions or how they hold themselves. It’s a great way to get across how a non-POV character is feeling when we can’t know what he’s thinking.

Example: Jess grips the sides of her chair like she’s on a rollercoaster and her safety harness just snapped.

Example: “You lied.” Cade folds his arms stiffly across his chest and plants his boots a little wider, his tension strung tighter than his Oak Cliff Lacrosse T-shirt.

  • Visceral Reactions: Involuntary inner reactions. Remember, involuntary means you can’t control it. These are things like heartrate, chills, pressure in the lungs, throat closing, stomach dropping. Also, like with internal thought, this only works for the POV character.

Example: She drops a tentative palm on my arm, confusing my heartbeat.

Example: I’m struggling to breathe against what feels like an eighteen-wheeler rolling back and forth across my chest.

Example: The impossible promise I made to her tightens around my neck, choking me hard enough to strangle a rabid pit bull into submission.

What Does It Do For You?

Emotion lets you deepen your characters. If we can connect with someone, we tend to empathize. And that’s a great way to hook your readers. You want them to get overly attached to your characters.

Emotion adds subtext and lets us read between the lines.

Characters often interpret what they see and make decisions about what another person is feeling. This can lead to miscommunication and up your conflict. Conflict drives your story forward.

Emotion is about more than just feelings. It’s about the mood and tone you’re setting as well.

Consider not only how you want your characters to come off to each other but to your reader too.  

What You Need To Watch Out For

  • Overuse. Don’t put emotion into every line, or you’ll end up with 3,000 pages. Sometimes all you need is a little hit. Other times, when it’s important to your character and to your reader to make a big deal about something, you need more. 
  • Bad Timing. Don’t interrupt tense action or fast pacing with long descriptions of emotions. I’m not going to wax poetic about you if we’re being chased through the woods by wolves. I’m going to save that for later.
  • Cliches. Just like with overused words and phrases, there are overused descriptions. If you’ve read it a million times, chuck it and think of something new.

One way to expand your go-to list for adding emotion is to watch movies or TV shows for the ways people behave in certain situations. There is no internal thought on TV. Everything has to be shown by speech and action.

Note: For a super in-depth look at emotion, see Margielawson.com. Margie teaches things no one else does. Between her blog posts, her EDITS System, Lawson Writers’ Academy, and the lecture packets, her website is a writing goldmine. I’ve just given you an overview here of a few of the things she covers.

Bringing all the layers together. Photo from Pixabay.

The 5 Key Elements in Action

As a wrap-up, I’d like to share an example of how just how much the five key elements (dialogue, internal thought, description, action, and emotion) bring to your scene. If you’re familiar with Margie’s EDITS System, I’ve used most of the colors to highlight each part.  

As you read through each “version,” notice how adding each layer gives you more information about what’s happening in the scene and a deeper connection to the characters. We barely get any information from the dialogue only. We have no idea what’s going on. And we don’t really care. Adding in action and description helps the scene make more sense. Throwing in internal thought helps us understand the character. But it’s not until we add emotion that the scene seems to come alive.

Color Key

DIALOGUE: Words a character speaks out loud inside quotation marks.

INTERNAL THOUGHT: Unspoken thoughts. Part of the narrative. POV character only.

SETTING: Descriptions of concrete object—things you can touch—railing, couch, car. And also, in this example, character descriptions.

ACTION: What people or things do. What’s happening in the scene.

EMOTION: Voice Cues/Facial Expressions/Body Language.

VISCERAL REACTIONS: An involuntary body reaction—a reaction a person can’t control—like heartrate, chills, pressure in the lungs, etc. (It has its own color to stand out)

Layering Example from The Accidental Boyfriend

Note: The colors are a busy visual, but look at the patterns and how the layers fit together.

DIALOGUE only

“I can drive myself downtown,” I say.   

“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” Dad says. 

 “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there,” I say.  

 “The hotel’s twenty minutes away,” I say. “I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess,” Dad says. “You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.”


DIALOGUE plus ACTION and SETTING

I glance at my perfect pedicure.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

He walks to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.”

“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He walks out the door.

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and348b6b into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

All I get is a short grunt as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess. You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room.  

I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.


DIALOGUE / ACTION / SETTING plus INTERNAL THOUGHT

Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

He heads to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

Feeling reckless, or maybe just desperate, I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.” Or stay home and spare my life a few thousand skid marks.

“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” he says the words as he walks out the door. The only words he’s said to me all morning. Not words I want to hear. Riding and rooming with my literary agent leaves me no escape when my first writers’ conference spirals south. And it will spiral south. 

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and the diary into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

He tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess. You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room.  

Normally, he wouldn’t notice if I played in traffic. I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.


DIALOGUE / ACTION / SETTING / INTERNAL THOUGHT plus SUBTEXT (voice cues, facial expressions, body language and visceral reactions)

Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

But he doesn’t even turn his head on his way to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

Feeling reckless, or maybe just desperate, I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.” Or stay home and spare my life a few thousand skid marks.

“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He throws the words over his shoulder on his way out the door. The only words he’s said to me all morning. Not words I want to hear. Riding and rooming with my literary agent leaves me no escape when my first writers’ conference spirals south. And it will spiral south. 

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and the diary into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. I don’t even make it to the top of the stairs before my chest starts to sink and hollow. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

All I get is a short grunt as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess.” He barks my name in his standard stand down private. “You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room 

Normally, he wouldn’t notice if I played in traffic. I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.

Do you layer your writing? Is it purposeful, or do you do it instinctively? Feel free to share a before and after line with us down in the comments! Also, Lori welcomes all questions. 🙂

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About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app. 


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