by Shannon Donnelly
Emotion. It’s what we read for in fiction. We want the thrill, the sorrow, the laughter, and the tears. Unfortunately, words are abstracts. Emotions are visceral—they’re in our bodies. That means the illusion to bring about emotion has to be studied and learned. And it’s the same challenge with every book—how to do you get more feeling. Here are some tips:
1 – Show the character’s emotions. This is where show don’t tell really does have power. He was angry, she was sad, he was upset, she wanted to laugh. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show emotion on the page.
To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character express anger? Does he get quiet, or hit something? Is he a yeller, or someone who bottles things up, or is he a bully who takes his anger out on the weak? What about sadness? Does it show up in her stomach, or her chest, or in a headache? Does she cry easily over anything or does she cover up her feelings with lame jokes? Put your character into actions that show that character expressing emotion—let the reader connect with the characters physically.
2 – Go past cliché. It’s too easy to have anger expressed as someone who yells. It’s too much the cliché to have tears appear at anything sad. It’s been done, so look for a fresh angle for your characters. Maybe anger shows up in a man’s shaking hand, or in a woman who actually cries when she gets furious. Look for fresh ways to layer together actions that better express someone’s feeling.
3 – Develop habits (for your characters). We all have mannerisms, physical habits that betray what we really feel. Your characters need these, too. Does your hero have a habit of smiling when he lies, or does your heroine fuss with her hair when she’s nervous? Gamblers know how to look for these “tells” that really show what someone is feeling.
4 – Let your characters lie. We all use white lies to get along better with others—and sometimes the lies aren’t so white. Let your characters talk about everything except what’s really going on—use subtext (talking about one thing while meaning something else). Have them change topics, not answer questions, and have them use their words to try to get what they want.
5 – Make sure every character wants something in every scene. This is great advice from Kurt Vonnegut—and this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water. That “want” will give you stronger conflict and is automatically an emotion to help improve the tension in the scene, particularly if you add in conflicting desires.
6 – Do remember to get the emotion onto the page. If you’ve got action, that’s great, but the reader still needs to know what the character feels about all that action. Is it fear, worry, anxiety, fury? When you edit, do an edit just to make certain you have your character reacting to things that happen. For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?
7 – Let your character surprise you. Yes, you want your characters to make sense, but they can also act out of character. This needs strong motivation—we all have to be pushed out of our habits. But this is where you have a chance to show a new side of your characters—this is where the young timid girl can become a lioness if pushed too far (or if she has to protect someone she loves), or where the strong guy can shed more than a few tears if he’s lost the thing he values more than his own life.
Push your characters—and push yourself. And put emotion ahead of everything, even those pretty “writerly” phrases.
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. And her latest Regency romance, The Cardros Ruby, a RWA Golden Heart finalist, came out this May.