We toss around the word hook when we talk about stories. What’s the hook? we ask. Sometimes we’re talking about the overall premise: what component to the story idea is unique, compelling, intriguing. Othertimes we’re talking about the first few lines of a novel (or first line) that is to be crafted in a way to grab readers and make them want to read more.
But that’s not all the hooks we need. We’re on the hook for coming up with great openings for every scene we write. Sure, novels don’t have a killer first-line hook for every scene, but we certainly want to open each scene strong.
That usually means ditching explanation and backstory and dull description of place and weather. Instead, a more effective way to hook readers into a scene is to consider these things:
The tone or mood you need to set that implies the POV character’s state of mind and emotion.
The situation you can insert your character into that is already underway in an interesting manner (in other words, don’t start scenes with your character waking up, then brushing his teeth, then getting dressed, for example).
Some element of mystery or microtension that creates curiosity.
Sure, a catchy first line or paragraph is helpful to hook readers, but you can’t always be that snappy with every scene opening, nor would it be a good idea.
Let’s face it: too many scene openings are boring. They may be functional, moving the plot along, but do they really interest readers, get them turning pages?
It behooves us as writers to do our best to make our scenes as engaging as possible. I’m going to share some tips from a post I wrote a few years back, because the information is so pertinent:
It may seem simplistic to say that scenes are basically mini novels, with a beginning, middle, and end. But this is a simple and helpful way to look at scenes. The main difference is that your scene endings aren’t the end of your story but a specific way to hook the reader into reading further.
That word hook should tell you something. Yes, your scene ending needs just as strong a hook as the beginning. What you want more than anything is for a reader who is thinking of taking a break from your book (“I’ll just read to the end of the chapter and then stop”) to be unable to put your book down upon finishing a scene. The last lines of the scene hook her, then as she begins the next scene, she’s hooked again. Pulled further into your story, like a fish on a line.
What’s the bait on the hook? Your promise to deliver.
Think of each scene opening as a promise. Or many promises. Overall, you’re promising your reader you’re going to give her a ride. Entertain her. Engage her emotions. After reading the description or back-cover copy of your book, she’s anticipating a particular kind of story. That description is the promise you make to readers of the story you will tell them.
Despite even the most fascinating description, for the most part, readers are dubious. They aren’t opening your book with heightened excitement. They are usually wary and ready to make a quick negative judgment about the merit of your book. Ready to quit. Why? Because 1) reading a novel is a huge investment of time. A novel needs to feel worthwhile to commit such time to it, and 2) readers have been repeatedly disappointed by books promising them a terrific story but failing to deliver.
Maybe if a reader is a super fan of your novels, he’ll start in with that kind of excitement and expectation. I always feel that when I hold a new Elizabeth George mystery or Patricia McKillip fantasy in my hands. I have high expectations. Why? Because I’ve been promised exciting stories and these authors have consistently delivered.
You may not have thousands of super fans yet. And frankly, even if you do, they are still going to expect you to deliver. Maybe even more than someone who has never read any of your books.
So let’s start at the beginning. At the hook.
Overall, your novel needs a hook. That’s the killer concept with a kicker that I cover in greater depth in The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. When you tell someone a brief summary of your novel’s premise, and they say to you, “That sounds okay, but what’s your hook?” they’re talking about that unique story concept that adds the twist and interest to an ordinary plot.
Let’s take this down a notch to the scene level. One of the items on the scene checklistis the hook. The first item on that list is “My scene has a strong opening line (hook) that grabs the reader.” And the second-to-last item is “My scene ends with a bang—with either some insight for the POV character, something important happening, or some surprise that leaves the reader satisfied.” Thinking in terms of two hooks—placed at the start and end of each scene—helps you envision how all your scenes are linked (or hooked) together.
What you want to keep in mind here is not so much the mechanics as the effect. You’re going for brain engagement, and what researchers have found is what grabs our attention is the unusual, a sniff of danger or trouble, something that seems wrong or out of place, and showing a character that evokes empathy.
Hooks are more than just a promise of a good scene ahead. They can accomplish things like establish a character’s mind-set, paint a picture of the setting, or convey a surprising piece of information. This applies to both the opening hook and the ending hook. Many authors spend a lot of time honing those hooks to make them memorable, and some of the great novels in history have their first lines often quoted.
A hook that’s created just to grab attention and that doesn’t actually set the right tone or smoothly connect to the purpose of the scene can be seen as a gimmick and can create confusion. Don’t succumb to gimmicky first lines just because they sound clever. They’re going to fall flat and feel cheap. This applies to catchy last lines of scenes.
Whether a few first great lines can carry enough weight to make any novel memorable and acclaimed is debatable. But there’s a lot to say for a novel that has strong hooks. The more scenes in your novel that have those strong hooks, the better chance it will have to stand out above the masses of published novels.
You Need More Than a Hook
Of course not every scene is going to provide a great opportunity for a dynamic hook. But it can’t hurt to work on them. Going back through your scenes after you’ve written, rewritten, and polished them is a great time to ponder your hooks. If you can tie in your opening hook with your closing hook at the end of the scene (conceptually or by repeating a line or word or phrase), you can pack a powerful punch.
Once you’ve created that great opening scene hook, are you off the hook? No, because now that you’ve made your promise to deliver a great, intriguing scene, you have to, well, deliver. If you make it your aim to craft every subsequent line with the creativity and punch you did with your hook, you can take your scene to the heights of magnificence. Is that too much to expect? It may be difficult, but it’s a worthy goal to strive for.
So don’t blow out a breath of relief once you’ve created that great first line. Yes, that’s a terrific accomplishment. But you’re not off the hook, and you don’t want your readers to slide off either. Way too many scenes I’ve critique open well, with a strong hook, but quickly lose my interest because that same level of attention was clearly not given to the rest of the scene.
Master Scene Structure!
Needless to say, there is so much to scene structure. It takes serious effort to study and master writing scenes. And that’s why I’m introducing a new boot camp this year: The Scene Structure Boot Camp. It’s three intensive days looking at every aspect of scene structure.
At the boot camp, you’ll not only learn all about scenes, you’ll be writing and sharing your scenes, as well as giving feedback to other writers on their scenes. The best way to master a technique is to put everything you learn into practice, then run it by other writers to see if you succeeded in evoking the emotion you intended and kept their interest.
In the boot camp, we work together in a small group, an intimate setting, that allows for creativity to flow. Seven hours a day, for three days, we’ll be tearing apart scenes, looking at examples of terrific scenes, and challenging ourselves to write the best scenes ever!
If you want to be a scene master, come to the boot camp! There is still one room left at the house, if you want to stay with the core group and enjoy all the perks afforded there. But we also have ten spaces for day attendees (you arrange your own lodging in the area and just come from 9-4 each day, lunch included!).
Scene Structure Boot Camp. (Boot Camp is Mon-Wed, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., check-in Sunday afternoon, check-out Thursday morning, unless you want to stay one additional night to decompress!) Cost of boot camp: $300.
Stay at the house and get gourmet breakfast, hot tub, and a private room with bathroom en suite ($250/night).
South Lake Tahoe is a gorgeous travel destination, and that’s why we hold the boot camps there each year. Sign up soon, as spots will fill up! Learn more HERE.
We’ve been looking at the way thoughts lead to emotions, and how getting into our characters’ thoughts can be a powerful tool to evoking emotion in our readers. Which is our prime objective as fiction writers.
Part of the natural behavior humans engage in is processing. Something happens, we process it. We do this every waking moment. I’ve written numerous posts on this much-overlooked natural behavior that our characters, as well, need to engage in.
At any given moment in your scene, a character is either acting, reacting, processing, making a new decision, or initiating a new action. This whole cycle could take place, at times, over a few seconds, or it could take hours. It depends.
On what? On what is happening. Fast-action scenes in high-octane thrillers might have characters going through this cycle repeatedly every few seconds. A killer runs through a crowd. The hero follows, sees the killer run into traffic, then reacts. Quickly, he decides to go around the block (after processing his choices and the best chance he has of catching the bad guy), then rushes off (new action).
At other times, those down times in a thriller, your character may be able to kick back and spend some minutes processing. Maybe even days mulling over a situation and trying to figure a way out or around (while lots of other action is continuing to play out in the novel).
It’s all about genre (which is why I put together my extensive online course on targeting genre!). It’s so important—if you want to become a masterful writer in your genre—to master your genre by studying it carefully.
And that includes analyzing how much and in what way characters process the actions that occur.
Genres like women’s fiction, some literary fiction, and relational dramas all have much more processing time than a suspense thriller. A murder mystery/detective fiction will have a lot of processing as well, but it is often very different in style and tone than the processing found in a heavy relationship drama.
The Dark Night Moment
One kind of processing our characters can do (and which is often terrific to do during that “dark night of the soul” section right before the climax) is replay something that happened in their past. Something important, haunting, and impacting to the plot of the novel.
I love putting a flashback (usually the only one in my entire novel, if I have one at all) in at this moment in the story. Why? Because this section of the novel is where the character must face all his fears, issues, shortcomings, failures, crimes, evils—you name it. It’s when he has to muster up every ounce of courage to take the hardest, next step. And he can’t do it until he faces the truth about himself.
Sometimes that truth is about the lie he believes about himself or the world. The lie he’s believed for years. Sometimes that truth is about his wound. The wound that he’s buried deep and has refused to face but has festered now to the point that he can no longer go on without facing it.
These moments in a novel are powerful. They are often the most impacting scene in a novel. The scene readers talk about and remember for years to come. They are my favorite scenes to write. (If you aren’t clear on what your essential scenes are and where they go, get Layer Your Novel. It’s crucial to understand the five turning points and these ten key scenes!)
Take a look at this moment in my relational drama Someone to Blame. This is one of those dark-night moments. In this novel, I have two protagonists—a husband, Matt, and his wife, Irene. Matt’s great wound is that he knows in his heart of hearts it was his callous actions toward his teenage son Daniel that caused his son to kill himself. He’s been blaming everyone else ever since the fateful day (you can guess what the theme of my novel is, right?). And because of that, he’s been in heavy emotional pain. The only way Matt will see his way to freedom from this pain is to go through it. To face it down, honestly, and own it.
The scene opens with Matt at a neighbor’s house, where a group of angry men have gathered to plot a murder. When Matt realizes what they’re planning, he is shocked and wants to leave. But it’s not really the outrage over what these men are planning that disturbs him so deeply. It’s the way the men talk about Billy Thurber—a young man who is very much like his dead son.
Matt then begins to process the event in the past, facing it head-on. And it’s his thoughts that lead him to his emotions, which eventually lead him to the only exit out of the firestorm raging in his soul.
The more Matt listened, the more surreal the discussion became. Soon, he was no longer hearing the men throwing around their ideas. He heard someone call Thurber “good-for-nothing.” The words echoed in his head, causing an ache in his gut. Thurber’s face intruded in his thoughts, hard-set and defiant.
Matt stood and the room spun. He grabbed the back of the chair and steadied himself. The air thickened and suddenly the mass of bodies crowded him, making him claustrophobic. Sweat dripped down his forehead and stung his eyes.
By the time he got to the door, the voices stilled. All eyes were upon him.
“Where are you going, Moore?” Hubble asked. “You can’t leave now. We need your help.”
Matt looked in the faces of men intent on murder. “I can’t do this.”
The big muscular man put his hand on the door, making sure it stayed closed. “Yeah, if you leave, who’s to say you won’t go fink to the sheriff?”
The older man spoke in a threatening tone. “You better come with us. Or meet us down at the pier.”
Matt looked in the face of the man blocking his exit. “Let me leave.”
The man turned and questioned Hubble with his eyes. Hubble scowled a moment, then waved his hand in dismissal. “Aw, let him go if he wants to.” His eyes locked on Matt’s. “I don’t get it, Moore. You of all people should want to see that good-for-nothing punk get his just deserts.”
Matt’s heart raced as he stepped out into the fresh, cold air. Ground fog hovered around the parking lot and muffled the sounds in the room behind him. He heard the door click shut, and it made him jump.
He got into the cab of his truck and noticed his hands trembled. Mindlessly, he drove slowly north toward home, but Hubble’s words replayed over and over, like a skipping record.
He was back in Running Springs, on the front porch. On a night like this—foggy, misty, cold. Normally, June evenings were balmy and mild, but a front had whisked down from Alaska and temperatures dropped. Early that evening, Irene mentioned how they’d probably need to bring sweaters for the graduation party, and for taking group photos outside the auditorium. Matt sat on the porch swing with a heavy coat on, checking his watch from time to time, getting more and more worked up.
This was the last straw. Daniel was supposed to come home two hours ago, and Irene and Casey had gone to bed. Matt told Irene he’d stay up and wait, to make sure Daniel was okay. But that wasn’t the reason Matt stayed up. He had reached the end of his patience.
By the time Daniel showed up, dropped off by a carload of rowdy teenage boys, Matt’s fury rumbled like a volcano threatening to erupt. He had spent years containing his anger and frustration, but no longer. Just like Thurber, Daniel had pushed everyone too far. And he’d gotten away with each overstep with just a little slap on the hand. Fat lot of good that did to alter his behavior. People like Thurber—like Daniel—needed to run up against a brick wall of authority. An impenetrable wall, one that didn’t budge or fall to pieces at the first sign of attack. Matt made himself into that wall.
Just seeing Daniel laughing in that clueless manner—not caring that he was past his curfew and caused his parents worry—made Matt want to wring his son’s neck. All these years he had never laid a finger on any of his children. Never. But that night he snapped. When Daniel came up onto the porch, clearly high on something, Matt blocked his way to the door and slapped him hard in the face.
Daniel reeled backward in shock. “Why did you do that?”
“You have to ask?”
Daniel huffed. “What? Because I’m a little late? Can’t you cut me some slack, Dad? We were out celebrating the end of school.”
“I don’t care if it was the end of the world. We have rules in this house, and you’ve broken them too many times. And you didn’t call or answer your cell phone. You know we’ve told you again and again that you have to answer your phone.”
Daniel kicked at the deck railing. “I was at a party, a loud party. No way I’d hear my phone ring.”
“That’s not the point and you know it.” Matt felt anger surge through every pore in his body. He grabbed Daniel’s chin and forced him to face him. “Tomorrow, after graduation, I want you to pack your things and leave this house.”
“What?” Daniel yanked away from his father’s grip. “Where do you expect me to go?”
“I really don’t care. Find some buddy to stay with, get a job, get an apartment. You’re eighteen, for heaven’s sake.”
“And I suppose when Casey’s my age, you’ll throw her out as well?”
Matt read the panic in Daniel’s face, but he didn’t care. He was a solid, unmovable wall. “If she behaves the way you do. But she’s not a good-for-nothing kid like you.”
Daniel cringed as if Matt had struck him on the face again. Matt could tell tears were forming in his eyes, but his son pushed them back with sheer will. He watched a wave of emotion cross Daniel’s face, watched his features harden into a rock to match Matt’s own stern expression.
“Fine. I’ll be out of here by tomorrow night. You’ll be rid of me.”
“Good.” Matt stared him down. “And don’t go crying to your mother, because she won’t change my mind.”
Matt felt water on his face as he drove down the gravel road to his small cottage in Breakers. He touched his cheek and realized he was crying. When he pulled into his driveway, he cut the engine and shut off the headlights, then sat in the dark listening to the pinging of the engine as it cooled down. For a long time he watched rain splatter the windshield, feeling the rip in his heart.
Irene startled him when she opened the passenger door. “Matt, are you all right?” She slid in and shut the door, sidling up to him in the dark.
Matt tried to swat the memory away, but it rushed at him anyway.
Daniel pushing past him and putting his hand on the doorknob.
The way he stopped and turned to Matt, his eyes brimming with pain.
His voice wavering. “You wished it had been me, don’t you? Instead of Jesse—in the accident. That I had died instead.”
Matt didn’t stop to think. He just wanted to lash out and hurt him, to pierce through that concrete casing and make him bleed, the way he had made them all bleed for years.
“You’re right.” He stabbed Daniel with words as sharp as knives. “You should have died instead. Then we would never have had to suffer all this heartache.”
In the cab of the truck, in the quiet of the dark, foggy night, Matt felt a crack, like his heart split in two. He buckled over the steering wheel and sobbed in great gasps, unable to catch his breath.
Irene wrapped her arm around him and leaned her head on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Matt. Just let it out.”
Matt tried to talk in between gasps, searching for breath. “It was my fault, all my fault. How could I have done that to Daniel?”
Irene stroked Matt’s face, wiped tears. He saw she cried too.
“The night before graduation . . . I told him I wished he had died—instead of Jesse.” He broke into a heaving sob. “I can’t believe I told him that.”
“You didn’t mean it, Matt.”
“I did. And then he went and—”
Matt’s door opened and a rush of cold air hit him broadside. Casey put her hand on her dad’s shoulder, her face frantic with worry. “Dad, Mom, what happened? What’s wrong?”
Irene pulled Matt into her arms, cradling him. “It’s okay, honey. We’ll be inside in a minute.” She gave a reassuring nod and Casey backed off, carefully shutting the door. Matt lifted his eyes and watched his daughter go back into the house.
He wiped his face with his sleeve. “Irene, I’m so sorry. So sorry. And I’ve hurt you and Casey so badly.”
“Shush. Just let it go.”
“How will you ever forgive me?” He raised his face to look into her eyes and expected harsh judgment. Instead, he only saw a shared pain, a shared loss.
“Matt, I don’t blame you for Daniel’s death. We’re all to blame—and maybe not to blame. Oh, what’s the point? We can’t go back and change anything, make it different.”
“No, but I can change things now. Stop being so hard on Casey. Criticizing her like I did Daniel. My poor baby—”
More tears gushed out, and Matt felt himself emptying like a river into a great thirsting sea.
Irene spoke softly. “Casey loves you so much—”
“—And I love her too.” His throat clenched in pain. “More than she knows.”
Irene patted his arm. “Well, then, tell her. She needs to hear it from your own lips.”
Matt turned and looked at Irene. Love poured from her eyes, love he didn’t deserve.
She kissed his lips and wiped his hair off his forehead. “Come, let’s go inside.”
We writers can craft powerful emotional scenes by not only walking our character through a past trauma but showing how that revisiting emotionally impacts him. It’s a combination of telling what happened and replaying the former reaction (in the past) as well as showing the present reaction (the processing in the present of the story) your character experiences.
If you have created a past wound for your protagonist, consider putting in a “replay” moment in that dark moment before the climax. In most transformational journeys in a novel, the character must face his true essence as well as understand what false persona he’s been showing that world (which hasn’t been working for him) in this very scene. Part of coming into his “true essence” is facing his greatest fear (which is usually tied up with the lie he believes because of the wound he’s suffered).
If you haven’t come up with a wound, think about developing one. Not just any wound but one that is speficially chosen to work with your themes and the purpose of your novel. If you need help with this, hire me! This is what I love to do: help writers come up with terrific elements for their stories.
Do you have a memory your character revisits during the dark moment before the climax? Share it in the comments!
In the last two posts, we’ve looked at the challenge of evoking emotions in our readers. You’ve learned that just telling how a character feels does little to nothing to evoke emotional response in your reader.
The primary purpose of fiction is to elicit an emotional response. Think about it. Readers of fiction aren’t reading to acquire facts, such as they might do when studying a nonfiction book. They read to be entertained, affected. They read to be tense, laugh, worry, get excited. In other words, they read to feel something.
And your job as a fiction writer is to masterfully write in a way that will evoke a specific emotional response in your reader. You may not be able to name exactly what those emotions are, but you should know what those emotions feel like when you experience them.
We looked at how thoughts lead to emotions, and that getting into your character’s head and showing her thoughts in a masterful way is the ticket for eliciting that emotion in your reader.
Emotions are wide and varied. Subtle and strong. You might want to evoke just a tiny bit of sympathy or a huge heart of compassion in your reader. You might want your reader to end a scene feeling a tiny bit annoyed with a character. Or feeling outraged.
You are the magician and the manipulator of emotion. So it behooves you to study hard. Examine passages in novels that move you. Then figure out what the author wrote that had that impact on you.
I have read paragraphs in novels that had me weeping my heart out. In fact, just by thinking about those passages, I feel emotion well up.
Yes, it’s easier to evoke emotion in readers once they know well and care about your character. But it’s also not a sure thing readers will ever care about your character. From the get-go, you have to work hard to build that empathy. And getting into your characters’ thoughts is the fastest and most effective way to do so.
Read this and see how you respond. In this middle-of-the novel scene, Irene, a schoolteacher who recently lost her two teenage sons, finds rebel/drifter Billy Thurber beat up and lying in the field behind the school.
A cold wind assailed her, and she began shivering alongside Billy. How long would it take her to run to the classroom and call for help, then come back, keep him warm? She looked him over, wondering if he was in shock, or going into shock. She didn’t know what you were supposed to do except keep someone warm. There were blankets in the closet cupboard. Along with her first-aid kit, mostly Band-Aids and ointment. Stopgap necessities for minor injuries. The nurse’s office had much more, but she didn’t have a key to that room.
Just as she resolved to chance leaving him there, she felt a cold hand on her wrist. Billy tugged on her.
“Don’t leave,” he said through purple split lips. “It’s not . . . as bad as it looks.”
Irene watched him spit blood off to the side, then turn to meet her eyes. One eye was swelled shut; the other opened halfway but still locked onto hers, arresting her movement.
“I should get help. I can’t carry you all that way.” She pointed to the pale-green building that seemed to recede farther away.
“I can manage. Just help me up.” He struggled to his feet.
Irene grasped his arm and felt him shake. “You’re being stubborn.”
He wobbled as he stood, not taking his eyes off her. “You.” He chuckled, then coughed and winced in pain. “You’re mothering me again.”
Irene caught a quick glance of a fleeting emotion—something sad that made Billy look small and frightened. Every motherly instinct kicked in, forcing out Matt’s warnings that ricocheted in her head.
What did she care if this young man turned out to be violent and mean? She had heard the talk in town—not just from Matt. People who said Billy had set fire to that motel, and had vandalized houses and cars, stolen things. At this moment she couldn’t care less if Billy had even killed someone. All she saw in his bashed-up face was a lost boy, like Daniel.
Maybe if someone, even a stranger, had stopped once and just put their arms around Daniel, would it have made a difference? If a friend at school had just noticed Daniel’s mood that morning, tried to cheer him up or offered him a bite of a donut, would he have changed his mind and not put that gun to his head?
Suddenly, it became clear—that every little action had immeasurable potency, creating a hundred repercussions that could set off any number of events. Like breaking a rack on the billiard table, sending balls flying in all directions. If one word can be so hurtful, sticking like a knife in your heart for the rest of your life, couldn’t a different word turn everything around?
“Let’s go,” he muttered. “My truck’s that way.” He pointed back toward the cliffs.
“No, I’m taking you to my classroom. I’ve got first aid there.”
“Whatever.” He swooned into her arms. She struggled with righting him, with ignoring the freezing cold seeping into her bones, slowing her down. She had visions of the polar expeditions, men wrapped in furs and trudging through ice, clinging to one another, falling down and longing for sleep. She took three steps and stopped, then started again. Off like a herd of turtles. They would never make it to the building this way, doing this ludicrous stumble, like two drunks, like a potato sack race.
Irene stopped and let go of Billy, watching to see if he would fall down. “Stay here. I’ve got to get help.”
Billy’s face was a tint of blue. Her heart pounded as she rubbed her hands together. “Here,” she said, unwrapping the scarf reluctantly from her neck.
Billy’s eyes glazed over, but he kept them pinned on hers as she draped the scarf around his neck, wrapping it in a snug circle.
Like a lasso, like a noose.
Billy clawed at his throat and screamed in panic. Irene jumped back, imagining snakes and spiders. She watched, stunned, unable to respond to such peculiar behavior. Billy gasped, a fish out of water, panting in erratic bursts, struggling for air. Literally unable to breathe.
Irene tore at the scarf, fighting Billy’s own thrashing hands, and catching a clip to her jaw. She managed to pull it off, expecting to find him choking on something, on his own blood or who knows what. Instead, to compound her surprise, the moment she removed the scarf, he inhaled a desperate breath—a swimmer surfacing after being trapped too long under water; a man buried in a collapsed mine, digging his way out and finding an ocean of air.
Billy fell back and sat on the ground, both hands gripping his throat, all his attention fixed on finding the next breath, sucking it into his lungs.
Irene knelt beside him and laid a hand on his chest. His wild eyes searched and found a connection between the hand pressed against his heart and the arm that led up to a woman’s face.
Irene shut her eyes, willing her own heart to slow down. What a scare he gave her. What was all that about? She felt his heart slow into a steady beat. Like a bird trapped in a cage, she felt the flutter against the palm of her hand. She pictured flapping wings, birds settling down to roost, growing quiet, their eyes slowly closing. Soon, the heartbeat pulsing through her hand matched the pace of her own, synchronous and partnered.
She dared removing her hand and opened her eyes. Billy’s entire body shook violently; his teeth chattered so loudly her own teeth ached in response. She hesitated when she picked up the scarf, worried her slight movement would set off another panic attack. But Billy’s eyes were empty now and they followed hers without hint of emotion as she wrapped the scarf around her own neck and coveted the token warmth it gave.
Irene was past being cold. She hoisted him up, linked her arm through his, and readjusted her coat around his shoulders. Without words, they moved slowly, Irene guiding his steps across the field, through the playground, and into the school hallway where a blast of heat met them at the door. Time had a skewed quality to it; Irene had no idea what hour it was, or even what day.
Trudging down the darkened hallway, Irene thought of Dorothy in the land of Oz, walking down the corridor in the Emerald City amid terrifying rumblings and flashes of light, hoping the Great and Powerful Oz would grant her request.
When they entered her classroom, Irene sat Billy down in one of the tiny chairs. She would have rather stood under the blower that came out of the ceiling, letting the hot air defrost her. Feeling returned to her fingers, pins and needles, as she ran the water in the sink, urging the water to hurry and heat. She wrung out a rag and went to Billy, who hung his head, hair falling over his face. Irene put a gentle hand under his chin and lifted it, unsure where to start on this battered landscape of flesh.
She wiped the hair out of the way and cleaned his forehead, falling into a familiar rhythm of tender strokes. There had been many children over the years, sitting on chairs like these, with Irene cleaning off a bloody knee or scraped elbow. And there had been her own children, sitting on a stool, or on the couch by the TV, or outside on the sidewalk—after tripping from jump rope or Frisbee or just horseplay. How many boxes of Band-Aids had she gone through in the last twenty years?
Billy winced as Irene cleaned dirt around his eyes, but he let her continue, with a look of surrender and compliance, of uncertainty and disorientation.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital? I think you might need stitches, and you may have suffered a concussion.”
He tensed. “No hospital.”
He started to stand but Irene stopped him with her hand. “Okay. I’ll get you cleaned up best I can. Just let me do that, at least.” She went to the sink and rinsed out the cloth, watching the water run from muddy red to clear. As she reached over to continue, he grabbed her wrist. The warm room may have thawed out Billy’s chilled limbs but his eyes remained icy.
“Why are you doing this for me?”
Irene stepped back and looked at Billy’s unflinching grip on her wrist. “I’d do this for anyone. You just can’t turn your back on someone who needs help.” She paused. “Can you?”
“Being a bleeding heart doesn’t get you anywhere.” He released his grip and took the cloth from her hand. She watched as he rubbed his face, cleaned the dirt and blood from his short beard, dabbed at his swollen eyes, almost with vicious intent.
“Here.” He handed her back the cloth. He stood and took her coat off his shoulders, then set it down on the small chair.
“Wait.” Irene put her hand around the back of Billy’s head to hold him there, then touched his cheek with the cloth. She felt him tremble under her touch. “You missed a spot here.” With soft, short strokes, she continued, then startled when a drop of water splashed on her hand.
Billy’s eyes were closed, but tears streamed down his face.
He held his breath and Irene held hers.
She was back in Daniel’s room, late at night after the police and paramedics had all left, and her husband and Casey tossed in their beds, unable to sleep. Jesse, whisked away in an ambulance to the morgue, lay on a cold metal table with a sheet covering him. Daniel sat in his desk chair and let her touch him, the first time in oh so long. She had taken a tissue and dabbed a smudge on Daniel’s cheek and felt hot tears splatter her hand.
These two moments, alike and disparate, each overlapping and repelling the other.
A trembling sigh escaped her throat and snapped Billy from the spell she had woven.
He knocked her hand away. “What are you doing?” His head darted, taking in the room for the first time. “What is this, a school?”
Irene backed a few steps from him, gathering up the distance he pushed between them. He limped over to the door, one hand holding the side of his face. “Where’s my truck? I parked it on that dead-end street.”
“I’ll drive you over there. It’s too far for you to walk.”
Billy snorted and straightened. Ripples of pain traveled over his face. Irene watched the way he shoved them aside—a mannerism that look practiced and honed. “Where is it? Just point me in the right direction.” His tone was brusque and impatient. The “other” Billy was back from wherever he’d gone hiding.
Without a word, Irene walked down the hall to the back door and opened it.
“There,” she said, pointing to the baseball field. “Your truck’s behind that fence.”
Standing at the threshold, she watched him as he stumbled across the playground, impervious to the biting wind rubbing her face raw. When he reached the fence and passed the place where she had found him, he disappeared from view. She knew the street was just beyond there, the cul-de-sac where he’d left his truck.
After retrieving her things from the classroom, she shut off the lights and locked the door. As she walked down the dark corridor once more, she recalled how Dorothy looked after the Great Oz had refused her request to go home and, instead, gave her the impossible task of stealing the broomstick from the wicked witch.
Utterly devastated. Overwhelmed. Homesick.
When she had knelt beside Daniel in his room, in the swallowing silence and unbearable, smothering pain, the full weight of responsibility crashed down on her. She would have to find a way to lead her family out of this pit—an impossible task. In all her searching, she never did find a yellow brick road, or a good witch like Glinda to wave a wand over her head and give her magic words to recite, words that would whisk her home. No one warned her about the other path and how to get off it. That once you were on it, you couldn’t see where you were going, for the obscurity of the trees. You knew that more danger lurked just around the bend, but what could you do? There was no turning back, and you weren’t in Kansas.
There was no place like home—not anymore.
My characters in Someone to Blame experience a range of emotions, all barreling one after another, thoughts triggering emotion that triggers reaction/response. Billy has a suppressed traumatic memory that is triggered by the scarf tied around his neck (which is revealed at the climax of the novel). Tending to Billy triggers all kinds of emotions in Irene regarding her son who committed suicide.
Irene’s feelings are complicated, and the feeling I hoped to evoke in my readers was also complicated. At this point, Irene is stumbling in the dark, trying to find her way back, somehow, to the land of the living. She is trying to find “normal” in a world that can never again be normal.
When you sit down to write a scene, spend time thinking about the emotional response you want to evoke in your readers. Think about situations that made you feel that way, then do some freewriting about the incident, about your feelings and thoughts, and dive into the complexities of these things. Then, as Hemingway suggested, try to grab those and put them in your scene, in order to make your reader feel the way you did.
Any thoughts on this daunting task of manipulating emotion?
We’ve been delving into the challenge of the emotional concerns in fiction writing. It’s a twofold objective: showing characters who experience emotions, in order to make them believable in all their natural human behavior, and evoking emotion in our readers, which is, I believe, the harder of the two tasks.
However, to be a masterful writer, we must master both. It doesn’t take a lot of work to learn how to “show” emotion in our characters, though the tendency might be to drift into tropes and boring actions (her heart pounded in her chest; he clenched his fists and gritted his teeth). Granted, sometimes we are hard pressed to be masterfully original with every bit of emotional showing we do (though, as we saw in the posts on masterful description, “fresh” and “original” can be achieved with effort).
And that leads to the issue we discussed in the last post on the subject: how to manipulate readers’ emotions.
To reiterate a key point: thoughts lead to feelings. For example: I start to think how I might have accidentally left the back door open, and that might have been why my toddler wandered out of the house and is now lost. That thought induces emotions of guilt and self-recrimination. A thought comes into my head, suggesting my boyfriend may have lied about where he was last night, and suddenly I am suspicious, doubting him, wondering if he is cheating on me, and that last thought detonates feelings of anger and betrayal.
Thoughts spark emotions. So when we show what our characters are thinking, via the narrative or direct thoughts (when in their POV), and even in dialogue (whether in the POV or not), we can sense what they might be feeling. Sometimes the feelings are obvious, but masterful writing will imply the complexity of the character’s emotions.
As I discussed in the last post, when we go for the obvious big emotions (showing our character mad, sad, or glad), they can come across flat, boring, shallow, and, worst of all, not evoke any emotion at all in our readers.
More than anything, we want to manipulate our readers’ feelings, and we do this with surprise, with the unspoken, with subtext. Sure, a character can say or think “I’m so angry. I’m furious. I want to kill him!” and it can be done in a way that’s boring or a way that’s masterful. What can take the boring into the masterful arena is by complicating the emotion.
If the reader senses more beneath the anger. If she can feel the hurt, for example, it has a different effect on the reader than if the only emotion seen or felt is anger.
We’ve been taught that “showing” is better than telling, but showing a person throwing a chair might imply anger, but it won’t necessarily explain the impetus behind the anger. It won’t make readers feel angry either. Or compassion, if that’s the objective.
But if we see actions implying an emotion, and we hear thoughts (which can be the running narrative, since all lines in a scene are the POV character’s thoughts, essentially, regardless of whether you’re in first-person or third-person POV) that indicate the reason for the action (implying emotion), we start to work toward evoking emotion in the reader.
You Need to Know Where You’re Going
But we must know what emotion(s) we want to evoke. And sometimes that isn’t easy to put into simple terms. Sometimes when I write scenes, I know how I want my reader to feel, but I don’t think I could easily articulate it. However, I know what that desired emotion feels like inside me. I know what kinds of things (words, actions, events) trigger those emotions in me. And so I attempt to create situations and thoughts for my characters that evoke the emotions I’m going for.
Remember Hemingway’s advice: “Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.”
Work on the Microtension
We want tension on every page. Microtension is created when things feel off, feel contradictory, seem puzzling. We want our readers in a constant state of unease, stress, discomfort.
Maybe that sounds crazy, but if characters are sitting around happy with nothing bothering them, we have a boring scene that readers will stop reading. Sure, at the end of your book, you might have that wonderful happy moment when it’s all wrapped up and the future, finally, looks bright (or at least better than it has looked recently), but that’s why the book ends there. The story, for the moment, is over (unless you deliberately leaves tension hanging so readers will jump into the next book in the series to relieve that tension).
When you read passages in novels that evoke emotion in you, tear apart the lines and figure out why they work. Examine how you are feeling, what you are feeling, what your thoughts are that are sparking those feelings. Sometimes when you read something, it triggers memories and associations, and it’s those things that cause the emotions to well up.
Remember, when you tap into universal feelings—human experiences many or most share—the thoughts and actions of a character will resonate. And when something resonates, such as in music when a sound wave causes a string to vibrate, it elicits a response. Readers don’t just read, says Donald Maass, they respond.
Next week, I’ll start giving some passage examples to show how characters’ thoughts lead to readers experiencing emotion.
If you’ve thought about self-publishing, or you are already deep in the mire, you know how daunting it is.
Publishing your own book means you have to be a publisher. You have to know all the pertinent aspects of successfully publishing a book. You can waste a lot of time and get frustrated if you don’t know how to navigate the waters.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with THE industry expert in self-publishing: Carla King. Carla teaches self-publishing boot camps all over, and she’s going to be teaching one this fall at our Tahoe retreat!
Self-Publishing Boot Camp
Self-Publishing Boot Camp was developed to provide you with everything you need to publish your book professionally and confidently.
You’ll learn how to create a foundation for success with market research that shows you where your book belongs in the publishing ecosystem. How to use beta readers to make sure your story actually has an audience, how to set up a publishing business, prepare your manuscript professionally, distribute, market, and sell your books.
You’ll learn about book distribution and aggregation tools & services, formatting tools for print and ebooks, and direct sales tools so that you can maximize your profits. Wondering whether to print “on demand” with POD technology or use an offset printing process? You might decide to do both!
Self-Publishing Boot Camp will give you all the information and tools you need to do it yourself, outsource a few tasks, or hire an entire team.You can create a book that looks like any published by the Big 5 publishing houses.
The process of marketing your self-published book starts at step 1 and is a theme throughout the boot camp. Getting great PR starts with developing a few reader profiles and “talking” to them.
We’ll take advantage of the awesome media room to do demos of market research procedures, formatting tools, and distribution systems like Amazon CreateSpace, Smashwords, and IngramSpark. We’ll also break into small groups to brainstorm your keywords, author bios, and book descriptions.
In addition, you’ll get loads of worksheets, cheatsheets, checklists, the Consumer’s Guide to Writing & Publishing Tools & Services ebook, and the 344-page print edition of Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, 4th edition, a $49.99 value.
Seriously, if you want to succeed at self-publishing, this is your ticket!
The Self-Publishing Boot Camp will be held Sept. 27-29 at South Lake Tahoe, CA. You can either stay in our fancy house or nearby. See all the info and pricing HERE.
Consider staying extra days! You can attend one or both of the other boot camps, or just stay for extra days and enjoy the lake and the house and the company of writing instructors and other authors!
Space is limited, so don’t delay.
Do you really want to be a successful self-published author? Then dive in!
You’ve probably heard the usual tips about getting a nonfiction book deal, particularly in the arena of prescriptive books:
“Grow Your Platform and Showcase it in Your Proposal.”
“Engage Your Community.”
“Write Something Fresh.”
“Showcase Your Credentials.”
“Capture a Strong Voice from the Start of the Proposal.”
“Include the latest research if there is evidence to back up your methods or advice.”
Those are all important ingredients to interest literary agents and publishers. However, there are additional strategies that many people don’t know that can make your proposal stand out.
Demonstrate that your people buy from you.
It’s great to have a mailing list of 30,000, but if few of those people ever buy from you, they may be unlikely to buy a book. Publishers know this. If, on the other hand, you have 60,000 downloads of your app, that’s going to be more compelling than a list that sits there. Emphasize your sales, and you’ll get the attention of an agent or acquisitions editor.
If you don’t sell anything yet, consider adding a product such as a simple app (on a readily available platform—you don’t have to invest thousands of dollars). Or sell a short ebook with information that will be valuable to your people but doesn’t give away the heart of the book you are pitching.
Keep them curious.
In your chapter outlines, provide information about the specific benefits readers will receive by reading that chapter. Indicate where there will be stories, exercises, and other features—as well as the benefits of those features. But don’t retell the whole anecdote, or even necessarily try to summarize it.
It’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in. If it reads too much like a comprehensive summary, agents and publishers may think they have all the information— they’ll feel they don’t need to read the book after reading the proposal. Your outline should convey the value of what’s in the chapter without necessarily revealing every detail.
Keep your description mysterious enough so that the agent or publisher feels a yearning to read the whole thing and get the more complete understanding. You want them to feel as if they don’t quite know what the book will say; this is new information. They have a sense. And it’s intriguing, compelling. Clearly, useful. That’s it.
One literary agent I know doesn’t even include a full sample chapter in a proposal. He said he prefers to generate enough mystery that a publisher (and the entire acquisitions board) feels as if they need to acquire the book to satisfy their curiosity.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend submitting incomplete sample chapters. It may work better for an agent who already has a track record with the publisher and a strong relationship. Still, the agent’s point is well taken. Hold back just enough to create a sense of eagerness on their part.
Find an underserved market.
In a crowded arena, such as relationship books, find a market that’s not being served. In a private interview for my book-writing students, literary agent, Regina Brooks noted that a book about interracial dating got scooped up by a publisher because it addressed the specific needs of a market that were not addressed by other books.
It’s okay if you rile some people with your writing. In fact, controversy can get you lots of publicity. As they say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but controversy is not a bad thing in itself. I wouldn’t recommend being a jerk, but feel free to disagree with high-status authorities in your field if you believe in what you share. Publishers and agents will want to know how you back up your claims.
Depending on the subject and type of publisher, some will only be happy with scientific research or data. Others may be fine with intuition or experience, if you can show credibility through the stories you share, the people you’ve helped, etc. Bottom line: controversy sells when it comes to the media—and publishers know it.
Embrace the counterintuitve.
We write books to change things. If your book busts myths or shares information that defies what people currently believe or expect, showcase the surprises in your book. Like controversy, freshness sells.
When writing a book proposal, it’s important to be in touch with your passion and why you’re writing this book, but remember to explore the mind-set of the publisher. They want to sell as many books as possible! Think about your proposal from their point of view, and you will naturally write a better proposal.
Lisa Tener is an authority on book writing and publishing and an award-winning book coach. She guides experts, entrepreneurs, and visionaries to joyfully write and publish highly successful nonfiction books. Dozens of her clients have received 5- and 6-figure book deals with major publishers, have won major book awards, and/or have been on national media, including Today, Good Morning America, and the Oprah Network.
Most of us writers have experienced writer’s block at one time or another. If you’ve had writer’s block, you’re in good company. Writers from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Mark Twain to Stephen King have gone through it. It’s not just limited to writers: illustrator Ashley Goldberg, photographer Matthias Heiderich, and multidisciplinary artist Aris Moore, among many others, have suffered bouts of creative block.
It can be frustrating, worrying, and frightening all at the same time. You find it hard to come up with ideas for a new project or paths to continuing the work you’ve been doing. You realize you’ve been staring fruitlessly at a blank screen or piece of paper and wasting precious time and energy.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid getting into this state. Here are some suggestions.
Try freewriting exercises
Most accomplished writers agree that a good way to develop your writing skills is to write a lot. Research finds that the brain is a little like a muscle in how it responds to stimuli. By exercising specific muscles, you make those muscles stronger, and by exercising specific mental skills, you become better at those skills. Writing on a frequent basis helps you develop your writing skill and you are then less likely to encounter periods when you are at a loss for words.
Freewriting exercises improve your ability to write on demand. One popular exercise is to designate a set period of time every day just to write. The intent here isn’t to produce a work for publication or to post on your blog. It’s to write something only for your personal consumption.
Author and journalist Julia Cameron uses a technique called “Morning Pages”: every morning she starts the day by filling up three pages with whatever comes to mind.
This stream-of-consciousness writing clears your head of whatever is holding you back and gets your creativity flowing in preparation for a productive day. It also gets you in the practice of being able to write on demand.
Over time, your mind gets into the habit of writing. Soon, you are able to produce the words and sentences whenever you need to, and your productivity increases throughout the day.
Since three pages is approximately 750 words, this technique is sometimes called “750 Words.” There’s an app called 750words that helps you develop this practice. If 750 words seems too daunting at first, you can start with a shorter interval, such as writing as much as you can for ten minutes, and work up.
Try creativity exercises
Regular creativity exercises stimulate your creative side, so you’re less likely to find yourself at a loss for ideas. There are many exercises you can try. Here are a few:
Find an image or photograph, maybe online, that you haven’t seen before, and invent a story behind it. Who are the people? What was the situation? What events led up to the picture being taken?
Read a short story, then rewrite it so the plot goes differently. Modify the events or dialogue or add or change characters. Alternatively, take a comedic story and rewrite it as non-comedic or vice versa. Or take an epic poem and rewrite it as a news story.
Read a story or article and then summarize it in 100 words or less. This improves your ability to get to the heart of the issues and hit the main points clearly and concisely.
A large part of creativity is finding connections between seemingly unrelated things. On a sheet of paper, write a list of things in four different categories:
people (e.g. mother, architect, cowboy);
places (e.g. restaurant, street, apartment);
objects (e.g. pencil, motorcycle, desk); and
concepts (e.g. happiness, hope, faith)
Pick two things at random from different categories and try to connect them. Write a fictional story, describe an experience from your own life or someone else’s, or write some thoughts about how they could be related.
Stay fueled and hydrated
Your brain runs on food energy and water, and it’s important to maintain adequate levels of both. Don’t expect to be at your best if you haven’t had a good meal in more than a few hours.
Likewise, research has found that taking in enough water makes a person 14 percent more productive and better able to focus on tasks. You can be dehydrated even before you feel thirsty. The Mayo Clinic recommends men drink thirteen glasses of water and women have nine glasses daily for optimal productivity. Go easy on the coffee, tea, and sugary drinks and substitute some water instead.
Work in short bursts
Writing a book or long story is a big task. The Pomodoro Technique is based on breaking up big tasks into smaller bites by working in short intervals, while maintaining motivation, increasing focus, and minimizing distractions.
With this technique, you work for a timed interval, such as 25 minutes. When the time is up, you take a short break—for example, five minutes. You then work for another 25 minutes, and then take another short break. After the fourth work-break cycle, you take a longer break, for 15-30 minutes, or however long it takes to get recharged. The enforced breaks help you to stay fresh and focused and remind you to look up from your screen or writing tablet periodically.
The technique is based on the realization that regular breaks are essential for productivity. The periodic breaks enable you to take a rest, maintain your motivation, and come up with ideas for the next work session. By working in shorter sprints, you avoid those marathon work sessions that can often cause you to run out of ideas and creative energy.
Approach writing like a job
Try thinking of writing as a job you do rather than an art. You may have become a writer partly because you wanted the freedom from a 9-5 job. But, by writing at the same time every day, you can tune your brain to become accustomed to turning out prose on schedule. William Faulkner famously said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
Stephen King, known as a prolific author, once compared writing to physical work. We’re not artists, he said; we’re more like craftsmen or laborers, except we use words and paragraphs instead of tools and bricks. We create stories, articles, and books, just as workers build walls and houses.
It’s in our nature as writers to be critical of ourselves. Sometimes, though, that tendency can be counterproductive. Sometimes it’s best to put words to paper and withhold judgment for the moment. Turn your internal editor off and just brainstorm.
Author Anna Quindlin wrote, “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.” So just put the words on the page. If the Muse doesn’t strike you that day, at least you’ve put in the work.
Since you never know exactly when the perfect idea or wording is going to come to you, writer Joe Bunting suggests always keeping a pen and writing pad, or your smartphone, handy, so if inspiration strikes when you’re not at your desk, you can write quickly before it gets away from you.
Precede each writing session with brief physical exercise
Although writing is usually a sedentary occupation, research indicates a short exercise session can help people perform better at creative tasks. In a study, subjects performed better on tests of creativity when the tests were preceded by short, intense physical exercise.
To keep your creativity up, turn off your phone and go for a hike in the woods. A study found people performed significantly better on a creativity test after a nature hike.
There you have it, some suggestions for avoiding the dreaded writer’s block. By taking measures to prevent creative slowdown, you can maintain or improve your productivity and keep up your enjoyment of writing.
Max Chi is a freelance writer specializing in technology, personal health, and business-to-business content creation and blog posting. His background includes graduate degrees in science and technology, and professional certifications in information technology and web content writing. Connect with him at webfortunemedia.com
In this series on masterful writing, we’re now looking at emotion. Masterful showing of emotion, masterful “telling” of emotion, and masterful evocation of emotion.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a writer to do well is to manipulate emotion. I say “manipulate” because one of the definitions of the word is “to operate in a skillful manner.” I am not using the word in its more negative connotations of insidiously controlling or affecting things or people for a harmful purpose.
We writers want to manipulate our characters and our readers. We want to masterfully evoke emotion in our readers because, as Donald Maass says in The Emotional Craft of Fiction, readers don’t just read; they respond.
Masterful writers don’t just show characters emoting and expect readers to feel the same feelings. Every writer should understand that just because a character is afraid or angry, it doesn’t make the reader afraid or angry.
Even if a writer adeptly shows a character feeling emotions, that doesn’t guarantee the reader will feel anything at all.
So it behooves writers to dig into this topic of evoking emotion, which is a slippery animal, to be sure.
In last week’s post, we saw how breaking the “show, don’t tell” maxim can sometimes be a good idea. Telling about a character’s emotions in a narrative, when done well, can effectively evoke a response from readers. We looked at some posts on masterful narrative scenes, which are scenes that are mostly “telling,” They aren’t playing out the scene in real time with dialogue and character reaction, which is what “showing” is all about. Yet, they are powerfully effective.
In addition to telling what a character is feeling, through his thoughts and/or describing his actual feelings, and showing the character emoting through body language (white-knuckled fists, clenched jaw, etc.), masterful writers can do something even more powerful—they can manipulate their readers to feel things other than what the character is apparently feeling.
Manipulating Readers’ Feelings
Think about real life. You might see on the news children hungry, suffering, brutalized. They might be feeling despair, hopelessness, fear. But perhaps, because you see the circumstances through a different lens, you might feel frustrated, angry, even furious.
We writers want to think carefully about the emotions we hope to evoke in our readers. We want to think about why we want them to feel a certain way. And again, if I show children begging on the street and adeptly convey the emotions they are feeling, that doesn’t necessarily mean you, the reader, are going to feel compassion or anger or sadness.
You can see what a ginormous challenge this is.
Maass quotes Hemingway in that wonderful writing craft book: “Find what gave you the emotion . . . Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.”
Pay Attention to Your Own Emotions
That’s a great first step to learning how to manipulate reader emotions. In addition to examining how you emotional react to things you see around you or on TV, pay attention to those moments when you feel strongly while reading a novel.
Have you ever read a passage in a novel that made you cry? Stirred up indignation? Real terror? I am often moved by passages I read in both fiction and nonfiction. Masterful writers can wrench emotional reaction from me even with random passages.
I recently gave a memoir-writing workshop in which I read various passages to share beautiful writing styles. In more than one instance I got so choked up, I could barely speak. This wasn’t because I had read the entire memoir and felt connected to the writer. Some of these passages I’d found just by flipping through pages looking for interesting writing.
Why did these few paragraphs here and there evoke such strong emotion from me? Because they touched on universal feelings. They triggered images that connected to powerful emotions.
These writers spoke not about painful things they’d experienced but insights into the human condition that I shared with them. Or that at least resonated with me. They didn’t “show” the emotions they were feeling, or even “tell” what those emotions were. But the observations they made about themselves and their world moved me.
Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery—when the reader isn’t noticing we are manipulating her. He says “Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.”
I can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—such unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own reactions.
This doesn’t mean a writer’s key objective with any novel is to accomplish this at every turn. This is a masterful thing to do, but we writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected. Even when we know what emotion is being stirred in us, when we see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.
When I began to read the chapter in The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo, the beloved narrator dog, is dying, I knew what was going to happen to me. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions. While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs.
But here are two things I want to say about that passage: First, the key to its brilliance lies not only in the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love,” but I hinted at the masterful execution of the scene with the words joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.
Pay attention to that.
You wouldn’t expect a scene watching a dog die, one that breaks your heart, to make you so happy at the same time. Even laughing. That’s what makes that scene so amazingly brilliant. Because the whole time I was crying in anguish, I was laughing with joy. And it was absolutely authentic in every way. And utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.
Second: there is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. In other words, it might be terrifically hard to evoke emotion in readers over a character they have only just been introduced to.
We’re told to get readers to bond with our protagonist within the first couple of pages, something few writers can do well. Yes, we might get readers interested in our characters and even riveted by their personalities and actions in the opening scenes, but do we truly care for them? Depending on your genre and story, you might not want readers to care for your protagonist all that much (at the start).
As we grow attached to characters throughout the reading of a great novel, we care more about them. And that makes it easier for emotion to be evoked in us. All along the way, a writer must carefully manipulate readers’ emotion, in a deliberate fashion, to try to get them to feel what he wants them to feel.
I think writers often fall short for a number of reasons.
One reason: the writer is aiming for only the obvious big emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear, and anger, to name a few. People are complex. Our emotions are complex. We rarely just feel anger. Underlying anger could be fear, hurt, a sense of betrayal, a feeling of being misunderstood. If we don’t mine deep into our own feelings to uncover the complexity of their makeup, we aren’t going to succeed in evoking those complexities in readers.
Instead of thinking, “I want my reader to feel sad,” how much more masterful would it be to dig deep into the many emotional nuances we experience when any given event occurs.
Do what Hemingway instructed. When you feel something, write down what action took place that made you emote. Then dig into the emotions and learn not just why you feel this way but what exactly you are feeling. What thoughts led you to those feelings? If you can nail the thoughts, which are words, you can put similar thoughts (words) into your narrative and character’s voice.
That’s the first step toward evoking emotion in readers in a masterful way.
If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it. AND I suggest you NOT read the passage to follow, as it may spoil the book for you. Those of you, however, who have read the book may need to grab a box of tissues (again). Pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel. Note the universal feelings Enzo expresses that make you think “Me too!”
The dawn breaks gently on the horizon and spills its light over the land. My life seems like it has been so long and so short at the same time. People speak of a will to live. They rarely speak of a will to die. Because people are afraid of death. Death is dark and unknown and frightening. But not for me. It is not the end. . . .
“Yo, Zo!” [Denny] calls to me when he sees me. “How are you feeling?”
“Like shit,” I reply. But, of course, he doesn’t hear me.
“I made you pancakes,” he says, cheerfully.
I force myself to wag my tail, and I really shouldn’t have, because the wagging jostles my bladder and I feel warm droplets of urine splash my feet.
“It’s okay, boy,” he says. “I’ve got it.”
He cleans up my mess and tears me a piece of pancake. I take it in my mouth, but I can’t chew it, I can’t taste it. It sits on my tongue limply until it finally falls out of my mouth and onto the floor. I think Denny notices, but he doesn’t say anything . . .
I don’t want Denny to worry about me. I don’t want to force him to take me on a one-way visit to the vet. He loves me so much. The worst thing I could possibly do to Denny is make him hurt me . . .
I go to Denny, and I push my muzzle into his thigh.
“There’s my Enzo,” he says.
And he reaches down out of instinct; we’ve been together so long, he touches the crown of my head, and his fingers scratch at the crease of my ears. The touch of a man.
My legs buckle and I fall.
He is alarmed. He crouches over me.
“Are you okay?”
I am fine. I am wonderful. I am. I am.
He turns off the fire under the frying pan. He places his hand over my heart. The beating that he feels, if he feels anything at all, is not strong . . .
My soul has learned what it came to learn, and all other things are just things. We can’t have everything we want. Sometimes, we simply have to believe.
“You’re okay,” he says. He cradles my head in his lap. I see him . . .
I saw a documentary once. It was about dogs in Mongolia. It said the the next incarnation for a dog—a dog who is ready to leave his dogness behind—is as a man.
I am ready.
And yet . . .
Denny is so very sad; he will miss me so much. I would rather stay with him and Zoe here in the apartment and watch the people on the street below as they talk to each other and shake each other’s hands . . .
“It’s okay,” he says to me. “If you need to go now, you can go.”
I turn my head, and there, before me, is my life. My childhood. My world.
My world is all around me. All around the fields of Spangle, where I was born. The rolling hills covered with the golden grasses that sway in the wind and tickle my stomach when I move over them. The sky so perfectly blue and the sun so round.
This is what I would like. To play in those fields for a little longer. To spend a little more time being me before I become someone else. This is what I would like.
And I wonder: Have I squandered my dogness? Have I forsaken my nature for my desires? Have I made a mistake by anticipating my future and shunning my present?
Perhaps I have. An embarrassing deathbed regret. Silly stuff . . .
I feel his warm breath on my neck, his hands. He leans down to me, though I can no longer see him, he leans down to my ear.
The fields are so large I could run forever in one direction and then run forever back. There is no end to these fields.
“It’s okay, boy,” he says softly, gently, into my ear . . .
When a dog dies, his soul is released to run until he is ready to be reborn. I remember.
“It’s okay . . . You can go . . .”
Before me I see my world: the fields around Spangle. There are no fences. No buildings. No people. There is only me and the grass and the sky and the earth. Only me.
“I love you, boy.”
I take a few steps into the field, and it feels so good, so nice to be in the cool air, to smell the smells all around me. To feel the sun on my coat. I feel like I am here.
“You can go.”
I gather my strength and I start off and it feels good, like I have no age at all, like I am timeless. I pick up speed. I run.
“It’s okay, Enzo.”
I don’t look back, but I know he’s there. I bark twce because want him to hear, I want him to know. I feel his eyes on me but I don’t turn back. Off into the field, into the vastness of the universe ahead, I run . . .
I hope you paid attention to the complexity and the unexpectedness of so many lines and emotions. Enzo is about to die, but he says “I am wonderful. I am fine” because “I am. I am.” He isn’t just saying this; we know exactly what he means. Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.
This scene reminds me of the moment in Forrest Gump when Forrest is at Jenny’s grave speaking to her and he says, “Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.” Of course, Tom Hanks’s delivery of the line breaks our hearts in its simplistic truth, but the emotional power packed in those few words, even written on a page, evokes intense emotion. What’s unexpected is the simplicity of the statement that is so universal. Forrest speaks for us all, speaks our heart.
Enzo does too.
I hope this look at evoking emotion is inspiring and challenging to you. Your thoughts?
Today’s guest post is by Nina Schuyler. It continues our look at masterful writing, introducing the element of emotional content in our novels. The craft of not only expressing emotion in our characters but also evoking emotion in our readers is one of the most important things to master in fiction writing. In this post, Nina Schuyler shows us that telling about emotions can be just as powerful as showing those emotions in your characters.
Early on, when I was young and innocent and studying writing, it was vigorously pounded in my head that I must never ever tell a character’s emotion. T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative” entered the conversation (events, objects, and actions must stand for or correlate to the desired emotion), along with fiction’s allure, which is to give readers an embodied experience—or as George Saunders tells storytellers, “Go forth and delight!”
But now, having read more, studied more, gotten older, I’ve encountered plenty of published works that tell the emotion. It’s right there, in big letters, winking at me—HE FELT. SHE FEELS—sad, happy, joyful, angry, embarrassed. And I do experience the told emotion. How is this possible? What’s going on?
The magic is in the way the telling is done.
Use language that suggests one emotion, but ends up another emotion. In this passage from Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Lancelot, who is a playwright, is working with a collaborator, Leo, to write an opera. Leo has waited weeks to hear the music scored by Leo.
“After a bar, Lancelot closed his eyes. It was easier this way, to disembody the music. Like this, he heard the sound resolve into a soft song. Soaring and harmonious. So sweet it ached his teeth. Heat began in his stomach and radiated outward, up and down, into the throat, into the thighbones, an emotion so strange Lancelot had a hard time identifying what it was; but within a minute of Leo’s playing, Lancelot had put a name to it. Dread. He was feeling dread, pale and thick.” (p. 147)
The language in the passage suggests brilliance; the opera will be wonderful. The sound is “soaring,” “harmonious.” It’s so sweet it ached his teeth. It builds and builds, seemingly leading to elation or euphoria, or at least pleasure.
Instead, the passage upsets the reader’s expectation, causing the reader to feel surprise and, ultimately, to participate in the feeling of dread. The passage works because Lancelot wanted so badly for the music to be extraordinary, so when you finally get to dread, all the glowing diction is now seen as hyperbolic.
Here, then, is the key to telling. In this example and the ones that follow, surprise is critical.
Research shows when someone is surprised, dopamine increases and emotions intensify up to 400 percent. Heightened attention ensues, and so does extreme curiosity, in an attempt to figure out what is happening during the surprise.
Surprise also causes a shift—it forces a change in perspective. Your reader is hyper alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state to tell the unexpected emotion and have the reader feel it.
A caveat: the emotion that your character ultimately feels must be authentic. It must be true and honest to the character and the situation, otherwise your reader will feel manipulated.
Don’t go for the first-level emotion. In this short story, “Runaway” by Alice Munro, a beloved lamb, Flora, is missing. Carla loves this lamb, but she’s also lied to her husband, creating tension between them.
“It was almost a relief, though, to feel the single pain of missing Flora, of missing Flora perhaps forever, compared to the mess she had got into concerning Mrs. Jamieson, and her seesaw misery with Clark. At least Flora’s leaving was not on account of anything that she—Carla—had done wrong.”
Clara feels the singular pain of missing Flora, maybe forever, and it’s a relief. Munro didn’t stop at the pain of losing Flora. She explored the emotional layers of Carla and the situation to uncover the unexpected emotion of relief too. To get to that second, third level of emotion, you’ll need to deeply understand your character in that moment.
A good technique to use is to ask—what else is the protagonist feeling? And what else? Keep going until you get beneath the first, second, or third level of emotion.
Turn the emotion into a metaphor or simile. This is another way into surprise, by comparing the emotion to something else. In the novel Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, the narrator’s wife leaves him and moves to London. The narrator, who lives in New York, visits on the weekend. In this passage, the narrator’s estranged wife is driving him to the airport.
“Each of her soothing utterances battered me more grievously than the last—as if I were traveling in a perverse ambulance whose function was to collect a healthy man and steadily damage him in readiness for the hospital at which a final and terrible injury would be inflicted.” Netherland, p. 189-190
O’Neill uses an extended simile (as if) and freshens the feeling of being battered by comparing it to a perverse ambulance. It’s original, it’s interestingly new, and the reader shifts her perspective, experiencing battering in a new way.
T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative is not dead. But the telling of emotion no longer feels sinful to me. Rather, it’s another technique to help readers emotionally engage with your characters. Another way for storytellers to generate delight.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her debut, The Painting, was named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle and was nominated for the Northern California Book Award. She teaches at the University of San Francisco and The Writing Room. Visit Nina at her website or on Facebook or Twitter.
There is so much to know about crafting a solid plot.
If you’ve been following my blog awhile and studying The Writer’s Toolbox books on novel craft, you know this to be true.
Whether you’re trying to write your first novel or you’ve written a dozen, plotting is always challenging.
But that doesn’t mean it gets easier.
If you keep trying to dig holes with a teaspoon in hard-packed ground, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been at it. It isn’t going to get easier unless you dig smarter.
Some of us don’t want to give up the spoon for the backhoe. We’d rather plod along, tired and sweaty, getting nowhere fast because, well, we think it’s too hard to stop and learn how to operate the backhoe.
Seriously, that’s how some approach learning plot structure.
Do you want to quit wasting time and master plotting? How would you like to sit down at your desk with a germ of a cool idea for a story and in three days have a complete novel plotted out? A terrific one that holds together beautifully?
Yes, it’s doable.
At my last Plotting Madness boot camp, my client/friend/coauthor (of The Menopause Murders) sat down with me during one afternoon breakout session and, in a half an hour, we had plotted out most of Mad Maxine and the Hormone Highway (laughing all the while). I grabbed the index cards and pen, and Ed and I brainstormed every scene we could think up. I couldn’t write fast enough.
Then we played around with the order, laying them out on the table, seeing which scenes we were missing.
Ah . . . that’s the secret!
You Gotta Master Novel Structure
If you don’t know novel structure and all its intricacies, you can’t get very far. But if you understand what your ten key scenes are and where they go, you can get those locked in and layer your next set of scenes.
When you know exactly what kind of scene is needed at the midpoint, or the dark night moment, or the pinch points, you know what scenes to come up with for solid structure.
When you know all about the transformational character journey and the steps to set up your protagonist (and other characters) and what that arc looks like from start to finish, it’s a piece of cake.
When you understand how to identify and tap into your themes, then flesh them out in your story for emotional impact, you bring depth and power to your novel.
This, and so much more, is what plotting mastery is all about.
Wouldn’t you like to be able to sit down at your desk, anytime you are ready to dig into writing a novel, with only a spark of a great idea, and in a few days (or less) have your whole novel plotted out to perfection?
You can do it. It’s not that hard when you have a backhoe instead of a bent teaspoon.
If you really want to write terrific novels, get serious about mastery. Like anything else, you have to make the time. And I know full well how easy it is to get distracted. That’s why I’ve dreamed for years of holding Plotting Madness boot camps.
Why a Boot Camp?
Because: no distractions!
You arrive at the house, check in, meet and hang with your crew for the next three days, then, right after a gourmet breakfast and lots of great coffee, it’s time to get to work.
In a small group setting (10-15) we get out the backhoe and start digging.
At my plotting boot camps, we go deep into concept and premise (you should never waste your time writing a novel if your concept is boring and weak). We nail those four corner pillars, then craft the layer of the first ten essential scenes.
Everyone helps with brainstorming and plotting all the projects so that, by the end of the boot camp, if you put it all to paper (or computer), you’ll leave with a complete novel outline that will have you jazzed to start writing.
Come to Plotting Madness! Space is limited, and we are booking now! In order to lock in the house, we need to get all participants on board and paid ASAP.
We stay in a gorgeous house in (Sept. 23-26), and you get gourmet breakfast, lunch, snacks and desserts, plus all the amenties (indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, game room, movie theater, rooftop lakeview deck, fireplaces). Stay extra days for vacation! (you pay per night for your room), and consider attending the Self-Publishing Boot Camp and the Scene Structure Boot Camp! Lots of places to sit and write and plot.