“pulse-pounding, believable, captivating, enticing, sexy, thrilling, engaging, charming intoxicating.”
These are just a few of the adjectives I pulled from the reviews of my most recent release. Not to toot my own horn, but to provide an example. Think about the most recent book that you read and really loved. What are some adjectives you can think of to describe why you loved that book?
Now what do those words say about our reading experience? We enjoyed those books because they evoked some sort of emotional response, whether it be the shivers from a creepy romantic suspense or the tears that kept you turning the pages in that poignant reunion story. We as human beings experience life through the lens of our emotions. We process everything through some sort of emotional filter. Then we turn to fiction, whether it be a television sitcom or a novel to replay and relive those emotions over and over again.
And when it comes to the romance novel, emotion is king. You’ve got to have it on every page. Which emotion depends on you and your characters and their individual situation, but emotion is the kicker. It's the reason we read romance. We're emotion junkies. Personally, I believe this is the main thing that separates the almost-published from the published. I've seen it too many times when judging contest entries and teaching classes. The writing is solid, the characters feel real, the plot is even interesting, but something is missing. The emotions are flat. It's as if the author is trying to keep the reader at arm's length.
In actuality, you, the author, are keeping your own emotions at arm's length as you write. Call it self-preservation. It's scary to put yourself on the page. To open yourself up to your vulnerabilities and tell your boss and your ex-boyfriend and your great Aunt Mary Ellen all about your emotional baggage. In the end, though, you'll find that the more of yourself you allow to seep into the pages, the more authentic your writing will become. It often takes a while to really dig deep, let loose and put yourself on the page.
Now let me clarify, I'm not talking about writing autobiographically, it's not writing about your experiences. It is about allowing yourself to feel that humiliation you felt at the 6th grade dance when you walked out of the bathroom with your dress tucked into your tights, so that it seeps into the scene you're writing when your heroine feels humiliated after walking in on her so-called beau in the arms of another woman. In case you have not realized this yet, writing is intensely personal. Every aspect of it, from your process to your journey to publication to the actual stories you tell and how you tell them. It took me a while to relize that, for starters because I seem to be a slow learner, but also because for whatever reason, I just didn’t expect it to be that way. But when I realized this and took it to heart, it changed so much about how I approach my stories and characters.
For one thing it sort of allowed me to make peace with my writer’s toolbox. What I mean by that is that for the most part you as a writer will revisit the same themes again and again and you’ll write with the same basic character types. Now that’s not to say that you write the same thing over and over, though who of us haven’t felt that a time or two? But that you have an unlimited number of stories you can tell and you can people those stories will all kinds of characters, but when it comes to the core of those characters you’ll only really have a handful as you revisit the same archetypes and the same themes again and again. But that’s a whole ’nother discussion all together. Suffice it to say, acknowledging that writing is very personal gave me a semblance of peace about my writing process.
But let’s get to the nuts and bolts. How do you add emotion to your book to make that change from a good book to the one the editor simply can’t NOT buy?
Don’t forget the five senses. We've all heard this one plenty of times, but it's one of the key ingredients to getting emotion on the page. But so often what you see is an inventory list to set up the scene. As if the author has a checklist by their desk with the five senses and once they've established all of them, they move on with the story. The five senses should work harder than that. Think about the following examples and what they represent: the shrieking wind (fear), the metallic taste of blood (danger), a candle-lit ballroom (excitement), the sinfully softness of velvet (sensuality), and the yeasty scent of fresh baked bread (peace). Granted these examples are a bit clichéd, but hopefully they illustrate a point. Hand selecting a sensory detail that mirrors the emotional tone of the scene will add depth and richness more so than simply tossing something random in. Think, be deliberate and selective with your details.
Never forget for a moment that you’re in charge of the world of which you write. If you want to use wind or rain or the chilling quiet of a snow storm to create suspense and fear, then make it snow! If you need to evoke the feeling of regret and guilt, have your heroine take a bath and scrub too hard with the salt rub, again perhaps that’s a cliché, but think about every morsel you put in your book. And don’t forget to give your characters props and have them use them in the action of the scene to choreograph the emotional context.
You can get great examples of this in movies. I don’t know how many of you saw the movie Doubt last year with Meryl Streep (great movie, if you haven’t seen it) but the thing that struck me the most (aside from the fact that she’s so good in everything, it’s ridiculous) was how stark the landscape was. The director really utilized the scenery to evoke the emotional tone of the movie. Not only that, but aside from scenes that take place during a church service there is absolutely no soundtrack at all, no swelling music in the background to give us clues, but that absence of sound made everything all the more compelling. In writing we don’t really have the luxury of a soundtrack to add emotional clues, so we have to do it all with the words and images we put on the page.
Excerpt from Seduce Me Robyn DeHart 2009
Sometime the next evening, after an exhausting journey, the coach rattled to a stop. At some point during their long ride, the men had untied her hands and removed the cloth in her mouth making it far easier to breath. Esme was most eager to escape from the vile enclosure so that she might stretch her legs and relieve herself. Neither man offered her assistance, but she managed to climb out of the rig.
Of course her hope that they had stopped at an inn and she’d be able to seek help from a stranger were dashed when she saw no welcoming lamps. Instead she faced a barren landscape without a house or even a barn in sight. Her first few steps were unsteady, but she was able to maneuver herself behind the nearest bush.
“Stay with the girl and see that she doesn’t try to run away,” Thatcher yelled.
Desperate to avoid being seen by her abductors in such a state of dishevelment, Esme hurriedly tugged her clothes into place. She stepped back onto the path. Waters grabbed her arm and led her through a clearing. She surveyed their surroundings as best she could in the dusky evening light. The moon hung heavy and low behind her, still rising, but illuminating the stone walls in front of them. Off in the distance she could hear water lapping at rocks and gulls crying. She inhaled deeply and filled her lungs with salty-crisp air; they were on the coast.
It had taken them a while to leave London, but once they were on the road, they’d traveled all day and into the early evening. Not long enough to reach a western or northern coastline.
Waters grabbed her arm. “We won’t hurt you if you just do as you’re told.” He led her forward toward crumbled rock walls.
“Considering I’m not certain what you want, cooperation might be challenging.” Esme waited for his response, but none came. Indignantly she jerked away from the man.
The ruins stretched on as far as her eye could see, in some spots nothing more than a pile of stone, whereas other sections still had full walls standing. He led her to a spot where the wall had crumbled down to nothing and stepped over the threshold into the ruins. Cold stone chilled her feet through her thin slippers, and the damp night breeze scattered gooseflesh across her body. In a futile effort, she pulled her thin robe tighter. The scent of damp earth and moss permeated the air as they moved further into the decaying building, past more piles of rubble, through tumbled down archways and heaps of rotting timbers.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“It was a monastery,” Waters said.
They came to a steep staircase, which proved difficult to maneuver. The moss-covered stairs were slippery and lacked a railing, but with careful steps, she made it to the bottom unscathed. Water dripped into several puddles in an odd cadence, giving the large cavernous room a hollow feeling.
They had said they were taking her to a dungeon and they made good on that promise. In the flickering light of the men’s lanterns, she saw that a torture cage hung loosely from the ceiling across from her, although thankfully, it looked to be in rather poor condition. Several sets of manacles were fastened to the wall, the ceiling above them partially collapsed. She suspected the thing off in the far corner was a pit. She shuddered to think of being crammed into the tiny box with nothing but the dark surrounding her.
Be specific. Have you ever heard that the more specific something is, the more general it is? What this means is the more precise you make something, the more likely it is that a greater number of people will understand. Instead of saying John and Sally walked through the grove of trees, say John and Sally linked arms and strolled through a grove of apple trees. Just by adding specific details, you've deepened the description and engaged the reader.
Specificity is particularly useful when dealing with character backstory. We’ve all read books where the hero who has sworn off women because his mother was unfaithful or abandoned him or the heroine who had to give up her dreams to take care of her younger siblings and those stories can be compelling. But to take it deeper, to make it more specific can mean the difference between a story we’ve all heard before and something that really grabs us by the gut and doesn’t let go.
See how Emily’s specific descriptions sinks into the emotional context of the scene.
Excerpt from In the Tycoon’s Debt Emily McKay 2009
Suddenly, she wasn’t kissing a cold-hearted stranger. That man disappeared. And in an instant she was kissing Quinn.
Quinn. Who she’d loved like she’d loved no one else. Who’d been the single bright spot throughout her very rough teenage years. Who’d always made her laugh. Who’d listened to her ideas. Who’d expected more of her than anyone else. Who’d made her stretch. Made her yearn.
For her, Quinn was youth and hope. He was strength and defiance. He spoke to the wildness of her soul. To the restless, untamed corners of her spirit.
With his lips moving over hers, with the scent of him in her nose, she felt sixteen again. Full of hope and lust for life. Thrilled with the pleasure humming through her veins. Giddy with the power to give as much pleasure as she received.
Lost in that memory, her whole being sank into the kiss. Her arms snaked up around his shoulders. And dang it, those really were his shoulders. No fancy padding lining his jacket. No flabby belly beneath his shirt. Just Quinn.
Which brings me to the next technique. Using character point of view or character voice. Everyone views the world differently. When I walk into a room I might notice the color on the walls and the choice of art, while you might notice the specific style of furniture and the out of place ceiling fan. The same goes for our characters. This is especially important when you're writing in 3rd person and switching points of view, either by chapter or by scene, but even in novels written in 1st person, character point of view or character voice certainly shows up in dialogue as well as in narrative.
Your heroine's unique vision of the world and the details she notices in it are determined by her upbringing, her education, her preferences, her values and her emotional mood. If she's feeling plucky and happy, she will likely notice how the fat raindrops feel as they fall on her cheeks, whereas if she's feeling surly, she might instead notice the dark sky and the angry slashes of clouds. When you're writing your scenes and you're in one of your character's heads, use this to your benefit. Think about your word choice, especially your verbs. A woman might think the stars are dancing across the sky, whereas a man would probably use a different verb like scattering.
What specifically will they notice about their surroundings? Chances are your hero isn't going to notice that his desk is a rich mahogany because he's sat at it a hundred times and he knows what it looks like. But if you have him accidentally spill his ink well across the top marring the rich mahogany color, you've not only given us a description of the desk, but you've given us a clue into his emotional state. Make those details work hard for you. Just as you can alter the weather or whatever to set the emotional stage, you can also hand select whose head you’re in in any given scene thus choosing how to portray the action of the scene to the reader.
Again we can look at movies for great examples. I’m sure most of you have seen While You Were Sleeping and in that movie there is a secondary character named Joe Jr. who makes a reference that Lucy looks like she just saw her first Trans Am – it’s such a character specific bit of dialogue, no one else in the movie would have described her expression in just that way.
Excerpt from Treasure Me Robyn DeHart 2011
Vanessa Pembrooke crept down the staircase, careful not to make a noise. She would marry in two more days, and thoughts of the ceremony plagued her mind, keeping sleep at bay. It would take hours for her mother and her army of servants to primp and curl and shine every last inch of Vanessa's person. Not to mention the dress that she was expected to wear. She’d be head-to-toe ruffle and lace; a doily with feet. Needless to say, all these wretched thoughts left her wide-awake. Currently she tiptoed to the library to find something to occupy her mind.
The house sat void of sound, the servants all off to bed, her family long ago retired. Her fiancé was staying in the house, but he had gone to bed early with a sour stomach. So at this late hour she would have the library to herself. All those books waiting just for her. She'd already read the latest scientific journal from front to back. Perhaps she’d pick up a history text.
A soft noise caught her attention, and she paused at the door. She turned behind her, but saw no one there. Perhaps her nerves about the wedding made her more jittery than usual. With a silent turn of the knob, she opened the library door.
Vanessa paused just short of entering the room when she caught sight of something, or rather someone, on the floor in front of the fading fire. Naked limbs writhed around one another, glistening with sweat. The man groaned, and the woman, who sat atop him as if riding a horse, whispered a series of soft “yeses” again and again.
In all her imaginings, Vanessa would never have guessed that couples could copulate in such a manner, having only been told of the traditional man-on-top-under-the-covers-in-the-dark position. Vanessa wondered at what might compel two people to do such a thing in a public room. It was rather scandalous, and were her mother to discover such activity, she would have the servants fired immediately. The woman leaned back giving Vanessa a clear view of the man's face–Jeremy, her fiancé.
Vanessa knew her mouth had fallen open, and protocol demanded that she turn away and leave him to his transgression. It was precisely the advice her mother would have given her. Turn your head and look the other way. Pretend as if you don’t notice.
Another effective technique you can use is to go deep. It's not just a football term. Along the lines of using your character's individual point of view, slip into deep point of view as often as you can and you basically eliminate the filter between author and reader. There are times in books when this isn't practical or as effective as lose 3rd person, but for the most part you can use deep POV whenever you like. Let's look at two examples:
Sandra continued to type her memo, racking her brain for the appropriate clause. She heard glass shatter from somewhere in the house. She froze. Someone was there.
Sandra's fingernails clicked across the keyboard in an awkward tattoo. What was that clause? She made a note to have Alan look it up in the morning. Glass shattered behind her. Chills scattered across her flesh, prickling the hairs on her nape. Someone was in the house.
Which one evokes stronger emotion? The second one does, because it goes deeper into Sandra's head. When we use phrases like "she heard" or "he felt" we remove the reader from the action of story and remind them they're just reading. Without those phrases and utilizing the actual action the reader is immersed in the book and in the character's skin. The closer your readers feel to the characters, the faster they'll turn those pages. This is classic show, don't tell. Instead of describing the situation, put us in it and let us experience it.
Here Allison has effectively written the scene without the intrusion of her own vision, instead allowing the character Robin to live and breath in the scene and we as the reader are right there with her.
Excerpt from Killing Fear Allison Brennan 2008
She smelled bleach, and while her mind started to send her a warning, her first thought was for the cat, that he was going to get sick if he knocked over the bleach and inhaled too many fumes.
She took two steps forward feeling for the lamp she couldn’t see but knew was on the end table right there on the left of the door, but she tripped. The cat jumped from her arms as she fell, her hands falling into something sticy and wet. The smell. Why hadn’t she noticed the smell? It was foul, sickly sweet. Metallic—and bleach. Her chest tightened and she couldn’t breathe. She reached back to push herself up and touched a person. A hand.
Her stomach heaved as she fumbled standing in the dark. Someone was here, on the floor. A person. Blood and bleach. Blood and bleach. No, no, no!
She found the lamp, shaking so hard that she knocked it over. She ran to the door, feeling the wall for the light switch. Turned it on.
Anna. Her blood pooled on the hardwood floor. Her eyes were wide open, staring at Robin. Duct tape over Anna’s mouth. She was naked, red cut marks all over her body. One deep bloody slash across her throat. She was dead.
Robin flung open the door and screamed. She ran down the stairs, hoping Will was still there. In the back of her mind, through the pounding in her head, she heard the shrill shriek of her alarm.
The street was empty. Will was gone.
Pacing is a technique that I think people don’t naturally equate with emotion, but it can be very effective if used to your favor. Most of the time though you hear this in terms of speeding things up to add tension and suspense, but what about slowing things down to maximize emotional impact. Consider the following two examples.
Here’s the original scene:
Maddie turned to lead the way to her car when a reporter stuck a microphone in her face and a camera crew lit up the area.
"Excuse me, Ms. Adams would you care to give us a few answers as to why you would kill murdered your husband and claim that he’d disappeared?"
Unable to move Maddie faced the reporter and opened her mouth.
No words came out, as she melted to the floor.
Her legs turned to oatmeal and she heard her mom calling as she fell.
Here’s the revised scene
Maddie had never liked airports to beginning with. The cacophony of the elevator music, droning chatter and repetitive PA announces set her nerves on edge under the best of circumstances. Today, it was like a knife slicing through the numbing daze of her shock. Even the comfort of her mother's embrace did little to ease Maddie's anxiety.
Maddie's mother pulled back, frowning as she searched Maddie's face. "You look terrible."
"How am I supposed to look?" she snapped, then immediately felt a stab of guilt. Her mother wasn't to blame.
"When was the last time you ate?" her mother pressed.
"I--" She didn't know, so she lied. "I ate a bagel for breakfast." Someone had shoved a bagel at her at some point, right? She hadn't eat it, but that counted. She grabbed her mother's arm. "Let's get out of here."
Her father had been stopped by the baggage attendant to have the tags checked. He could catch up when they were away from the noise and bustle of the concourse.
Maddie pulled her hat low on her head and turned to shoulder her way through the crowd to the doors. The reporter came out of nowhere. He was a small, weazly looking guy, with greedy eyes. A bored camera man stood just behind him the red light blinking about the camera lens.
The reporter yelled to get her attention. "Ms. Adams!"
She turned, trying to avoid him, the crowd seemed to close around her as heads turned in her direction. She looked back, but she'd been cut off from her mother. Her father, still detained by the security official met her gaze across the crowd but couldn't reach her.
"Ms. Adams!" he repeated, close enough now to shove the microphone in her direction. "Why did you lie about your husband’s disappearance?"
Lie? What was he talking about? "I didn't--"
"Why did you and your husband fight that night at the restaurant? Did he beat you?" he demanded.
Amy opened her mouth, but no words came out.
"If that why you murdered him? The public will hold you responsible for your crimes! The truth will come out when her body is found!"
An image flashed through Maddie’s mind of Will’s face the last time she’d seen him. The betrayal that had flashed in his eyes. Now it was too late. She’d never be able to tell him the truth. Her head swam as her legs turned to oatmeal. As she melted to the floor, she heard her mom calling her name.
Finally you can use subtext, not an easy technique to master and certainly not one you’ll want to try on the first draft of a scene. Try this one during revisions to add emotional depth that packs a wollop. Basically this is the underlying meaning of the scene. It’s like when your characters are talking about tacos, but really they’re discussing the last meal they had together before their child was kidnapped. No one mentions the child, but you know from previous scenes that it’s there, just under the surface. You see this technique used a lot in movies. Here’s an excerpt of an upcoming YA romance written by my critique partner and two other writers.
Excerpt from International Kissing Club Ivy Adams 2012
“By the way, Izzy, don’t think we haven’t noticed that you weaseled out of telling who you kissed while we were away. A super-hottie, huh?” She waggled her eyebrows in exaggerated interest. “Anyone we know?”
Izzy threw down her spoon and pushed back her chair. “Screw this. I need a burger.”
She snatched the still full yogurt cup off the table and dumped it in the trash on the way out. Even though there was a recycling bin just beside the trash can. Five inches away.
“What the hell?” she heard her three friends squeal from behind her.
Izzy stopped outside the yogurt shop. The nearest hunk of charred cow flesh could be had about a hundred yards down the road at the Dairy Queen. She set off at a brisk pace. She heard Mei, Piper and Cassidy spill out onto the street behind her.
She wasn’t entirely sure if all the exclamations of confusion were coming from them, or from the voice reason in her head. She didn’t care.
Naturally, Cassidy caught up with her first. She didn’t try to stop her, but fell into step beside her. “Is this going to be another diving-into-the-pool incident?”
“Nope. This is just going to be an eating-a-burger incident. A I’m-tired-of-making-sacrifices-when-everyone-else-gets-to-do-whatever-they-want incident.”
“Fair enough.” Cassidy stepped forward and opened the door to the Dairy Queen for Izzy.
Izzy marched up to the counter. Ryan—a sophomore from their school–was manning the register. She tried to smile at him, but it felt like a snarl instead. “I want a double bacon cheeseburger.”
In that instant the door swung open and Piper and Mei came stumbling in.
“OMG,” Piper screeched. “Is she really doing it? Is she really ordering a burger?”
“She will if this idiot ever places the order.” Cassidy glared. Ryan started typing.
“A real burger? With beef in it? From an actual methane-spewing cow? Not some hippy, vegan burger made of spelt but a real honest-to-God burger? That a real person, with actual taste buds would want to eat?”
Izzy gritted her teeth and slammed her cash down on the counter.
Then she spun to face Piper, Cassidy and Mei. She didn’t even bother looking for a booth at the back of the dinning room, but let her have it, right there in front of the whole restaurant. “One time, I made veggie burgers for you. One time, and you’re still bitching about it a year later.”
“What is wrong with you?” Piper asked, annoyance making her voice low and clipped.
“I just ...” She blew out a breath. Trying—really trying—to find words to explain other than self-centered, self-absorbed, and ego-centric. It was really, really hard. But she didn’t want to throw around those kinds of insults. Not when she was pretty sure her own behavior was just as bad. “I just really,” she tried again. “Had a hard time being alone. And—” Okay. Here it was. The horrible truth about who she’d kissed.
So consider - Have you been holding your emotions at arms length while you write? Are you skimming the surface and hoping to slip by? If so, then try these techniques and see if they don’t help you begin to put more emotion onto the page. It gets easier with time and once you see how effective it is, the fear of being too honest or too out there begins to melt away. Aren't your stories worth it? Don't your characters deserve authentic emotions? Come on, step out on the ledge and put your heart on the page.