Friday, September 18, 2009

Emotional Tension

Sometimes we write passages or whole stories that fail to engage our readers emotionally, even though these passages or stories engage our own emotions. We fuss about with the plot, the dialog, the structure of the scenes but sometimes we still get nothing out of our readers. I believe one common cause of this is lack of emotional tension for the characters themselves.

A mistake I made when I began writing was to forget that I knew a lot more about the characters than the reader did; I carry around a whole world in my head, and I know what my characters think and feel about everything that happens to them. Sometimes I didn't bother putting any of that on the page. No matter how high the drama of their situation, my characters didn't seem emotionally invested in their own story. They didn't react to events in their own lives.

This is an easy mistake to make when writing as we balance plot, theme, setting, character and pace over the span of tens of thousands of words. It's an even easier mistake to make when we revise scenes. We put our characters into novel situations, hair-raising danger or whatever, but we forget to let our characters be alive within those situations. I just found a scene in my own book where a character gets a piece of very bad news, but her reaction is neutral when it should be almost violent. I was too concerned with writing flowing action in the scene to pay attention to how she felt about that action.

A good scene should be a complete drama in miniature. It should have a beginning, middle and end, and there should be an emotional arc for at least one character. The scene should increase the tension for someone, or release the tension for someone. Either way, someone's emotional state has to change. If your characters don't feel anything, neither will your reader. If nothing has changed for your character by the end of a scene, your reader will also be unmoved. Even if you've moved the plot along.

This also means that your characters must be emotionally invested in the outcome of both the main story, and of each plot point along the way. What happens must matter to them. And we have to show readers that this stuff matters to our characters, and how our characters are affected by the events all through the story. Otherwise you have flat characters that your readers won't follow along on the ride.

One way to show increased/resolved emotional tension is to use a technique called "scene and sequel," which means that after a significant action, characters react. Action and reaction. Does a scene leave a character angry? Show it. Does a scene leave a character relieved, or sad, or confused, or defeated, or triumphantly evil? I suggest that you go through your stories, scene-by-scene, and after something happens, ask yourself how the involved characters feel about what just happened. Give them the opportunity to react to the events. Raise and lower the emotional tension as appropriate.

Yesterday Michelle talked about character motivation, and how essential it is for writers to know the answers to the questions:

What do our characters want to happen?
What are they doing about it?
How will they feel if it does/doesn't happen?

All of these questions come into play in every scene you write. Think especially about the last of these questions, and how your characters (not just your protagonist, but your antagonist and support characters, too) will react to the actions of your story as they find themselves closer to or farther from their goals at the end of scenes. Show those reactions, or your readers will react with a yawn and a search for something else to read!


  1. Scott, excellent post. I admit I read this yesterday as you had it scheduled to go up, and I planned my post to go hand in hand with this one. Motivations and emotion definitely feed off each other, for both heroes and villain type characters alike.

    I've had problems with getting emotions right with my characters. One of the hardest things, I've found, is that my morals and values are often different from my characters' morals and values, from their motivations, from their lifestyles. Sometimes it's very difficult to imagine how a character might feel or react in a given circumstance outside of my own belief system and experiences.

    This is all part of getting ourselves deep enough into our characters and story to step outside of ourselves. I think it's one of things that changes us when we are brave enough to write something that makes a difference to us - something that makes us grow and doesn't just show how creative or brilliant we can be.

    I love the quote I've heard somewhere about only 10% of the emotion we feel when we write a scene translates to the reader. That other 90% better be knocking me and my characters off our feet, then!

  2. Great post! I know I have issues with showing the emotions; sometimes I feel as if it comes across as forced. I think maybe when I'm writing I'm too focused on making it sound real that it sounds completely fake.

    I've realized recently that I shouldn't stress over it as much as I've been. I think that's been a major problem for me.

  3. This is where a good critique group comes in handy. I've had readers pull out emotions different from what I felt when I wrote something and/or from what I though I had implied in the writing.

    Don't immediately discredit your character's lack of action, to your readers, this may elicit the feeling of frustration and it may inspire them to read on in eager anticipation. You just need to be careful that expectations that are explicitly set are eventually met.

    On the other hand, one of Murphy's Laws states that if you try to please everybody, then nobody will like it.

    And thus we delve deeper into the quagmire that is writing and storytelling...

  4. Once again, Scott, you've hit the nail on the head. I can't tell you how often that comes up in Slushbusters' critiques. We often point out that we know what's happening in a scene but don't know exactly how the character is feeling about it. If we don't know that, we stop caring about the character.

    The other side of the coin is when we know exactly what the character is feeling, but we don't know why, because the writer left out the details we need to understand the character's reaction.

    Rick is right. You have to trust the readers. Your beta readers are a great resource for making sure you strike a balance between action and emotion.

  5. Michelle: I admit that I rewrote some of this post after reading yours yesterday. Teamwork! Go, Team LL!

    I agree that sometimes it's hard to write characters who are not like us, who behave in ways we'd never behave. But yes, if we dig deep enough, we can find them. And it's also important to love all your characters, even the evil ones, and want them to succeed at their evil. My favorite character in my book is a right bastard, and I gave him my favorite lines of dialog, things nobody else would dream of saying.

    Dara: As Michelle said, most of the emotion we think we're putting into a scene is lost. I think most of that emotion is just in our own heads, because unlike the reader, we know the whole story. Which means that we might feel like we're writing stuff that's over the top or forced when, in fact, we're not. But don't stress over it. Writing is a balancing act, but once you find your balance it's much more comfortable.

    Rick: Too right. Sometimes our characters won't react, but we have to be doing that deliberately. As you say, eventually something has to change. If it doesn't, our characters are just wooden-headed puppets.

    Me, I just try to please myself (and sometimes Mighty Reader).

  6. Michelle in VA: That's definitely the other side of the coin. I've read stuff where characters are feeling all these strong emotions and I have No Idea Why.

    Lady Glamis posted today on her personal blog about free-writing in first drafts, which can be a powerful tool when finding the story and the characters and the voice in which the story should be told. But I think that writers can also acquire good habits to be used even in free-written first drafts, like always writing structured scenes and using the "scene and sequel" technique.

    On the other hand, sometimes I write scenes or passages, having no idea what they mean in the context of the story but knowing that somehow they are right and important, only figuring out why they matter at a later stage. It's some tricky, this writing business.

  7. This is explained really nicely, Scott. Thanks! I recently had a teacher read through my book. She said that the beginning and the end worked well for her. But, she felt that there was not enough movement on my protagonist's part in the middle of the story. It took me a couple of days to figure out what she was saying, but now I understand that my protagonist is a little stagnant in the middle section. His situation isn't getting worse, and he isn't trying to make it better for a couple of chapters, and, as a result, the writing feels boring. Now, I've fixed it so that this character tries to fix things earlier. It doesn't work, of course, but his attempts makes the story more engaging and the later events hit harder because we see that he was at least trying to fix his situation.

  8. Davin: I didn't think the middle of your book was boring at all, but I did kind of keep...waiting. Middles are hard anyway. The second half of my book's middle kept drifting away from the protagonist, and I had to keep reeling it back in so that it stayed his story.

    All of this reminds me that lately I've been thinking a lot about books I've read and movies I've seen and how, most of the time, I don't remember how the plot resolved itself, but I remember if the characters were well-drawn. My immense ego tells me that I am a good reader, so I conclude that what's important in a story is character more than plot, even in action/adventure stuff. One reason I didn't like the last Bond film is that Bond himself was just a robot walking around shooting and breaking things, and while he was serious about it, he didn't seem to care about anything including himself and so neither did I.

    Right now I'm reading "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." This book is all about the emotional evolution of its characters, and after finally getting into Mr. Diaz' writing style, I am absolutely hooked.

  9. Nice explanation. I have had the same problem. At first I didn't do enough exposing of the narrator's feelings when I was writing in first person. In third person I'm doing better at it. I have to remind myself that the reader doesn't know what I know, and the only way for him to know is for me to tell him.

  10. Scott,
    I think the middle of Rooster was working in part because that was where the female character's life starts to unfold. So, even though Bao was stagnant, there was the second storyline to keep the reader going. But, now I think both storylines are working, and it just required the change of two chapters (so far). It involves dancing and cuttlefish, so I figure I can't go wrong.

  11. Lois, that's really interesting that third person is helping you do that. I love third person, but I always feel like my first person writing is more emotional.

  12. Davin: I think showing emotion in first person can be harder, oddly, than in third person. It seems awkward and heavy-handed (to me, anyway) for the narrator to say, "This made me feel..." or "I was angry" or whatever. People are also generally poor observers of themselves, so it can seem artificial when first-person narrators tell you about their own subconscious actions and reactions. One great lesson I learned from Geraldine Brooks' novel "March," which is told in first person, is that you just come out and say it, as plainly as your narrator can. "I was ashamed." "I was afraid I had betrayed her." These types of simple declarations (if the narrative isn't overloaded with them) can have great power.

  13. Scott: yes, I'm at a point right now in Monarch where the villain is getting exactly what he wants, and he's very happy. It's great. I'm happy for him, too, but his glee will end soon. Sadly.

    Scott, you've opened up an excellent blog topic I may hit on tomorrow or next week here on Lit Lab - in your response to Michelle in VA. I think freewriting and "unstructured" writing is something that needs actual practice and talent, just as much as planning does. Like you say, sometimes you don't know where anything is going, but if you've done it enough, I think somewhere subconsciously, things are working themselves out.

    Davin: I didn't think the middle of Rooster was boring or not working, but as you point out what could be tightened, I agree that you could add more to flow more in line with the second story line. Cuttlefish. Fun!

  14. Dancing cuttlefish! Dancing zombie cuttlefish!

  15. Great post! I love the sentence, think especially about the last of these questions. Because as I was reading through, I thought more about feelings. How the characters react is crucial.

    And I thought I knew more about the characters than the reader too. I forgot that I too am a reader. I wanted the reader to know everything I know about my characters, which I know now is utter nonsense. But the feelings that my characters show that's great writing. Thanks Scott! :)

  16. This is an excellent post. As a writer who has yet to finish a novel, I think this is important to think about. It's probably one of the reasons I get "stuck." I'm going to have make sure I come back and keep reading. This blog is informative, well written and inspiring. Thanks!

  17. This was a great post. I write in first person and I try to put a lot of emotion in what is going on, but I am honestly afriad that I do some overkill with it. I agree that I feel like emotion in first person is heavy handed so I try to show the emotion just as much as tell it. Which is difficult and I'm not sure if the readers will understand exactly what I'm showing them. And sometimes I get so into my charactors emotions that it effects my own for the day. But I wish I knew if those emotions will transfer to the reader. Trusting the reader is a scary thought haha

  18. Petula: I think a lot of times we get "stuck" with stories when a basic issue remains unresolved with us as writers. In other words, we get stuck when we don't know our story or characters well enough. Forcing ourselves to answer very basic questions about story/character/theme will often get us unstuck. Thanks for dropping by our blog! We try to be helpful, and we're open to suggestions for future posts!

    MDHobson: I don't think there's really any way of finding out how our writing affects readers until we put the pages in front of them. There's always going to be a distance from the work that we can't achieve in order to see it fresh like a reader.

  19. Good point. Its just what I needed to read. Some times is hard not to get trapped in your own emotional web without realizing your novel is not an emotional diary of your own life. Some days are better then other to channel that is for for sure, although writing its therapeutic you cant confuse it with what you are trying to create. Detachment. Thanks for sharing it!


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