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Shades of Nuance: Shades of Feeling

Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.

So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.

Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.

Give up?

I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.

So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.

When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.

Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.

The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.

This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.

How many did you come up with?

From my editing these are the favourites:

Sinking or rising heart/stomach

Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice

Shaking legs, hands

Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head

Various forms of crying/laughing

Blushing/heat in the face

and of course the ever present Sigh

As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.

If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.

I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.

Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.

A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The emotional thesaurus:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

The Blurb, life or death in 50 words or less.

I was once a book reviewer as well as an author. Many sources for review books post a thumbnail of the cover and perhaps a sentence or two. That sentence or two is what is going to convince me to click on more information to read the rest of the available information.

So you have a great novel. You’ve edited and polished until you and your beta readers are happy with the words. You have a great cover. Now you need a blurb that will convince me, the reader, to investigate further.

I like reading indie books. That’s the cool way to say self-published. The review site I used to write for accepts indie books. It’s a fairly significant investment. About $400 to get posted and in the emails. That’s two hundred books at $2 profit.

Unfortunately a lot of the books have blurbs like this;

Wolf is a warrior and he goes to where Rolph’s gang hides out in a post-apocalyptic city. Will Wolf defeat the alien monster that is killing Rolph’s warriors? What will happen when Wolf’s leader wants him back? Will he find love?

The answers are yes, yes and yes. You basically given me the whole story in brief. Because you ask questions, I think of the answers. When I know the answers, I don’t want to read the book.

This might be a slightly better blurb for the same story (one of mine, so you don’t think I’m picking unfairly on someone)

Rolph has a problem. Some thing is breaking into his hall and killing his men. He doesn’t trust this Wolf who has shown up looking for trouble, but it the Thing gets Wolf, it will be one less of his own men who die. Yet if Wolf destroys the Thing, that will be just another kind of trouble.

This is by no means a great blurb, but what it tries to do is create questions that reader wants to answer. Now that I have the reader asking their own questions, I have the chance that they will click through to find the answers that they need.

Another common mistake with blurbs is to try to fit too much of the story into the blurb. Something like this:

The Wolf is a warrior whose been kicked out of his gang for daring to love the leader’s girl. Now he is going to fight an alien menace and maybe find love. This is the beginning of a retelling of Beowulf, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this story.

The third most popular mistake is to talk about your story instead of hooking the reader into it.

This is a kickass retelling of Beowulf in a post-apocalyptic world. My mom hated it so it must be awesome!

The blurb is your first, and maybe your last chance, to hook your reader. Use it well.


For more advice on how to write that killer blurb go to Michael Sullivan’s Tips.

I will also accept a limited number of clients per month to help write their blurb/back matter. The fee will be $25 USD for one hour of consultation. By the time we’re done you will be much more comfortable writing that all important blurb.

Send me an email to request a slot. In the email, include your present blurb. If I have space to help, I will ask for the first chapter and synopsis of your book. In addition sum up your book in ten words. This is your elevator pitch, it isn’t so much about your book as about why I should want to read it.

My email is available on the right side panel.

Writing Emotionally Gripping Text

At the beginning of Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner’s character is banging away on her typewriter as she bawls her eyes out over the conclusion of her story. A nice scene and one I heard other writers talk about playing out in their own writing life. Here they are finally able to let their little darlings live happily ever after, or maybe it’s more of an Old Yeller ending.

The notion is that authors cry while writing emotional scenes. Some do, some don’t, but in reality their tears have nothing to do with their prose’s ability to evoke tears in their reader’s eyes.

Authors are often too close to the big scenes and the weight of the emotion overwhelms them. So while they weep, they pull back from the scene and mistakenly think their emotions will evoke the same emotion in the reader. It won’t.

Susan looked over the wide spread of her father’s ranch. How sad it was that she’d never see it again. Her love for Bart meant she’d follow him to the cold and dirty streets of New York City. Heaving one last sigh over the sunset on the mountains she turned back to the house to finish her packing, and maybe win a farewell word from her father.

So there you have a nice emotional scene. Susan is leaving her beloved western home to follow true love to the big city. In the process her father stops talking to her, adding to her sorrow. Who wouldn’t shed a tear?

Pretty much anybody who reads it. There are several things wrong, but I’ll stick with three that haven’t shown up in other articles.

First, there is no context. In order for a big scene to be a big scene, I have to build up to it. Susan must start feeling ambivalent about the move long before this paragraph. Showing how much she loves the ranch (and dear old dad) in earlier scenes will prepare a fertile ground for the evocation goodbye. If you never show how dear her home is, there is no reason why she should be sad to leave it.

Second, there is no emotion. Sure you say she’s sad, but that’s not emotion. Emotion hits us as a physical thing. Our bodies have different sensations when we’re sad, angry, happy etc. (See the article on nuance). She’s standing there, but there’s no physical component to the emotion. We don’t feel her tears because we don’t know what they feel like.

Third, it’s too short. If this is really a climactic scene, you need to give is some room to develop and bloom. One paragraph, however evocatively written will not do the job. Look at the paragraph and block it out.

Susan is looking out at her father’s ranch for the last time.
She feels sad – where in her body does it live, what are the physical signs, etc.
She loves Bart
You guessed it, where is that feeling located etc? How does it conflict with the sadness?
She isn’t looking forward to New York City.
Again, feeling, physical sensation, interaction with other emotions.
She heaves a sigh – about as cliched a showing of emotion as there is.
What is unique about this sigh? How is it different from her sighing over her love of Bart? Generic word will not evoke emotion.
She bravely returns to packing.
What emotions are conflicting here? What memories as well as things is she leaving behind?
Her father isn’t talking to her.
Why not? How does she feel about it. Write a scene in which they don’t talk.
Each of these bullets are at least a paragraph. I want to have the physical sensations of her emotions as connected as possible with the thing which evokes the emotion. I have it blocked out so I see the description/action piece interwoven with the emotional part. They should be inseparable. I don’t want the emotion to stop the plot, nor the plot to short change the emotion.

As I comment in the article on Weight, the things which are important to the plot in the past need to be important here, and the things which are important here, must carry through to the conclusion. It isn’t much good writing a beautifully evocative goodbye to the ranch if she never thinks or speaks of it again. Think of it as a wave. There is a slope up the wave which builds imperceptibly to the point where the wave breaks and all is turmoil, but then there is a slope down from that turmoil as it carries forward into the rest of the story.

So how do you achieve all this? Plan the scene. Don’t let your emotions force you to skim over the emotions of the character. Dig deep and and show what is beneath the surface. Don’t pull out and narrate the scene. Pull in tight. Show the emotions as much as possible without explaining them. Be specific, avoid the generic emotions and responses. Make sure the scene is true to her character.

Last bit of advice on this one and it’s a doozy. Don’t let one emotion rule the day. She’s not just sad, but sad, and hopeful and determined and a bit peeved. Humans are complex and we’re used to layers of feeling. If you can create those layers in your work, you will have the reader eating out of the palm of your hand.

And reaching for the tissue box.

 

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