I heard an editor speak at a conference and she said the most important thing in a romance is “emotion, emotion, emotion.” I guess I understand that, but how do we know if we have enough emotion in the story? Is there ever too much emotion? Are there any easy ways to increase the emotion in a story?
Thanks for your answer,
Great question! I agree that emotion is a critical element in not just romance, but in all good stories. And yes, I also agree that there can be too much emotion. This is sometimes called melodrama or sentimentality, and it can be a real turn-off for readers. But the truth is that in all those years of scouring the submissions inbox, I rarely saw a melodramatic manuscript, but I saw heaps of manuscripts that were flat or inappropriately subdued. So for most writers, you don’t have to worry about how much is too much.
Instead, think about ways to get more emotion into each scene, line by line. Here are my top ten tips to help you achieve this.
- First and most important, get your reader invested with your characters and their situations. This generally means three things: a worthy goal, a dire consequence, and a character we want to see succeed. If any of those three pieces is missing or inadequate, the reader’s emotional investment will suffer.
- Modulate the emotion over the course of scenes and sequences. A steady stream of shrill anger, for example, will soon numb the reader. But building peaks and valleys into the expression or experience of that emotion will give it more impact.
- Vary the emotions themselves. We tend to focus on lust, anger, suspicion, and of course, love itself. But this is a tiny subset of human emotion. Incorporate a variety, and you’ll instantly have “more” emotion, quite literally.
- Use contrasting emotions against each other to heighten the impact of each. Remember the line from Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”? Pairing the heartbreak with the laughter made each feel more poignant.
- Don’t shorthand important emotional moments. Naming an emotion is probably the most common form of emotional shorthand. (She said angrily, he appeared baffled, she felt anxious, etc.) This is weak writing, though it’s appropriate for moments when you want to downplay the significance of a character’s reaction and move on quickly to other things.
- Focus instead on action and dialogue to convey emotion. Emotions often have physical components and lead us to say particular things. Let the emotions shine through these details.
- Interior monologue can also convey an emotion, not by focusing on the emotion itself but by focusing on the facts that give rise to the emotion. Compare: 1- “I feel very determined to leave this house.” 2- “If Carson thinks he can keep me from going out just because of a little rain, well, let him try to stop me!” Second one has more impact, right?
- Avoid cliches. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but really, I don’t ever want to read about a man shoving his hand through his hair out of frustration. When an action is this overused to convey an emotion, the emotional impact is flattened.
- Choose the concrete over the abstract. Sometimes we can’t help but get abstract when a character is experiencing an emotion, especially when that character is trying to understand or come to terms with that emotion. Find ways to anchor these moments in the concrete world of the story. Make them *do* something while they analyze their hearts, and let those actions reflect their true emotions.
- Make sure you know what the characters’ true emotions are, moment by moment, throughout the story. This might sound obvious, but you can’t narrate an emotion that you don’t know about. Go deeper. Feel what your characters are feeling in that moment. How does it color their view of the world around them?
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So, writers, what other tips would you add to this list?
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Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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