Posted On December 17, 2010 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Adding Emotion

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,

Hi, Carli,
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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?

* * *

So, writers, what other tips would you add to this list?

Join us next week Monday when Adrienne talks with agent Kevan Lyon. You won’t want to miss it!

Theresa’s Bio:

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 where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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35 Responses to “Ask An Editor: Adding Emotion”

  1. Great list, Theresa!

    I’m printing this out and tacking it to my “Wall of Great Advice,” which seems to contain quite a few notes authored by Theresa Stevens. 🙂

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | December 17, 2010, 5:46 am
  2. Another keeper post! Love it.

    Can you give us an example of number 9? How do we anchor the moments?

    Thanks from Adrienne who is off to find every mention of someone rifling their hands through their hair. Yikes.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | December 17, 2010, 7:09 am
    • Find some action to support the emotion, especially if it’s in a “sequel.” For example, if they’re angry or frustrated, send them to the gym and have them kick the crap out of a boxing bag while they think through their options. Or put them in a garden to deadhead the flowers with some really wicked shears.

      Then, every time they take an action *pow* *snip* in the midst of the *blam* talky-thinky stuff, the reader gets an active visual to illustrate *slice* the emotion. The physical stuff, the boxing bag and the snipped flowers, the sounds of kicking and cutting, the sweat and the sunburn, act as “anchors” because they tie that free-floating emotional stuff to a physical sensation in a tangible world.

      Easy to see how this works in a sequel, which can be set nearly anywhere and usually has one character alone. Now imagine doing it in a regular scene with multiple characters. Where can you set the scene to highlight the emotional component? What props are built into the environment to help you express emotion? Sometimes you’ll go for something obvious, like punching a gym bag when angry. And sometimes you’ll go for something more subtle — I read a scene once where a woman was heartbroken but had to take some kids to a circus. As all around her people laughed, she could not even crack a smile until the sad clown came out, at which point she felt sort of relieved and vindicated. It was well done and unusual.

      Does that make sense? It’s all about using the environment around the characters, the details and props that can act as lightning rods for the emotions.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | December 17, 2010, 12:50 pm
  3. Awesome and fantastic advice as always, Theresa!!

    Posted by Nicole North | December 17, 2010, 7:20 am
  4. Terrific post, Theresa!
    Adding emotion used to be the most difficult part of writing for me. Really digging deep into your characters is hard, and time-consumming, but so worth it in the end.

    Posted by Wendy S Marcus | December 17, 2010, 7:45 am
  5. I love this post. I’m reposting it to my FaceBook friends. Adding emotion — the physical manifestation of it–is tough. And it is even tougher when trying to avoid cliches.

    Posted by Christine | December 17, 2010, 7:50 am
  6. Morning Theresa!!

    What a great post! I agree with Tracey, it’s a keeper! My question is about #2…varying the emotions. I’ve read numerous stories where it’s like a roller coaster ride of emotions, and not the fun kind! One sentence is angry, the next is lust, the next is laughing, the next….you get the picture….=) I realize peoples emotions can run the gamut like that, but is there any guideline to how often to switch or vary the emotions?

    Thanks for posting with us today!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 17, 2010, 8:32 am
    • There’s an art in this, Carrie. Keep in mind that a new emotion is a response to a stimulus. People generally don’t get angry unless provoked, don’t laugh at nothing, etc. The trick is in letting the first emotion be fully experienced before moving on to the next. Otherwise, if the changes come too quickly, it can feel like whiplash.

      I find it’s generally best to have a scene start with one core emotion and then end with another as evidence of change prompted by the scene action. But that’s anything but a hard and fast rule. Just sort of a default pattern that seems to work well in many types of scenes.

      Also, keep in mind that a single emotion can be modulated — a little angry, a big angry — as a result of scene action.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | December 17, 2010, 12:57 pm
  7. Great practical tips for cranking up the emotion in our stories. Especially liked the reminder to stay in tune with the true emotion our characters feel at every point in the story. This makes it easier to convey the emotion felt through words and actions. Thanks Theresa!

    Posted by Roxanne | December 17, 2010, 9:01 am
  8. Theresa –

    Happy Friday! Emotion is a toughy for me so this list will come in handy. Like many writers, I struggle with new ways to give action to certain emotions without using a cliche. Sure wish there was a handy-dandy list somewhere, but I guess those would become cliches then, huh?

    For those of you who missed it, Liz Tally also talked about emotion last week in this lecture:

    Thanks, T!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | December 17, 2010, 11:21 am
  9. Some experts say that as much as 93% of our communication is done through body language. That really highlights how important the things that surround the dialog are. I think it’s actually fun to make the body language contradict the dialog, so that the reader picks up on what’s not being said. So much more gratifying than spelling everything out.

    Posted by Sue Quint | December 17, 2010, 11:33 am
    • Hi, Sue! I agree that body language is a great way to signal emotion in dialogue, but if it’s relied on too heavily, the prose can start to read a bit stilted. Posture and gesture aren’t as dynamic as other kinds of action. But it’s still important to use them, and they can reveal a lot about a person’s hidden thoughts and feelings.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | December 17, 2010, 1:04 pm
  10. Hi Theresa,

    Definitely a keeper for me. My CP calls me on this one far too often. Thank you!


    Posted by Sally Bayless | December 17, 2010, 1:04 pm
  11. I haven’t had a chance to jump into the article yet, but I’m super excited about the topic. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I was even going to try to do a blog series on emotion in writing this month, but since I’m still drafting, I’m a little busy!

    Posted by Jordan | December 17, 2010, 4:51 pm
  12. My problem is I sometimes distance the emotions. Just like I do for myself personally. I don’t mean to, but on a reread, I’ll find it. I’m looking for new ways of showing emotions, especially in men. However, there is a reason we have our cliches–like running hands through hair in frustration… 😀

    . I’m trying to be more open and let things in as I’m pouring them out. Sigh… What I am willing to do for my writing 🙂

    Posted by Leona Bushman | December 17, 2010, 7:23 pm
  13. Great tips (as always)! I’ve had a YA romance on my mind for awhile now and these’ll definitely help me along the way 🙂 Thanks as always!

    Posted by Jessica Lei | December 18, 2010, 2:32 am
  14. Super, T. You’ll be seeing these in the rewrite I’ll send to you.

    Posted by Wes | December 18, 2010, 9:53 am
  15. Late to the party, but just had to say a big THANK YOU to Theresa. This is a problem area for me so like many others I’ll be printing and perusing frequently.

    The questions were also great and brought out several excellent points as well.

    Thanks all


    Posted by Cia | December 21, 2010, 9:32 am


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by carrie c spencer, Jennifer Tanner, A.T. Russell, Christine Glover, Adrienne Giordano and others. Adrienne Giordano said: RT @RomanceUniv Ask An Editor: Adding Emotion […]

  2. […] “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.” — Ask An Editor: Adding Emotion | Romance University […]

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