Make the Reader Weep or Laugh

Thursday, February 21, 2013
One of the goals of a recent revision was to deepen the emotions. I used multiple strategies or tools to work on making the reader weep or laugh.

Look for clich├ęs—and kill them.
Suck in a breath in horror.
Did a double-take in surprise.
Let go a big belly-laugh.

Please. Those are awful, aren’t they? You must look for new, fresh ways to express emotion.

Look for adverbs—and kill them.
The problem here is using an adverb, instead of a stronger verb.

NOT: He laughed excitedly.
INSTEAD: He guffawed.

NOT: She sighed quietly.
INSTEAD: Her breath seeped out.

List emotions in margins. I like to read through a chapter and write the emotions evoked in the manuscript’s margins. Then, I read through the emotions to see if there is some sort of progression across the chapter. Maybe the character starts out confident and winds up in despair.

I try to avoid hitting just one emotional note throughout the story. Instead, I am looking for emotional variety. Often a writer will explain that a character has to feel a certain way. His mother just died, they will say, so the boy will be sad. Yes, of course. But if a character is sad—and sad—and further more, he’s sad, it’s a boring story. We need emotional variety. At a funeral, people laugh and cry and argue and sleep. A full range of emotions are possible, in fact, the emotions are much deeper because of the situation.

On a macro-level, chart the emotional arc of the main character and other important characters. Over the course of the story I chart the emotional arc of a character. Usually, this is in terms of one main character quality: a lair learns to tell the truth. What are the stages of learning that telling the truth is a valuable skill? You may understand it different, but my idea might go something like this:

Character lies and gets in trouble, vows to tell the truth, tells the truth and gets in trouble, lies again to get out of trouble, lies again to stay out of trouble, lies and gets in really major trouble, tells the truth and finds a way out of problems. Tells the truth, even though it appears foolish to do so and there are consequences, but Character gains respect for telling the truth.
In other words, the emotional arc has ups and downs, successes and failures. The emotional zig zag must be there, or the story is boring.

Spit it out. Just have the characters articulate the emotions.
If all else fails, let the characters just talk about their emotions in the dialogue. That’s what happens in sit-coms, in dramas or plays or on film, where you can’t know what the character is thinking. Only dialogue and action can indicate the emotions. In these cases, give your Character some words that evoke the emotions


Darcy Pattison blogs about how-to-write at Fiction Notes and blogs about education at Follow Darcy on Pinterest.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Darcy--I've always thought of it as an emotional rollercoaster, but that is cliche as well.

I LOVE the idea of an emotional zig zag. A roller coaster is somewhat predictable. If you head way up, you know that soon you're going to have be heading down. But when you're zig-zagging, you never know exactly in what direction you (the story) is headed towards.

Thanks, Darcy, for the post. Now I'm going to work on doing some zig-zagging with my NaNoWri-Not.

Marcia Peterson said...

This is a great post, Darcy. I love those little people you made with their zig zag emotions! ;)

Unknown said...

Great idea to write emotions in the margin- that's my take away for the day! Thanks :)

LuAnn Schindler said...

I'm with Julie. I like writing the emotions in the margin. Great idea!

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