Feelings … whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings …
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a hundred times; in a romance you must have emotion on every page. Which emotion depends on you and your characters and their individual situation, but emotion is the kicker. It’s the reason we read romance. We’re emotion junkies. Personally, I believe this is the main thing that separates the almost-published with the published. I’ve seen it too many times when judging contest entries. The writing is solid, the characters feel real, but the emotions are flat. It’s as if the author is trying to keep the reader at arm’s length.
In actuality, you’re keeping your own emotions at arm’s length is yourself. Call it self-preservation. It’s scary to put yourself on the page. To open yourself up to your vulnerabilities and tell your boss and your ex-boyfriend and your great Aunt Mary Ellen all about your emotional baggage. In the end, though, you’ll find that the more of yourself you allow to seep into the pages, the more authentic your writing will become. It often takes a while to really dig deep, let loose and put yourself on the page. Now let me clarify, I’m not talking about writing autobiographically, it’s not about writing about your experiences. It is about allowing yourself to feel that humiliation you felt at the 6th grade dance when you walked out of the bathroom with your dress tucked into your tights, so that it seeps into the scene you’re writing when your heroine feels humiliated after walking in on her so-called beau in the arms of another woman. Writing is intensely personal. It took me a while to acknowledge that and when I did, it changed so much about how I approach my stories and characters. So what are some ways you can punch up the emotion in your writing? I’ve got a list of four techniques to use.
Be specific. Have you ever heard that the more specific something is, the more general it is? What this means is the more precise you make something, the more likely it is that people will understand. Instead of saying John and Sally walked through the grove of trees, say John and Sally linked arms and strolled through a grove of apple trees. Just by adding specific details, you’ve deepened the description and engaged the reader.
Start with the five senses. We’ve all heard this one plenty of times, but it’s one of the key ingredients to getting emotion on the page. But so often what you see is an inventory list to set up the scene. As if the author has a checklist by their desk of the five senses and once they’ve established all of them, the move on with the story. The five senses should work harder than that. Think about the following examples and what they represent: the howling wind (fear), the taste of blood (danger), a glittering ballroom (excitement), the sinfully softness of velvet (sensuality), and yeasty scent of fresh baked bread (peace). Granted these examples are a bit clichéd, but hopefully they illustrate my point. Hand selecting a sensory detail that mirrors the emotional tone of the scene will add depth and richness more so than simply tossing something random in. Think, be deliberate and selective with your details.
Which brings me to the next technique. Using character point of view. Everyone views the world differently. When I walk into a room I might notice the color on the walls and the choice of art, while you might notice the specific style of furniture and the out of place ceiling fan. The same goes for our characters. This is especially important when you’re writing in 3rd person and switching points of view, either by chapter or by scene. Your heroine’s unique vision of the world and the details she notices in it are determined by her upbringing, her education, her preferences, her values and her emotional mood. If she’s feeling plucky and happy, she will likely notice how the fat raindrops feel as they fall on her cheeks, whereas if she’s feeling surly, she might instead notice the dark sky and the angry slashes of clouds. When you’re writing your scenes and you’re in one of your character’s heads, use this to your benefit. Think about your word choice, especially your verbs with this one. A woman might think the stars are dancing across the sky, whereas a man would use a different verb like scattering.
What specifically will they notice about their surroundings? Chances are your hero isn’t going to notice that his desk is a rich mahogany because he’s sat at it a hundred times and he knows what it looks like. But if you have him accidentally spill his ink well across the top marring the rich mahogany color, you’ve not only given us a description of the desk, but you’ve given us a clue into his emotional state.
Go deep. It’s not just a football term. Along the lines of using your character’s individual point of view, slip into deep point of view as often as you can. There are times in books when this isn’t practical or as effective as lose 3rd person, but for the most part you can use deep POV whenever you like. Let’s look at two examples: Sandra continued to type her memo, racking her brain for the appropriate clause. She heard glass shatter from somewhere in the house. She froze. Someone was in the house.
Sandra’s fingernails clicked across the keyboard in an awkward tattoo. What was that clause? She made a note to have Alan look it up in the morning. Glass shattered behind her. Chills scattered across her flesh, prickling the hairs on her nape. Someone was in the house.
Which one evokes stronger emotion? The second one does, because it goes deeper into Sandra’s head. When we use phrases like “she heard” or “he felt” we remove the reader from the action of story and remind them they’re just reading. Without those phrases and utilizing the actual action the reader is immersed in the book and in the character’s skin. The close your readers feel to the characters, the faster they’ll turn those pages. This is classic show, don’t tell. Instead of describing the situation, put us in it and let us experience it.
Have you been holding your emotions at arms length while you write? Are you skimming the surface and hoping to slip by? If so, then try these techniques and see if they don’t help you begin to ease more emotion onto the page. It gets easier with time and once you see how effective it is, the fear of being too honest or too out there begins to melt away. Aren’t your stories worth it? Don’t your characters deserve authentic emotions? Come on, step out on the ledge and put your heart on the page.
When Robyn DeHart isn’t exploring her emotional baggage, she writes Victorian-set historicals for Avon books. The third installment of her popular Ladies’ Amateur Sleuth Society series, Tempted At Every Turn, hits stores August 07. This article was originally printed in the SMRW Smoke Signals newsletter.
Copyright © 2007. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.