Thursday, March 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, March 04, 2010 14 comments
In writing early drafts, even plodders tend to skim the emotional surface of their scenes. One's initial focus is on pushing the plot forward and grasping the first burst of emotional play in character interactions. Usually one can retain the protagonist's core motivation (what Sandra Scofield calls the "pulse") as other characters interact with her. That's fine as far as it goes. But when you start passing your draft around for critique, expect your readers to find your protagonist flat and unrealistically single-minded. Because when are any of us of one mind about anything? Emotion is always a mixed bag. Always.

This is where revision comes to the rescue. On second draft, it's essential to go deeper in every scene. Look especially for places where you or your critique partners feel the emotion isn't quite what it could or should be. The reactions are flat, melodramatic or don't ring true in some way. Mark and label them, then set the manuscript aside.

Now pull out those character profiles you made while laying the groundwork of your first draft. Look at you character's back story, and identify her core values--things she stands for--and her deepest fears. Usually these things are connected. Always-poised characters, for example, often have some point of shame in their background. They value reputation and fear exposure. These drives will color every interaction in a story, even if only tangentially.

From these character sheets, brainstorm past the surface desire/motivation in the scene you need to revise. In a scene I'm currently revising, my character wants to keep a secret from a friend. But what else does she want? Well, she wants to maintain the friendship, to reassure her friend, to have her friend's support and love and acceptance. Immediately, I see inner turmoil for my protagonist--conflicting desires to conceal and reveal. Her back story will determine which desire takes precedence. In my protagonist's case, concealment is all that's ever been modeled in her family.

What about the friend? She wants information, wants the protagonist to open up, wants to be trusted, wants the protagonist to be free of hang-ups, wants the protagonist to stop game playing. Her back story as an extrovert ringleader in a boisterous family of six kids will make her more likely to push hard against the protagonist's reticence. She'll thus struggle with conflicting desires to know NOW and to reassure/support with gentleness.

Back to the manuscript. Look at those weak spots again. Where could the characters' mixed motives and mixed emotions express themselves? And how would they express themselves?
Nancy Kress's book Character, Emotion and Viewpoint notes some helpful techniques.

-bodily reactions (muscles tightening, tears welling, etc.)
-actions (punching the wall, tidying a mess, high-fiving, etc.)
-dialogue that expresses the emotion without labeling it ("Hotdiggity! That's awesome!" rather than "I feel so excited for you, Jim.")
-character thoughts rendered like internal dialogue (expressing emotion rather than labeling it, but without the quotes)
-snippets of back story that shed light on the character's emotion or motivation

In the case of mixed emotion and conflicting motives, it's a matter of layering techniques. A character might inwardly cringe while outwardly acting nonchalant. He might say something supportive while his body reacts with anger, like clenched fists or a surge of heat.

*this is a repost from my early blogging days, in case this is sounding oddly familiar.

What are some of your favorite ways to show mixed emotions? Which authors do you try to emulate who express complex emotions well?


  1. This is a great post for me because that's exactly what gets passed up in my first draft. I need more "character thoughts rendered like internal dialogue". I tend to write "She felt.." instead of show how she felt. Thanks for posting!

  2. I like the snippets of flashback so we know where the character is coming from. I might be off-track here, but words that say something, but actions that reveal another motive or emotion.

  3. Bookmarked? Check.
    Printed? Check.
    Filed with other precious writing info? Check.

    Thanks, Laurel. This was another fabulous post.

  4. I more often lose track of the plot because I'm stuck too deeply in my characters' emotions. But that doesn't mean that I always get those emotions across to the reader as effectively as I could. There are many ways to show emotion without having to tell the reader what they are supposed to feel. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Aubie: Glad it's helpful. I do think it's a little tricker in third person POV to keep the narration intimate. In first person I find I can easily shift into the character's thoughts without it seeming unnatural.

    Mary: Backstory, when well placed, can do wonders. It worked for me in this case--I dropped in my MC thinking "Heather, pulling her bossy big sister act on me? I’ve seen her dig into her brother like this, when the twerp wandered away from us in Times Square. Have I scared her that bad?"

    I agree that using speech and actions to communicate mixed emotion can be very effective.

    Shannon: Glad to be a helpful resource. That's the best compliment!

    Lena: I struggle with plot, too. It can be helpful to focus on plot in the first draft, then revise for emotion. But I don't always do that--sometimes I absolutely can't write a scene until I'm tangled in my MC's emotion and weeping as I write.

  6. great post! I always find that in highly emotional scenes I tend to either be overdramatic or underdramatic. I have a hard time finding the right balance.

  7. My characters are always conflicted, because they're kids and they don't usually want to tell their parents what they are really doing. I love the internal struggle scenes mixed with light conversation where they have to appear relaxed and normal.

  8. Great post! I am doing a much better job of showing emotions now than I did when I first started my WIP. I've learned so much from Suzanne Collins. She's a master at depicting her character's emotions and their corresponding actions.

  9. Great, great post. You really covered everything. :) I'll be coming back to this.

  10. Great advice! When my mc is conflicted, her hands always betray her. No matter what she says, her fingers tell the true tale :)

  11. Bethany: You might want to take a look at the Nancy Kress book I mentioned. It's very helpful for seeing how to strike the balance.

    Natalie: Me too. It's exciting to read a scene in which tension is grinding under a light, bubbly surface.

    Melissa: Collins's name comes up a lot these days in the blogosphere! Analyzing successful writers is so helpful.

    Sarahjayne: Glad it was helpful.

    Jemi: Cool. That can tell so much. I immediately think she must be someone who defines herself through what she does and accomplishes.

  12. I'm always very careful to not let my characters get too happy. In fact I really have to watch this because I want them to be happy. Many a scenes have been rewritten to accommodate their misery. ;)

  13. Love this post! Thanks! I'm currently revising, so this is great. I tend to forget about the action- thanks for the reminder

  14. T. Anne: Ha! Yeah, I recall one of my writing books saying to stick your character in a tree and throw rocks at him.

    Kelly: Glad to have been of help. Revision is where the opportunities to go deeper become more clear. Enjoy digging in!