If we writers want to sell or keep selling books, readers must care about our characters. To make characters come alive, we give them strong internal and external goals, believable motivations and oodles of internal, external conflict, creating tension on every page. But no matter how well we do all this, our books will disappoint if we don’t produce strong emotion in our readers. As Vince said last week in his Seekerville post "What Mega-Selling Authors Know That You Could Use to Boost Sales"—“Fans read romances to satisfy emotional needs that when neglected become cravings.” Providing that emotional read romance readers crave requires us to dig deep and that’s hard work. I hope these seven tools help you see ways to take the emotion in your novel to the next level—engaging your readers, satisfying that craving while taking the book to SOLD.
1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS PHYSICAL REACTIONS: Margie Lawson in her
“Empowering Characters’ Emotions” recommends giving characters strong physical reactions that show how your characters feel, instead of using the easy way out and telling readers. These physical reactions allow readers to interact with the characters, to get involved emotionally and to make the character more active, less passive. Don’t use the first thing that pops into your mind. We can be guilty of using pet reactions just as are at using pet words.
From my debut novel, Courting Miss Adelaide, Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical:
He tried to lift his foot, to climb the steps leading into the house of worship, but he couldn’t move. Sweat beaded his forehead and the lump swelled in his throat until he felt he’d suffocate. He bent over and dragged oxygen into his lungs.
A cloud passed between him and the sun, covering him in shadow. A sudden chill streaked down his spine.
He couldn’t move. Couldn’t pray, couldn’t worship.
Too much stood between him and God.
In the excerpt above, I not only used physical reactions to build emotion in the reader, I also varied sentence structure, repeated words, and put the last sentence by itself for emphasis. Margie Lawson gives numerous methods to help writers create emotion by what words we use and how we put those words on the page.
2. ADD SPECIFIC DETAILS THAT BUILD EMOTION IN THE READER: Specific details—descriptions, senses, memories—make our characters 3-D so readers can actually see the character, instead of a vague, colorless version. Characters are shaped by their pasts, by their environment, by what they wear and how they’re treated. You can build any emotion you want by using details that show how the character sees the world.
From Courting Miss Adelaide:
She’d been eight, when her mother, sick with influenza, sent Adelaide to stay with Winifred Cook’s family. Disorder reigned in the Cook household, but Winnie’s parents tucked the children into bed with a prayer and a kiss. What a revelation to discover not all children lived in a neat but silent house.
For weeks after returning home, Adelaide’s skin ached to be touched.
She’d tried to keep the warm feeling by stroking her arms and hugging herself, but it hadn’t been the same.
I could’ve said Adelaide’s mother never touched or rarely talked to her. Instead I used a detail from her past to show the deprivation of her childhood.
3. MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS’ INTROSPECTION TUG AT READERS’ EMOTIONS:
From Courting Miss Adelaide:
Adelaide stepped inside, but didn’t dust the counter, didn’t wash the windowpane. Instead, she stood transfixed, watching Charles’s muscles as he pushed that broom like a madman.
A desirable, intelligent man cared enough about her to worry, to take a burden from her shoulders.
Like a husband would.The thought took her breath away, zinging hope through her, hope for a husband, and hope for children. She shoved it down. She had no claim to Charles, no need of a man. She took care of herself. And if God willed, she could take care of a child, too.
But oh, for a moment, she wanted to believe in the fantasy.
Notice the technique of listing what Adelaide didn’t do to show her emotional state. I italicized one thought, the stunning thought, for emphasis. Through her introspection, readers see the core issues for Adelaide. When writers show how the character feels with tight, strong lines, we don’t have to hammer at it. The reader gets it and cares.
4. ADD ACTIONS THAT CONVEY EMOTION: Watch movies or people to see what actions convey which emotions. Use actions to show how your character is feeling that will elicit an emotional response in the reader.
In this passage from Courting Miss Adelaide, Adelaide is talking to seven-year-old Emma at the breakfast table:
“Tell me, honey, why?” Adelaide continued massaging Emma’s back, and waited, every muscle in her body as tense as the small ones under her fingers.
Emma’s mouth tightened. She picked up her spoon and began shoveling the oatmeal into her mouth, avoiding the question.
I do a little telling here…avoiding the question…to show Adelaide understands Emma is hiding something, adding to Adelaide’s alarm and motivating her next action.
5. HEIGHTEN EMOTION THROUGH DIALOGUE: Writers can use not only what the character says, and how they say it, but what the character doesn’t say, to up the emotion. Dialogue should further the plot and develop characterization, but it’s also a great tool to give the reader an emotional read.
From Courting Miss Adelaide:
“I remember how the hair on my neck would rise, how my gut would knot.” Charles swallowed against the old familiar lump in his throat. “How I wanted to run, but knew running would only make it worse. It was the same for you, wasn’t it?”
Slowly, William nodded.
Charles lifted William’s chin with a palm. “I want you to know something else.”
The boy’s tear-filled eyes, the color of the sea on a cloudy day, met his.
“It wasn’t your doing. None of it was your fault, William. You were never the reason for what was said or done. Never.”
This scene with Charles and William is pivotal for healing and was emotional to write. If you’re unaffected by your scenes, see if you can use dialogue or one of the other tools, or all of them, to stir you.
6. USE SETTING TO UP EMOTION: Setting can mirror or contrast the character’s mood. Setting can awaken or trigger emotions the character doesn’t want to face. Setting can build emotion in the reader.
From Shirley Jump's Marry-Me Christmas, Harlequin Romance, December 2008:
Flynn didn’t know how they had done it, but their path had taken them to the park where the Winterfest had been held. On purpose? By accident?
He paused at the entrance. The lighted displays--gingerbread men, snowmen, Christmas trees, teddy bears--had all been left on, layering the grounds with silent, twinkling enchantment. The people were gone, Santa and Mrs. Claus back at home, the stands and games shut up for the night. Only the reindeer remained, chomping on some hay in his pen. The blanket of night gave everything a spirit of magic, as if anything could happen, as if, on this night, wishes could come true.
What would he have given to have gone to something like this as a kid?
To have been able to bring Liam to Santa’s Workshop, to let him sit on Santa’s lap, and tell Santa what he wanted--
And even more, have Santa actually deliver what he and Liam really desired?
The one thing neither of them had ever had. The only gift ripped away, time after time.
A home. A family. A place he could depend on, knowing it would be there this December 25th and the next, and that there would be someone there who would hang the lights and string garland on the tree.
Flynn shook his head. Damn. He hadn’t intended to think about those days. Ever.
He felt a soft hand on his back. “Flynn? Are you all right?”
Sam. Her voice, so gentle, it called to him like a salve.
Maybe it was the timing. The darkness, punctuated by the sparkling holiday lights. Or maybe it was something more. Flynn didn’t pause long enough to question why, he just turned toward Samantha Barnett and gave in to the desire that wrapped between them as tight as a bow on a present, and kissed her again.
Jump is giving her readers the emotional payoff they want.
7. USE SYMBOLS TO HEIGHTEN EMOTION: Tangibles can stand for something abstract/intangible, be it a mood or an idea, and take on special significance in our books. Writers can use symbols to elicit emotion in the character and in the reader. When writers use the same tangible throughout a book, the symbol becomes powerful at creating emotion. Chances are you already have symbols in your story you can emphasize to add emotional depth.
From my second book Courting the Doctor’s Daughter, Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical, May 2009:
Turning to go, his gaze swept the enormous breakfront filled with medicine. Something stopped him, made him open the glass door. Finding what he sought, Luke clutched his remedy, then walked to the table, dropped into a chair and set the bottle in front of him. Doc had said the contents of this bottle mattered. Had been part of God’s plan.
Joseph’s suffering had led him to find this medicine, to dedicate his life to healing. God had used this remedy to bring Mary, Doc, and the boys into his life. The liquid caught the light from above, glistened with a shimmer of gold. An unbroken bottle, unblemished, and shining like a new start. Or so he saw it now.
The remedy/medicine is a symbol I used throughout the book. Sometimes it represented failure, but in this passage, it stands for hope, a new beginning for Luke.
1-7—USE ALL THESE TOOLS (ACTIONS, DETAILS, DIALOGUE, SETTING, INTROSPECTION, SYMBOLS AND PHYSICAL REACTIONS) TO HEIGHTEN EMOTION:
From Courting Miss Adelaide:
Tears spilled over her pale lower lashes, becoming visible now that they were wet and spiky. If he didn’t do something, she’d start bawling. The prospect sent him behind his desk. He jerked open the top drawer and rummaged through it until he found what he sought—a bag of peppermints. “When I was a youngster,” he began, “on my way home from school, I’d pass Mrs. Wagner’s house. She’d be rocking on her porch, wearing a gray tattered sweater, no matter how hot the day...”
Emma stopped crying, but looked far from cheerful.
“She’d call me up on the porch, ask if I was studying and behaving. Then, she’d reach into the pocket of her sweater and pull out a peppermint.” Charles took a candy from the bag. Emma’s eyes widened. “She’d say, ‘You’re a smart boy, Charles. Work hard and one day you’ll make something of yourself.’ And, she’d drop the candy into my palm—like this.”
He opened Emma’s small hand and let a peppermint fall into her palm. When the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile, a peculiar feeling shot through him. As it had for him all those years ago, the candy once again worked wonders.
His entire adult life, he’d kept a stash of peppermints around, to remind him of Mrs. Wagner, the one person who had believed in him, who’d given him a desire to improve his lot. The candy still tasted as sweet as her words.
This scene with Charles and Emma gives insight into Charles’ life as a child and hopefully, elicits emotion in the reader.
When readers are given an emotional read, they care about the character and can’t toss the book aside. Editors, also, find it hard to reject a book that creates strong emotion in them. Look for passages in your WIP that tell the reader how the character feels. How can you use one or all of these seven tools in the writer’s toolbox to not only show how the character is feeling, but to create that emotion in readers?
Shirley Jump is giving away a copy today of Miracle on Christmas Eve, her first book in the Riverbend, Indiana series. Her second book in the series, Marry-Me Christmas will release this December. Leave a comment to be eligible for the drawing.
If you’re feeling brave, share a passage from your work that shows how you built emotion for your reader.