Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Learning Emotional Triggers by Cheryl St. John


Observing what makes a good story, what triggers reactions, is a key part in learning how to create those triggers yourself.

Why do you have favorite authors? Because they have a unique way of triggering responses in you—and in a lot of other people. Most of those triggers are universal.

We learn best by discovering things on our own, so while an instructor or a book can point you in the right direction and suggest techniques, a lot of learning comes from discovering things on your own. Be active in the process of learning what affects you emotionally.


Emotion is scary, no doubt about it. Strong feelings make us vulnerable. At first most of us are hesitant to let emotions bleed onto our pages. You might wonder if a parent will read this and think you’re writing about them. You might hesitate because your friends or other writers will recognize something about your inner fears or vulnerability. If you write romantic scenes, you might be thinking about who’s going to read them and wonder about their reaction. Will they think this is about you?

One of the most irritating questions we can be asked is if we write from personal experience. Well, of course we write from personal experience. But do we do all the things and feel all the things that our characters experience and feel? Hardly. My answer is always, “My life is way too boring to write from personal experience.”

I doubt anyone has asked Stephanie Meyer if she created a family of vampires from personal experience. Do they think Stephen King had a supernatural experience in a deserted hotel or that he cut off his arm to see what phantom sensations were like? Seriously, people.

We become these story people, and we imagine what they would feel like, given their background and experiences and the things that are happening to them—because we’re creative and sensitive. We write from our deep creative wells of imagination, and we have lived and felt enough to be able to imagine how someone would feel in a given situation.

I have a good friend who is a quadriplegic. I have no idea what it’s like to experience life from a wheelchair, but she does. When I wrote Sweet Annie, I asked for her help, and she was a wonderful resource. Many years later, readers still comment about that story and many say it’s one of their favorite books. Why? I drew on people’s emotions and made them feel what it was like to be Annie Sweetwater.

Miss Marples’ ice cream parlor wasn’t very busy that afternoon, and the pudgy woman herself waited on them. After taking Charmaine’s order, she asked, “And what will she have?” indicating Annie with a nod.

“Well, I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?” Luke replied. She’s in a wheelchair, but she’s nor deaf or stupid.”
This snip of dialogue is only part of what endears Luke to Annie and the reader. It would never have entered my mind to use being treated like a nonentity in a scene, but because it’s real life for my friend Anita, I was able to add more depth of emotion.


You don’t have to have experienced something to imagine how it would feel. No one who sees an Amber Alert has to question how the parents are feeling. That’s a universal trigger.

One of the many things I do that drives my husband crazy is watch all the behind-the-scenes clips for movies. I know you’ve seen interviews with actors where they are talking about their character as though it’s a real person. To them it is. They become that person to take on the persona of the role.

It’s called method acting. It’s how actors dredge up tears and show drama. They put themselves in that person’s place and experience the scene as though it’s happening to them. I call it method writing. You have to know your character inside and out to write like this. Superficial writing will never convey deep emotion. The first thing needed is to have these people fleshed out on paper and in your mind. Know everything you need to know about them. Give them backstory. Give them goals—all part of the tapestry that makes up the creation of a story.

Use character charts or grids or interview your story people, but do whatever it takes to know them well. When you come to a scene of action or emotion, close your eyes. Think of the past experiences that this person has had. Let their life become real to you. Become them. This is how you will know how they will react and how they will feel.

Did you know that The Notebook is the story of Nicolas Sparks’ wife’s grandparents? He has a very simplified writing style, but he reaches readers on a deeply emotional level, and especially in that book because the story was real. It was probably painful to write that story.

We all know what pain feels like. We’ve all lost someone or experienced rejection. And we’ve all laughed at inappropriate moments. Our own depth of emotion is what we delve into to write about feelings in fictional situations. We’re human. Our readers are human. We connect through feelings. We’re not writing an autobiography; we’re tapping those core emotions as a resource for our characters.

A learning tool that is most beneficial once it’s developed is to understand—about yourself—what makes you have strong emotions.

What works for you? Do you get weepy at Hallmark commercials? If you’re a comedy writer, what makes you laugh? What are your deepest fears?

When you know the answers to those questions, you know the kind of books you should be writing and you can learn to write using your strengths.


Make lists.

Lists are easy.

Plop one of your favorite books on your desk or beside your comfy reading chair. Thumb through the pages; make notes in your notebook. Use the same notebook for the next few books you read. Keep track of everything that evoked an emotional reaction in you.

Watch movies.

Watch your favorite TV show or a movie or two. Keep track of the things you find emotional—recognize why they trigger a strong response in you.

As my writing idol Dwight Swain said: “A story is feelings.” Once you’re aware of emotional triggers, you’ll be able to use them effectively to make your read care. And the number one rule of storytelling: The reader must care.

Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for Cheryl's Christmas release Western Winter Wedding Bells.
Cheryl St.John

Western Winter Wedding Bells anthology, Harlequin Historical 10/10
Marrying the Preacher's Daughter, Love Inspired Historical 6/11
Visit me on the web: http://www.cherylstjohn.net/
From the Heart: http://cherylstjohn.blogspot.com/


Jessie at Blog Schmog said...

I was just discussing this with my husband. Why can some writers get me to cry at the drop of a hat and others do all the right things but I just don't buy it. He suggested it had something to do with triggers. Learning that we are IN the moment suddenly, not just being shown or told how we ought to feel. I'm going to work on this. I like your advice about keeping a notebook and tracking my own triggers. THANK YOU! Great post.

Keli Gwyn said...

Thanks for the great post, Cheryl. Well done.

I think writing is a lot like acting. I've been known to put myself into a scene, literally acting it out as I type. Even though I may not have experienced exactly what my character is going through, as you said, I've felt the emotion, be it sadness, joy, anger, etc. If I feel the emotion as I write, I'm more likely to get it on the page in a believable way that moves the reader.

I've wept over my keyboard as I swept my fingers across it writing a sad scene. At times, I've pounded the keys when one of my characters was angry. Has that happened to you, too?

Julie Hilton Steele said...

Excellent post, Cheryl. Excellent book too! I loved Western Winter Wedding Bells.

I found the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman to be a good resource on emotions that are important and seeds that can be sown in children to develop those emotions. In terms of background events for characters and their emotional development as well as what can touch a reader, I believe it is a pretty good read.

Peace, Julie

Andrea Strong said...


As I read your post, I thought to myself, "This sounds a lot like that Swain book." Then you quoted him at the end, and I said to my self, "I knew it!"

Very good info in this post. I faced the problem of having to write a happy, bubbly scene immediately following a death scene. This was hard because my own emotions just weren't up for it (it was a really sad death scene). I left it alone for a while, and when I came back to it, I asked myself, "How would I feel if I was in this character's place?" The character has very detailed back story, so once I asked myself that question, the answer came fairly easy, and I wrote what I think is a pretty good scene.

I like your idea of keeping a notebook of your reactions and the things that trigger them. I've recently started using a red pen to underline the lines in a story that elicit responses from me: laugh out loud, tears in my eyes, the desire to strangle a character. It's a little like keeping a notebook. But keeping one notebook for all the stories would keep all the info in one place. Very good idea.

I'd love to be in for the give away.


CarolM said...

/waves from the ER with her 7yo/ Fairly sure it's just a really nasty tummy bug but waiting on test results to be sure. No real details here [unless someone just wants them I guess - or shoot me an email if you're just dying to know ;)] but she was really scaring us earlier. With 4 kiddos, I'd never seen anything quite like it.

Anyway - I think to myself fairly often 'I don't lead an interesting life' but when it comes to kids, I have some good plotline fodder [you can bet tonight will end up somewhere sometime]. And I've experienced loss.

But yeah - reading and watching are two big ones. Whether I can make it translate to paper as well as some others is up for grabs. I'm trying to figure out the emotions of my male lead for Nano and I think he's all over the place but I didn't 'meet' him until a couple days before it started and I still don't feel like I know him very well. But in less than 3K words, I can send him packing forever if I want to ;).

Thank you for the timely info!!!

carol at carolmoncado dot com

Renee Ann said...

Thanks for this post, Cheryl! It's interesting to analyze what triggers emotion. In our book club, we'll find that all of us respond to some parts of a novel the exact same way; and yet, when asked our favorite quote or section, each choose something different . . . I appreciate your suggestions and will be taking notes this week. (Does it work with movies you've seen a zillion times like It's A Wonderful Life?) Blessings!

reneeasmith61 [at] yahoo [dot] com

Joanne Graves said...

Great post, Cheryl.
It interests me how some books will make you weep (I remember reading one where by the time I got to the end I was so rung out I just collapsed on the bed with tears streaming down my face - I'd never had that happen before) yet the same book for others its, "it was okay." The joys of reading, lol!

Jessica Nelson said...

Great post, Cheryl! Here's to feelings *raises steaming hot coffee cup*



Cathy Shouse said...


I came to Seekerville looking for inspiration this a.m. and when I saw your name, I knew I'd come to the right place.

Is it possible for you to address a little bit about the pacing of the emotion in the story? Since taking your wonderful online class on emotion, I've noticed that if I cry, it will be mid-way through or near the end of a book.

Editors seem to be all about putting in the emotion but I don't know how to get it in there early without overdoing it.

Also, could you give a thumbnail sketch of how you work? Plotser or pantser? Write everyday for word count, or not?

BTW, we already have comments but, at least when I got here, no one had brought our virtual breakfast.

I'm having homemade, light-as-a-feather biscuits with sausage gravy. Not counting calories this morning!

Thanks for stopping by, Cheryl.


Cathy Shouse said...


There is plenty of biscuits and gravy to go around!

And have some hot chocolate as well. It's looking like winter in Indiana

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Excellent post, Cheryl! You've given me some great tips to apply to my most recent WIP!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cheryl, thanks so much for being here!

This post is a keeper, for multiple reasons, but I remember hearing Donald Maass re-tell an exercise he did about scene-fleshing, and that only a tiny percentage of the writers targeted the emotion as the key to the scene, not the chase, or the action or the horrible left turn...

The emotion behind these things is what makes them seem organic or 'plugged in' because a writing book said to do it.

Great job, girlfriend, but that's not a surprise!

Gotta head to work. Loved this. And Keli, I do the same thing! My keyboard SUFFERS when my characters are ticked off! And I can make myself cry, but I'm a total sap so that's not surprising.

I'm leaving Bundt cake today. With a tunnel of fudge.

Enjoy. I love bundt cakes! ;)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Carol, poor little guy!

Better safe than sorry. Hugs to you.

Prayers for his quick recovery.

And ginger ale. :)

Glynna Kaye said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Cheryl! Emotional triggers--tricky business that a writer MUST learn and learn well because that's why most readers read our book--and buy the next one--for how it makes them FEEL.

I know sometimes when I'm feeling something strongly in real life like disappointment or anger or panic or elation--IF I have the presence of mind to stop and think about it--I ask myself "without NAMING the emotion, how does this FEEL?" How would I describe it to someone without using the naming word? Then, sometimes years later, I can pull that up and use it ina story.

Or if I'm watching or reading the news I try to step back a moment and think "if that happened to ME, how would I be feeling at this very moment?" Then my subconscious goes to work "matching" past emotional experiences to this new, never experienced situation.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jessie, Blog Schmog is a hoot!

Laughing here, love the idea.

Keep up the good work, kiddo!

Debra E. Marvin said...

Keli, I do the same thing. I think using the physical helps the emotional.

I'm fascinated by this use of 'triggers' because I'm just not satisfied yet with getting them right on paper, er, well, on the screen. I practiced too long holding things in; they don't always want to come out and I think my characters pay the price.

Thank you Cheryl!
I think I'm going to print this one out and I wish I could copy the comments too. Seekervillians are so full of wisdom!

Loves 2 Read Romance - Laura said...

Thanks for sharing Cheryl!! I love your post and you have given me a lot to think about when I start writing.

fantum2004 AT sbcglobal DOT net

Rose said...

Hi Cheryl!

Great information. I work on layering the emotion in my stories when I revise.

It was great to meet you earlier this month!

RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

CarolM said...

Thanks, Ruthy and everyone else.

Doc did determine it was just a tummy bug and she's sleeping. We got home about 230a and she hasn't been up again, thank God.

Gotta try to finish my NaNo today - given the amount of sleep I've gotten - everyone's going to be very very emotional ;).

I would have left some coffee out but it would have been the hospital kind... Would that have been preferable to nothing? ;)

captcha: filea - which is either a play on flea or filet which reminds me of Chick-fil-A which I like much better than fleas.

Audra Harders said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Cheryl! It's a mighty brisk morning here in Colorado so I've got the hot cocoa going beside the coffee and bundt cake and a variety of breakfast burritos, with and without jalapenos, depending on just how warm you need to be, LOL!

Great post, Cheryl. My emotions for the characters build through each draft and layer. When I write my second to the last draft, that's when I have to shut the door to my office because I become the character and sometimes it's just not pretty.

Emotion is so essential to writing a good book. What's the point of holding back? You're only short changing your characters and the reader. Find a safe haven and let those emotions rip.

There, I feel better now. Sometimes you just need to let it all out, LOL.

Gotta race off to work. Have a great day, everyone!

Julie Lessman said...

Excellent blog today, Cheryl, and welcome to Seekerville!!!

Talk about "emotional triggers"!! This blog stirs me to want to sit right down and write a tear-jerker scene!!

When it comes to writing from personal experience, I'm afraid I do it a little too much. Like the time a friend came to dinner and was telling my husband that she loved A Passion Most Pure, but the fight scene between Marcy and Patrick in the bedroom was kind of hard to believe. My husband calmly took a drink of his Diet Coke and gave her a thin smile. "Believe it," he said.

The poor man -- whenever he reads my books, he never knows when he turns a page if he is going to find our lives strewn across it. :) But honestly, I will purposely utilize the biggest emotional triggers in my own life so that when I infuse a similar story into my books, the emotion is very real and very potent.

By the way, love the cover of your book!!


Pepper Basham said...

Read and watch movies?!?
Oh...my favorite kind of homework!!
Thanks, Cheryl.
I don't think I could ever be an actress, but I do love watching the actor interviews too. In fact, there have been a few times where watching those actors inspired characters for stories :-)

I don't know if anyone else does this, but to 'get' into the emotional mood of my novels, I'll read a scene from one of my favorite books of a similar genre before I start writing.
For example, if I'm writing my dramatic historical (or intense romantic scenes ;-), I'll pick up one of Julie's books or Laura Frantz books and read a scene.
If I'm writing a comedic scene or intense action, I'll usually go for a Connealy classic or a Deeanne Gist.
If I'm looking for homespun snark, I have a tendency to pull out a Ruthy book.
There are other authors I draw inspiration from just before delving back into writing after a day of work-distractions.

Does anyone else have their spouse or kids walk through the room at stare at them as if they're crazy? Mine do this alot, because I'll either be weeping from a sad seen, physically acting out parts of a scene, or laughing outloud over something my characters did.
Hmm...maybe I just confessed WAY too much. ;-)

KC Frantzen said...


Thanks for this post.

Cheryl - We appreciate your time to make us more aware. Very good info. I'm a list maker so that part immediately appealed to me - I'll have to get going on a couple of new pages!!!

My mother has severe aphasia and you would be amazed at the people who treat her as if she is invisible. It is HEART-WRENCHING. Here is a woman with more Grace in her little finger than most will ever have, a woman who used to write poetry and be a wonderful cook and homemaker...

She has aphasia people! She understands what you say, if you speak a little more slowly so she can process it... It's a language issue. She is neither stupid nor deaf. But she feels that way, especially when they speak in 3rd person ABOUT her, IN FRONT of her. Unconscionable!!!


(anyone detect an emotional trigger nearby?)

Keli - YES! I find myself having to get up and "act" things out some times. It really helps.

CarolM - thanks for the update. There is something going around in TX like that I hear. Glad y'all are home... Here's a Kleenex.

Audra - that's funny about closing the door.

Would enjoy reading this - please put me in may at maythek9spy dot com

GLUB GLUB - it's raining cats and dogs in TN...

KC Frantzen said...

OH - Debra, you can keep the comments too. Just use copy and paste!

Julie - your re-telling of the fight seen just cracks me up. You've got quite a man... :)

Kirsten Arnold said...

Thank you for a great post, Cheryl!

Emotion, for me, makes or breaks a great story. Nothing is better than a story that pulls you in and doesn’t let go even after you’re done reading.

My characters quickly become best friends or family and I often find myself talking about them (and to them) as if they’re real people, because they are. And as you mentioned I might not have gone through exactly what my characters go through, but I can draw on past experiences to delve into deep emotions. I think everyone has loved someone and had that love not returned, lost someone special, had a dream destroyed, etc. I draw on these experiences to give my characters depth and life.

Please don’t enter me in the drawing. I already have Western Winter Wedding Bells.


Mary Connealy said...

Cheryl, I've got Western Wedding Bells at the house right now. I'm itchy to get started with it.

I love this blog post.

I've noticed in my reading that I'm a sucker for self-sacrifice. When somene gives up their dearest dream for the good of someone else, that's what makes me weepy.

I wonder what that says about me?

I think, if a story isn't going well, asking yourself if you really KNOW your characters is the best possible thing you can do. Because KNOWING THEM DEEPLY is when you can really write the most affecting scenes.

Mary Connealy said...

CarolM, sick kids are so stressful. I'm glad you're taking him to the doctor.

Poor baby.

And since you're a writer, your extraordinary imagination is probably going FULL TILT thinking of all that could be wrong.

Mary Connealy said...

EXCUSE ME I MEAN............


Ann Lee Miller said...


Thanks for elbowing me along on the path to letting myself feel. I reacted to an unhappy childhood by repressing emotion, a huge handicap to my writing. Teaching myself to feel in the moment instead of two weeks later after I've analyzed everything into neat piles improves my writing and the quality of my life.

I'm looking forward to the exercise you suggested.


Vince said...

Hi Cheryl:

I’m a big fan of Swain and ‘emotional triggers’. I also favor making lists. (Do I ever!)

But I am more on the side of a famous actor who said when asked if he was a method actor: “No. You don’t have to do that stuff if you know how to act.”

That is, you don’t actually have to feel sad, to act sad. After all, if you really are sad, is it acting?

This reminds me of an opera I saw in Trieste. The heroine, Mimi, was dying of consumption (TB) and was coughing and just looked sick as can be throughout the whole opera. When she took her bows after the opera, she was still coughing. An insider with the production next to me in the audience said: “She really is sick but they let her go on anyway because it fit the part.”

How should I feel about that as a member of the audience?

I believe that if you use the right ‘triggers’ you don’t actually have to make yourself feel miserable to write about a character who is feeling miserable. At least I hope so!

Every once in a while I’ll read a new author and I’ll say to myself: “This person has had stage acting experience.” And when I check her bio, sure enough the writer has had acting experience. An actor, who gets immediate feedback from an audience, will just ‘feel’ the feedback when she writes a passage. She’ll know when an audience ‘will never buy that’ and not write it in the first place. She will also know the importance of body language and stage business which is very important to convey in writing.

I think Little Theater acting experience is great preparation for a writer. (It also helps get them out of their shells.)

Do you think I said anything right here?

Loved your post.


vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

Jason and Emily said...

Yes! What a great article. I think it's so important that we tap into our characters' emotions, really and truly, because unless we're feeling what they're feeling, it will never get conveyed on paper. As hard as it is, we need to let people see our gritty selves, because that's what will resonate. Our vulnerability is what will connect.

Please enter me in the give-away:


Pam Hillman said...


Receipt at RWA Dec 2nd, 5PM CST.

No exceptions.

I'm at work and don't have time to comment on today's post right now.

Welcome Cheryl! I'll stop by later.

Susan Anne Mason said...

Fabulous post! I love the idea of making lists. Unlike Julie (LOL), it takes a lot to get me to the point of tears. So if I cry during a book, it must be Fantastic!

One book I remember recently was a secret baby story, where the woman has to go home with her 8 year old son and of course runs into the old flame. She finally has to tell her son about his father and at one point in the story, the boy chooses the father, who he's only known for a few weeks, over her. THAT was a huge trigger. The author understated the devastation of the mother so well that my heart actually ached for her! Whew! That's talent.

Pepper, I do the same thing! I read a really good scene in a book (usually Julie's) before I have to write a similar emotional scene. It really gets you into the mood you're trying to create.

Thanks for this great topic!

sbmason at sympatico dot ca

Linnette R Mullin said...

Great post, Cheryl! Thanks for sharing with us. I totally agree with all you said. One evening my husband looked at me quizzically and made the comment, "There must be something bad happening in your book right now." He got is right. I do empathize with my characters. I don't necessarily hurt their hurt, but I hurt for them.

I love reading books that make me smile or laugh before I catch myself.

Vince, I think you make a good point, but it may be a little different with us emotional women than you men writers. :D

Count me in the drawing, please.

lr dot mullin at live dot com


Carol, Capcha: bredowd - what's that make you think of? Made me think of Breadeux Pizza and my friend whose last name is Dowd. :D

Tina Russo Radcliffe said...

I will admit that except for inappropriate humor..I am a very much cards to my chest person. This is tough. I literally have to keep a note card that says CONFLICT AND EMOTION on every page and go through and make sure it is on every page in the final revisions.

A background of Army and hospitals makes you very tough to showing emotions.

I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who didn't cry at the end of that western where the little boy is crying.."Shane. Come back Shane."

EXCELLENT POST!! Thanks, Cheryl for joining us.

Tina Russo Radcliffe said...


My underwear is frozen.

Ruth Logan Herne said...


Because I'm hungry and I've been up a very....



long time.

Golden Heart deadline??? Rita deadline????

Oh mylanta, how could it be that time again? Grab the eggnog! Let's party! ;)

Missy Tippens said...

Excellent post, Cheryl!! A great reminder to stop before each scene and think about what's going to happen and what the character will feel--and how he'll react.

Thanks for another great Seekerville post!!

Missy Tippens said...


Your comment reminded me of my husband. He always reads with a red pen in hand. :) When he reads non-fiction, it's like he dialogues with the writer--agreeing and disagreeing in the margins. And he does the same thing with fiction! He reads drafts of my books, but he also reads them again in book form and writes in the margins.

Should I admit this drives me crazy??!! LOL Then again, I need to try it myself to mark triggers for me.

Missy Tippens said...

Carol, I'm sorry to hear about the ER visit! Please keep us posted!!

Cheryl St.John said...

Oh my goodness, I LOVE you guys! Up and at it so early. I am a little late today because I had a proposal for a novella (for which I've already been paid ! ) due TODAY so that was my priority. LOL

Jessie, I don't believe in coincidence, so my post may have been what you needed to confirm what you and her hubby discussed. I love it when that happens.

Yes, I have experienced tears right along with my characters. I used to feel a little silly at those emotions, but then I realized it's what we need to experience as writers if we're to convey it on the page.

Julie, I'm going to go look for the book you recommended right now. Thanks!

Casey said...

Writing emotions are huge with me, because I do think it can be one of my more bigger struggles. And trying to keep them from being cliched can be even harder sometimes. But great post, I like what you said Cheryl!


Linnette R Mullin said...

I know what Tina and some of you are saying. When I first started writing "Finding Beth," I had difficulty with the emotional part...letting go due to the fear of being vulnerable. I think many times even in my own relationships (not just romantic, but ALL relationships), I'm far too serious because I hide behind a wall. Pain is no fun - physical, emotional, mental... I've endured enough of all of it to last me the next 200 years. And as Cheryl said, I feared people would read my writing and say, "Hmm...I wonder how much of this is about Linnette's personal experience. Is she writing about me? " My husband is a prime candidate for this. He's afraid to read my manuscript because he's afraid to find out that he's the villian. ((rolling eyes)) Pu-lease!

Anyway, when you're used to stuffing emotions down, whether out of a sense of self-preservation or trying to maintian control or whatever, it's hard to let loose and let the emotions play out on the page.

Okay. I probably just gave way too much info, but maybe it will help somebody.


Carol, capcha: ledisa...sounds like an interesting name.

Missy Tippens said...

Carol, I just saw the update. Should have looked sooner. I'm glad all is well!

Cheryl St.John said...

Andrea, I know what you mean about switching emotional gears, and it was a perfect plan to put yourself in that character's shoes and feel their reaction.

Carol, there is nothing scarier than sick kids. {{PRAYERS}} for your little ones health and recovery!

I too have used plenty of conversations and situations taken straight from real life. I love being around kids and enjoy the things they say. Priceless tidbits there.

It absolutely works with movies you've seen a million times, in fact familiar movies have often worked better for me. Because you know what's coming, you can analyze the action and dialogue that is triggering the emotion.

Even better sometimes is the director's commentary if you can turn it on. Actors really get into their characters.

Joanne, I remember reading a vintage Janelle Taylor book that wrung me out like that!

Linnette R Mullin said...

Carol, how's the little one? Hugs, girlfriend!


capcha: stribla = dribble, drull...

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you, Jessica!

Oh, Cathy, you made MY day - thank you!

Pacing the emotion: I never actually thought of it like that before, but of course there is pacing involved. We are probably more involved by the middle or end of a book, because we're invested in the story by then - and we care about the outcome and the people.

Just recently I was concerned about getting emotion in at the beginning of a story, because so many editors are asking us to get right into the action. For me that makes it more difficult to show emotion.

I started this particular story with a character who was returning home after a long absence - and looking for her mother (she doesn't know yet that the woman has died) so I gave the reader a glimpse of the home she grew up in, but focused on the dust and the elements that were unfamiliar. I used the character's reactions to those things, as well as her growing unease.

I think the reader will get it. My plan was that by using a "given" - a character's love and concern for her mother - that I could convey the emotion without using actual emotion words, because at that point the reader doesn't care yet and my job is to hook her.

I used to think I was a panster, and I pretty much am, but I have to write a synopsis in order to sell a book, so I do plan out my characters and plot points and goal, motivation, reaction.

I use a character grid I've developed partially from Laura Baker and Robin Perrini's Story Magic and partly from my own creation to suit the way I work. From that I write my synopsis/proposal.

Each individual must find a method that works for her and never be concerned that s/he's not doing it the way someone else does. And the method that worked for this book may not work next time, so staying open to evolving story creation is important.

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you Cecelia and Ruth!

I'm enjoying the Bundt cake.

Glynna, you're a born evaulator. Is that a word?


I have a quote for you that has been a priceless bit of advice I've taken to heart and it has always worked beautifully and made my stories better:

"One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better."
— Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)

FYI there a a hundred wonderful Annie Dillard quotes on Goodreads

Cheryl St.John said...

Good morning Rose and Audra.

Audra, your comment about closing the door made me chuckle.

Julie, your husband is priceless!

Glad you like the cover. I think a cowboy in white stirrup pants is a little odd, but you probably didn't notice that until I pointed it out. My bad. LOL

Pepper (I love your name) I too have been known to find inspiration in the pages of a favorite book. I know some authors who don't even READ while they're writing a book, because they're afraid of plagiarizing, but I find others' words motivating.

Hey, Kirsten - thanks for picking up a copy of the Christmas anthology!

Mary, SMOOCHES to you for inviting me - and you can call my book anything you want to. I seem to have had trouble remembering the name of this one. It's the title with all the Ws.

Ann, I understand PERFECTLY. {{{hugs}}} to you.

Cheri LaClaire said...

What resonated most for me was 'knowing your character.' Someone once said, 'It's like giving your character blue eyes in the 1st chapter, and green eyes in the 5th chapter.' The reader may not catch the mistake right off, but they know something isn't right.

When you have a mis-cued emotional response for your character, people get the same jolt.

From feedback on my own work, I've tried to make the emotion right for the CHARACTER and not for the SCENE. Big difference for me :)

Cheryl St.John said...

Hi Vince! I think you're spot on.

This is a great line and food for thought: “No. You don’t have to do that stuff if you know how to act.”

Good morning, Emily, Susan and Pam! I am enjoying the warm welcome and the hot chocolate.

"I love reading books that make me smile or laugh before I catch myself."

I think you said it all. A gut reaction is an emotional reaction.

Tina, my buddy! Did you cry at the end of Sommersby? Pay it Forward?

Tina Pinson said...

Feelings, nothing more than feelings,
trying to forget my feelings of love.
Teardrops rolling down on my face,
trying to forget my feelings of love.

Feelings, for all my life I'll feel it.
I wish I've never met you, girl; you'll never come again.

Feelings, wo-o-o feelings,
wo-o-o, feel you again in my arms.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. All this talk about feelings made me start thinking about the song.

It's so true that emotional triggers get to us. I still cry when I watch certain movies or laugh and I chose those movies specifically for that.

I know if I read Ted Dekkar, my skin may crawl, but again, that's why I pick up his books.

And, of course, I write just like Ted.


I have some stories, (my own not included) that I've read several times, just because of the emotions and memory they elicit.

Vince said...

Hi Missy:

Did your husband ever read: “How to Read a Book”, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren? The way you describe it, he reads a book exactly like an intelligent person is supposed to read a book if the goal is getting maximum benefit from reading the book. A book is a dialogue with the author. I think you have a very gifted husband.


Myra Johnson said...

Cheryl, so glad to have you in Seekerville! This post comes at a great time for me. I've just started a new book project and am working on getting the characters and emotions right. It usually gets easier for me as I get deeper into the story, but starting off, I'm still learning who these people are and why they do (or don't do) what they do!

I have to agree with others who have commented on how easy it is to make the emotional connection with Mary Connealy's characters. I started reading Wrangler in Petticoats over Thanksgiving, and I was drawn in immediately! As I read those first few chapters, I kept thinking, "I've GOT to learn to write like this!!!"

Vince said...

Hi Linnette:

”Vince, I think you make a good point, but it may be a little different with us emotional women than you men writers. :D”

Of course, and that’s why men are never going to be a factor in romance writing sales. Never!

Even I read romances because I like the way they make me feel as I read them. Why else read them? I know how they are going to end. I just love “Runaway Bride” stories. It’s all about the feelings. And no one can do this better than women.

However, men are good at mafia stories where Vinny has to kill his best friend, Guido, and he delivers a line like this: “It’s just business Guido. It’s not personal.” Bang.

Emotions are great! But it could make someone neurotic to have to experience every emotion that occurs in a romance.

I think the key is just like Cheryl says. Use emotional triggers. Thus making your romance emotions vicarious rather than actual!


Linnette R Mullin said...

Vince, I totally agree! There have been a few books I've read that just seem too contrived and it wears a reader out!

Glad to know there are men who enjoy a little romance. :D I have a few friends whose husbands were enjoying my novel when I was posting chapters on-line. It thrilled me to know it was good enough even for the hubbies.


Vince said...

Hi Myra:

I think that “Wrangler in Petticoats” is very interesting and powerful because the beginning of the book is very anti-romantic. By that I mean there is a great deal of violence, killings, cruelty, injustice, fear, danger, and stinking dead bodies. The heroine is shot and falls off a very high cliff. I actually thought I was reading the beginning of a Louis L’Amour western. (I’ve read over 100 L’Amour books, many twice.)

In “Wrangler in Petticoats” there are many literal and figurative triggers. I think this book is so captivating because the author seems to have gotten outside the ‘romance box’. Think: ‘how would I write this passage if it were mainstream fiction or western genre fiction?’ If there is a difference, then consider that difference.


P.S. I’m supposed to be editing which I equate with dishwashing after cooking a gourmet meal. I think editing is the price you pay for the joy you experienced while creating the first draft of your story. All you lucky people who enjoy editing, why…why… you get to be published!

CarolM said...

Linette - love the captcha! There's a Breadeaux in Battlefield which isn't too far from us. We don't go very often though...

Thanks again to everyone for your prayers! The kids are feeling better - DD7 is happier than she's been all weekend.

Okay - now I really need to stop piddling around and knock out my last 2402 words for Nano...

Andrea Strong said...


You mentioned Somersby. That movie kills me every time. Another one is Steel Magnolias. The scene after the funeral is so sad/funny that I sound like some kind of dying animal sobbing and laughing all at the same time.

Yesterday I watched Disney's Tarzan for the first time ever, and that one nearly did me in too.

I think I'm going to rewatch all my favorite movies with notebook and pen in hand.

Deb Salisbury said...

Wow! This post hit home. Bookmarked, and thank you!!!

Missy Tippens said...

Vince, I don't know if he's heard of that book. I'll tell him what you said, though. He'll love it, because I always give him a hard time about the red pen. :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Great reminder, Cheryl! It's so easy to get caught up in the action and forget the emotion is the important thing.

Pam K. said...

Though I'm not a writer, I found this article very interesting. I've been noticing that the books I like reading the best invoke some kind of emotional response from me. They may be funny and make me laugh or sad, which makes me cry. Maybe they make my heart race because of the suspense. If there isn't any kind of emotional connection, the book just seems rather flat, no matter how nicely crafted the story. Thank you to all you writers who care enough to keep writing all the wonderful books for readers like me. Please enter me in your book drawing. Thanks.

Cindy W. said...

I loved your post and the statement that 'a story is feelings'. I was just talking with my husband tonight about how a book I read recently drew me into the story so far that I was there during WWII in the cockpit of a B-17. I felt pain and rage and you name it. The author made me feel. It was a good thing!

Cindy W.

Dawn Ford said...

Triggers, huh. I realize some stories hit me harder than others. I don't like things too simple and sweet. I wonder what that means about me.

Great article.

Debra E. Marvin said...

Thanks Cheryl.

I found myself struggling with chapters because 'this was an emotional one' until I realized each chapter was an emotional one and getting messier each time. Well, duh, Deb. Even so, they probably need ratcheted up a notch.

Yes, lots of great comments but I decided a long time ago I can't copy and paste a Seekerville post's comments. Who has that much paper and ink? (making notes though!)

CarolM said...

Just wanted to let my FoS friends know that I finished =D. Just over 50K. The book isn't done and I'm thinking about throwing them out the window, but I do think I did some of my best writing tonight.

And it was because it was emotional. I hope that came across. The characters' son had his tonsils and adenoids removed and then he had a reaction to the codeine and stopped breathing at home that night [much like happened to my son last summer]. I had tears in my eyes as I wrote it. I know it's because I was sitting there visualizing my son lying there, limp, turning blue, unresponsive and the million things running through my head as I tried to remember what I needed to do and who I should call and regretting not taking CPR again recently.

I just hope it translated to the page...

So - this post was timely ;). And now I'm going to get some sleep tonight! Cuz I'm done =D.

Tina Russo Radcliffe said...

Sommersby, yes. I have been afraid to watch Pay It Forward. Seriously, lol.

Cheryl St.John said...

Be afraid, Tina, Be very afraid, lol

Pay it Forward it perfectly plotted. Perfectly. I could do a whole workshop on it.

Trinity Rose said...

I love books with lots of emotions in them. It can be happy, sad, funny scary, but they are the best books. Thanks for the giveaway.
Trinity Rose
wandaelaine at gmail dot com

B.Schwind said...

I love it. I had mom with me and in the doctors office he would ask me how mom felt. Ask her I would say, are you taking her blood pressure or mine? There was nothing wrong with mom's mind, she was just 92 and read a lot and never missed Joyce Meyer on television. I have written many articles about her as she was an inspiration to many. Thanks for the stir this morning, put me down for a book.

Elaine Cooper said...

Cheryl, Thank you for your heartfelt post! So very true, and I have found that interviewing others in similar situations to my characters can help immensely. Thanks for your insight! And would LOVE to read your book!


Anonymous said...

Thanks. Cheryl,

Great ideas. I think the discipline of the list of triggers would be a huge help.

Interesting angel, too. Did you make that?

Mary Kay
Mary [at] MaryKayMoody [dot] org