Emotional Punch - One Vital Tip

by Marg McAlister


It's very likely that at some stage, you've poured everything you have into writing an emotional scene - only to feel your heart sink when you read it through, because you realise that it simply isn't working.

Why? What's the problem? Frustrated, you run through a mental checklist of all the things you need to remember when it comes to adding emotional punch:

  • Have you used the five senses so the reader can clearly FEEL what it's like to be there? YES!

  • Have you tapped into the character's thoughts and emotions? YES!

  • Have you made sure your character is likable enough for the reader to care? YES!

  • Have you made sure that the reader understands WHY the characters feels this way? And that those feelings are logically motivated? YES!

  • Have you been careful not to slip out of viewpoint (thus 'losing' the reader)? YES!

  • Have you checked internal monologue to make sure that the character is not boring the reader with too much angst? YES!

In short, you've done everything you can think of - but somehow, you know that it's still not working. You just don't know why!

(Groan, groan. That thumping you can hear is the sound of your head bashing against the keyboard.)

Now I'm going to give you one more thing that you can check. This one particular mistake is something I have seen crop up quite a few times to spoil a scene that would otherwise work very nicely. In fact, it most assuredly deserves a place on any checklist for emotional depth. Here it is.


Please, don't try to get out of this one by saying "But she's experiencing a real roller-coaster of emotion! One minute she's up, the next she's down..." or "But she just can't help her natural sense of humour coming to the fore..."

Bah humbug. You already know that dialogue in a novel is not a bit like real conversation, don't you? For dialogue, you carefully craft words that show the reader exactly what you want. You cut out long dull bits about the weather, and 'How are you? I'm fine. How are you today?' and so on.

Well, creating the right emotion in a scene works just the same way. You have to decide exactly what you want your readers to feel, and tweak everything in the scene to guide them in that direction. This means that you don't distract them with OTHER emotions. Otherwise, readers are simply not quite sure what they're supposed to feel - even if this ambivalence is sensed only on a subconscious level.

Probably the biggest mistake I've seen in this regard is inappropriate use of humour. This is most often caused by the overall tone of the book being humorous (i.e. many 'chick-lit' books, or romance lines that focus on humour). Writers seem to feel that they need to let the character's innate sense of humour show no matter what the situation.

WRONG. This can ruin a scene. You might have spent two pages building up a growing sense of dread or despair... only to have it ruined by the heroine allowing a random humorous thought to intrude. What happens then? If you imagine the tension being stretched like a rubber band, it's as though someone has just let go. In one quick snap, the moment is spoiled. The reader simply doesn't believe in the character's angst ("if she can crack jokes at a time like this, then she can't be feeling all that bad!".

This is what you need to do:

  1. Decide on the main emotion you want your readers to feel.

  2. Take a moment to sit back, close your eyes and run through the scene in your mind. Where is your character? What has happened? What are they feeling?

  3. Think about how you can draw the reader into the scene to feel this emotion.

  4. Write the scene.

  5. Read through your scene with a highlighter in hand. Strike out anything that doesn't 'fit' with the main emotion you want readers to feel. Be ruthless: no randomly ironic thoughts, no inappropriate humour, no memories or strong images that distract the reader from the main problem and associated emotion.

That's it. Spend a little more time before and after you write to plan carefully and then to check, and your problems might well disappear.

© Marg McAlister


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