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Tuesday, November 30

Do You Get My Meaning?: Providing Emotional Clarity

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A lot of times we have our characters feel something or react to something and why they do it is very clear in our minds. But those reasons don't make it fully to the page, so for the reader, those actions aren't so clear. Here's an example:
"I'm sure Jeatar can find someone to fill in for you." He glanced at Jeatar, who paused and looked at me as if unsure whether or not to agree to that.
I bristled. "There is no one to fill in for me. His people are spread thin enough as it is."
The "I bristled" is what inspired this article, because I can see one of my beta readers marking that and asking "why is she upset?" There's nothing in the scene to show why Nya would find this suggestion annoying. It seems like a perfectly reasonable suggestion, especially in the context of this scene. She has some issues with the person saying it, but not enough to warrant her reaction based solely on that. Nya's reasons for being upset by this aren't coming through.

What this section needed was a little bit more from Nya that explained why she was upset. So I added:
I bristled. I liked helping out. At least I was doing something useful and not just waiting for news. "There is no one to fill in for me. His people are spread thin enough as it is. If I'm not there everyone else has to work harder, and that's not fair"
Now the bristling makes more sense. She's being asked to stop doing something she feels is valuable, that she wants to do, even needs to do, and avoiding that something also affects her sense of fairness. 

One of my common rough draft tricks is to use phrases like I frowned, I smiled, I groaned, I shivered, etc. as placeholders. Sometimes I flesh out those areas, but if the scene is flowing along and I'm eager to get it put down on paper, I skip the internalization. But most times, that internalization is needed to really get where the protagonist is coming from.

Try looking through your story for emotional reaction words, especially if you've gotten feedback with questions why a character felt or did something. Look for those two-word sentences. I smiled, he groaned, she frowned, I bristled, she chilled, he shivered, I jumped, he twitched, she gasped, etc. Now ask yourself:
  • Is it clear why they're having this reaction by what's in the text?
  • Would a little internalization (or dialog) help clarify what the protagonist is feeling?
And the flip side...

Is the emotion clear if you took out that I-verb phrase?

Sometimes placeholder words can go once you've fleshed out the section or did enough the first time and the extra words are redundant. Maybe there's a stronger way to show the same feeling. I smiled is pretty generic, and your character might have a trait that shows her happiness that's much more her.

And of course, sometimes the I-verb phrase is exactly right for the paragraph. Adding more would bog down the scene and maybe even add some redundancy.

There are no hard and fast rules here, but this is one of those little tricks that can help you pinpoint areas that might need some tweaks.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Great post! I use the placeholder technique too. :)

    One thing that we have to be careful with is the showing & then telling angle, especially with emotions. For example, there are many cases where at first it seems like it's all right to name an emotion. I sagged with relief. I shivered in fear. But, in 99% of the cases where this occurs, the 'naming' of an emotion is simply a cheat--a way to tell the reader what the character is feeling instead of taking the time to show through stronger body language, dialogue and clarifying thoughts.

    So when I look for placeholders or critique for someone, I also keep an eye out for when an emotion is named and strengthen these sections too.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Ugg. I'm struggling with this right now as I revise my WIP for the umpteenth time. This is helpful and it's good to know I'm not the only one who runs into this!

  3. This is timely and great-- I'm working with a scene this week in my WIP that has this very problem.

    One other thing to think about -- the scene in a broader sense. For example, I have a whole scene using humor to explain something, but I think the humor is drowning out the point of the scene. I added some character explanation as you show above, but it didn't really show the point of the entire scene in relation to the story as a whole.

  4. another great post! I'm going to watch for this as I prepare to tackle another round of revisions.

  5. During my college workshops, I'd always been told to show and not tell--which, of course, everyone advocates. But I think I took that advice to a fault--I had a crit partner tell me she absolutely DID NOT LIKE Mattie in the first 50 or so pages. I was completely baffled--sure, she flies off the handle a bit quick, but it's obvious she means well...isn't it?

    Well, we talked about it, and I explained where Mattie was coming from during the parts she'd pointed out. And she totally understood and sympathized with Mattie--but she told me it wasn't coming across on the page that way at all.

    This internalization that you're talking about was the thing that fixed it--once I had Mattie give a little snippet of WHY and HOW she was reacting to things, it gave those scenes--like you say--emotional clarity.

    Again, a fantastic post. And it just goes to show that SHOWING, while the "preferable" tactic, is not always the way to go.

  6. Thanks! That was just the tip I needed right now.

  7. Wow. This is probably one of those posts that will revolutionize the way I write. Great job, as usual.

  8. Angela: Absolutely, and a great reminder. (I think I have a post on that somewhere, too) With-verb and in-verb are two red flags for telling, or even for a POV shift. Hmm...maybe it's time for a red-flag round-up post! Thanks for the idea :)

    Bluestocking: I've been writing my whole life, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that no matter what you're struggling with, you're not alone. There are inherent problems in writing and everyone, no matter what level they're at, runs into them. Hang in there!

    Cold As Heaven: Thanks!

    Sierra: That's happened to me, too, especially with humor. I sometimes have funny things happen in a particularly dark moment, and that makes the moment feel lighter or not as serious. You might try stepping back some and looking at what you want to accomplish. Your "point of the scene" comment makes me suspect it might be a more macro or structure issue. The scene might be trying to do something plot-related but the characters aren't with you on that, so they're not driving the story. Perhaps find someone in the scene with a goal that illustrates the point, and let them show it through their actions. (did that make sense?)

    Elle: Thanks! I've certainly found it helpful myself.

    Shayda: Great story and a perfect example! Telling gets a bad rap, but as long as it's the character doing the telling (so it stays in their voice) it usually works just fine. And is necessary from time to time!

    Ben: Most welcome, happy to help :)

    Jane: That's awesome, thanks! I love helping folks find those light bulb moments :)

  9. Love this tip, Janice. Thanks!

  10. I'm usually so appalled when I write those shortcuts without context that I stall out. Even thinking of them as mere placeholders that I WILL improve is kind of freeing. Thanks!

  11. Vonna: Most welcome!

    Clare2e: That's what's great about a zero or first draft. It's about getting the story down, not "writing pretty."

  12. Perfect! Just what I needed to hear for a scene with an emotional turning point that I was having a hard time ferreting out. :)

  13. Susan: Awesome, glad I could help.

  14. I think a lot of writers struggle with this. I see this so often.

    While I struggle with other things, this isn't one of them. I love to write these kinds of inner monologues/dialogues. I think its so fun to get inside a characters head. Great post!

  15. Febe, same here, which is probably why I love first person so much. Pretty much everything is internal!