How to Go Deeper into Characters’ Emotions

One of the most frequent comments editors make on new writers’ manuscripts is to go deeper into characters’ emotions.

Readers come to narrative stories for an emotional experience. So authors, both of fiction and of narrative nonfiction, need to go beyond telling the reader how a character feels. The goal is to make the reader feel what the character feels.

If the character sees a snake and the writer puts “she was afraid,” the psychic distance will be distant, as if we’re watching the character through a camera. This is telling and not showing.

Using a metaphor or simile—Fear constricted her heart like a boa—is better, although it still labels the emotion. This technique is occasionally useful. A relevant simile does ramp up the drama. But for maximum emotional effect, we can go even deeper.

Natrix. Black Snake crawling through sand.

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People experience emotion on two levels. First emotions are felt in the body, and then they are processed in the brain. New writers tend to skip the first step and go straight to the brain’s conclusion. This generates a label like fear. But if we stay rooted in the viewpoint character’s body and record their visceral response, we get a more emotionally resonant result.

Dense bushes lined the walkway leading to the front door. As she walked along the path, something long and black leapt out of the bushes. She shrieked and jumped backward, every muscle tense. A black snake slithered across the walkway into the bushes on her right. She froze, unable to proceed.

If we describe the stimulus and the physical response, the reader will conclude fear without our having to use the word.

Dictionaries Don’t Know Everything

One duty of a copyeditor is to check spelling, including whether a term should be solid, hyphenated, or open. Some terms are open, that is, they are written as two words, e.g., living room. If you search for livingroom (closed) at Merriam-Webster, you’ll be redirected to the page for living room (open). Continue reading

Q&A: 3 Reasons to Attend Writers Conferences

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Q: I’m working on a book, but it’s not finished yet. Should I attend a writers conference anyway, or should I wait until my book is finished and I’m ready to pitch agents and editors?

A: Don’t wait. There are many benefits to attending writers conferences beyond pitching.

Classes

Writing conferences offer great teaching on a variety of writing techniques, as well as about the business aspects of a writing career. So yes, you should absolutely attend a writers conference while your manuscript is still in progress, because you will learn things you can immediately apply to your work. Continue reading

Q&A: What’s the deal with spaces after a period?

Q: I saw a post online that said only people over the age of forty put two spaces after a period. But I’m under thirty, and my college professors said to use two. I’m confused. Which is correct?

A: Both are correct in different circumstances.

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As with so much else that publishing professionals get needlessly worked up about, this is a style choice, not a matter of right or wrong.

Three of the most popular style books currently in use, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and The MLA Handbook (Modern Language Association), all call for one space after what we call terminal punctuation—that is, whatever marks the end of a sentence, whether it’s a period, question mark, or exclamation point. Continue reading

The Prophet’s Chronicle Storyworld

One of the things fiction allows us to do is examine hypothetical situations that don’t exist in the real world. A novel is a large-scale thought experiment. This is true of any fiction, but doubly true in speculative fiction. The whole point of science fiction and fantasy is to explore worlds that don’t actually exist.

The storyworld in which my first novel, Alara’s Call, and the other books in the series are set is modeled after nineteenth-century Europe, with all the small countries close together and interrelated royal families and court intrigues. But for all its differences, Europe was long united by a single dominant faith, and most countries had similar governing systems. In my stories, I want to examine several contrasts. This meant I had to set up the storyworld in ways that differ from Europe. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: Styling Royal and Noble Titles

Q: When referring to a king or lord, when do you capitalize—if at all—for sire and your majesty and such? For example:

All we can do now is wait and pray that you and your healers can help my sister, your majesty.

I’m so confused. Thanks for your help.

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A: Titles are tricky, because it depends how you’re using them.

Generally speaking, the title will be capitalized if it’s being used with or in place of the person’s name. So in your example, Your Majesty would be capitalized. That’s what we call “direct address.” But if you and I are talking about the king, “king” isn’t capitalized because we’re using the word to talk about him, not as a name when talking to him. Continue reading

Q&A: Do I Need Italics for Flashbacks?

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Q: I used italics in a scene with a flashback, but my critique partner said I should never use italics. Here’s the part I put in italics:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said. 

I thought characters’ memories were supposed to be italicized. Now I’m confused. What’s the right way to do this?

A: Confusion is understandable, for a several reasons.

First, you’re not the only one who’s confused. Your critique partner is—I’ll be generous and say “overstating the case.” Whenever someone gives you a never in regards to writing, your inner warning klaxon should go off. Writing is an art, and cannot be governed by rules involving always or never. Continue reading

Subplots, Side Stories, and What to Do with Them

Novelists often get carried away with characters. Or maybe that should be, characters often carry away novelists. Either way, well-developed secondary characters can run away with a story if you let them. In one of my sample book maps, I showed how this can happen.

In my fictional fiction (sorry for going so meta on you here), the secondary character Cordelia suddenly gets a lot of attention in Chapters 5 through 8, with a big-city adventure that has nothing to do with the heroine, the hero, or the villain.

Sample Book Map

Click to open larger so you can actually read this.

If we can in fact tie Cordelia’s storyline together with Antonia’s in a plausible way, then Cordelia has a subplot. But if that’s the case, the subplot should amplify or contrast what is happening in the main plot. Also, we’d want to see more alternation between Antonia’s main plot and Cordelia’s subplot. If you stray from your primary story line for too long, the reader’s attachment to the protagonist can break. This leads readers to stop reading. Continue reading