Friday, January 30, 2015

Developing a Story

Margaret looks at how she develops a story.

You might find this hard to believe but I only need the germ of an idea to begin writing a story. It could be a reason why hero and heroine do not hit it off straight away. Perhaps trouble over an inheritance they both believed was their right. Or something as simple as a clash of personalities. I develop both the story and the characters as I go along. I know it goes against all the rules but this is what I do.

Meeting characters in a book is like meeting people in real life. You peel off layer after layer as you get to know them. No author gives everything away in the first few pages. Information is fed in little by little with the intention of drawing in the reader so that they anxiously turn pages to find out what happens next.

Often I don’t even know myself what’s going to happen. Some people find it surprising when they hear I write like this but to me it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects, because if I don’t know then the reader won’t be able to guess either. OK, it can misfire and I have to go back and fill in the blanks, so to speak, but I can live with that.

My stories develop in different ways, either through the main characters and their goals – which are very often entirely opposite to each other and result in conflict. Or they go off at a tangent I hadn’t even thought about. Having said that, although I don’t exactly plot, I do need conflict strong enough to last the entire story. Also one which needs to be resolved before they can admit their love. And very often as they sort out one source of conflict there will be another still waiting to happen.

The beauty of it is they always have happy endings. It’s the pathway to that ending which is the intriguing part. And I never know how my characters are going to reach it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

D is for Dilemma

Debra is having title trouble.

I am still making nice progress with my latest project. After finishing the first draft, I printed out the mss and did a read-through, marking places needing corrections and other places to go back and tweak a bit. That part is done. The next step will be to go through and do searches for 'that', "saw', 'felt', etc. I'll also run through all of my formatting cues. After that I'll do another read-through.

I need to put together a synopsis and a query letter. At that point, a story is usually ready to send off to my editor.

However, this time around, there is still one major hurdle to story needs a title. And I'm stumped.

It's a holiday spin-off of my Corral series. I'm planning a few more and would like to sub-title the series "Holidays at The Corral". Then, ideally, each story would have a title including the name of the holiday it's representing. My dilemma is this: All of the stories in the original Corral series start with 'This': This Time for Always, This Can't Be Love, and This Feels Like Home.

So, for consistency and to further connect the spin-offs to the series do I go with titles starting with 'This'? All I can come up with is "This is Christmas" which in no way gives any kind of hint as to what the story is about. The theme is about believing, not only in Christmas, but in yourself and in love, so maybe something like "This Christmas I Believe"?

Do I start another theme for just the spin-offs? In the past I thought about using drink names for the spin-offs, since The Corral is a bar, but the only drink I can think of to go with Christmas is eggnog and it's not mentioned at all in the story.

Instead of using a sub-title, do I name each holiday individually for the title? In which case this one would be "Christmas at The Corral". Which works, but would it work for future installments like "New Years' Eve at The Corral" or "Fourth of July at The Corral"?

Seriously. I'm stuck.

Any thoughts? Suggestions? Comments? Concerns? Ideas?


Until next time,

Happy Reading!


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Deleting Words

Paula has had a ruthless cull of words.

I finished writing ‘Irish Intrigue’ at the end of November. Finished, did I say? No, the hardest part has been severe editing! For the last two months, as well as editing, I have been deleting words.

The original story came out at 122,336 words. Although my publisher/editor said, “Just use whatever words are necessary to tell the story,” I knew in my own mind that 122K was too many.

My first cull of words brought it down to 114K. That wasn’t too difficult, as there were several scenes I could cut without losing any of the main story. I also reduced conversations to their important elements—and stopped my characters from rabbiting on unnecessarily.

But I still felt 114K was too long. Autocrit helped me to reduce it even more – mainly by cutting repeated words and phrases, tightening up sloppy writing, and (again) getting rid of anything that wasn’t necessary. By this time I was down to 96,660 words i.e. I had cut over 25,000 words from the original.

The final step has been a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ i.e a critique partner who hadn’t agonised with me over all the earlier versions of this story. She has spotted places where I could reduce the wordage still further, and as a result I’ve lost over another 3,000 words in the first two-thirds of the story. I am nearly down to my goal of between 80 and 90K words.

What have I learnt from all this?

1. When you think a story is ‘finished’, it isn’t. Not by a long way – and not even if you’ve had critique partners reading each chapter as you wrote it, and giving their ideas and suggestions. Sometimes, a pair of fresh eyes can spot the areas that aren’t necessary or don’t seem to work.

2. I’ve questioned whether every scene is essential. In some cases, I’ve left in some scenes that might not be considered totally essential, but only because to jump from one ‘major’ scene to the next one would be exhausting both for the reader – and the characters, too. Even so, I’ve tried to make sure that these ‘in-between’ scenes add something either to the storyline or to a character’s development.

3. I’ve also tried to stop my characters doing too much internal agonising. It’s necessary at times, of course, because the reader needs to know what they are thinking, but I know have a tendency to overdo it, and/or repeat what the reader already knows.

4. I’ve stripped a lot of conversations down to their bare essentials and tried to ensure they move the story forward or reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings.

5. I’ve tightened up my writing by being ruthless with words, and also by making paragraphs and sentences more concise.

Reducing wordage by almost 30K was daunting at first, but it has been a very valuable exercise which, hopefully, will stand me in good stead for future novels. It has highlighted some of my ‘bad habits’ like being ‘over wordy’ and I shall be questioning myself all the way in future. Is this scene necessary? Are these conversations/thoughts necessary? What can I cut without losing the important aspects of the story? Does every scene and every conversation add something to the development of the plot or the characters?

Of course, doing such a huge cull has meant I have lost some of the scenes or conversations I enjoyed – but sometimes it is necessary to ‘kill your darlings’! Maybe I’ll be able to use some of them in future stories.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dating Woes

I have a difficult time coming up with plausible dating scenarios for my hero and heroine. Most of them involve eating, and some people complain that there’s too much food in my books.

I think part of the reason is that my husband and I never really “dated.” We met in college. When I graduated, he still had a year to go, and most of our dating was long distance. We’d get together when he was home or if I was able to fly out to him. But dating? As in, him picking me up, taking me somewhere and bringing me home? Not so much.

For Book 3 of my Women of Valor series, I decided to take a completely different take on the dating scene. I had my hero and heroine meet while speed dating. Now, in addition to not really dating my husband, speed dating didn’t exist when I was single. So, as I do for most of my research, I went online. There I found websites that explained how the concept worked. The problem was, I could only find out so much about it without actually signing up to participate. And, while my husband is very supportive of my writing, and is willing to help me research certain things, I’m pretty confident he’d put his foot down if I asked him if I could start dating.

So I contacted a friend of a friend, who has participated in speed dating events, and she answered lots of my questions and entertained me with stories from her own experiences. Still, something was missing.

One evening, my husband, daughter and I went out to dinner with a friend who lives in New York City. He took us to an Irish pub and guess what? In the back, they were getting ready to host a speed-dating event. My daughter and I figured out ways to observe what was going on, and even to record the host discussing the rules. As a result, I was able to portray it well in my story (I think).

Aviva and Jason not only meet at their speed dating event, which both of them were coerced into participating, but they figure out a way to escape together from it. I’m pretty confident that by doing so, they’ve put themselves on the “banned for life” list, but if the story continues to shape up as it is, they won’t have to worry about dating again.

Monday, January 26, 2015

R.U.E. Your Dialogue

Ana resists the urge to explain:

                                        R.U.E.      Resist the urge to explain.

When an emotion is mentioned outside of dialogue, chances are it is an explanation of one sort or another.      Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Which sentence allows the reader to feel the emotion?
"I can't believe it," she said in astonishment.
She stumbled back until she could grip something solid. "I can't believe it."

I have been reviewing my WIP chapters for my tendency to explain the emotions I am trying to show. It is a bad habit, but one that can be purged.

One way I've discovered to eliminate it is to eliminate as many dialogue tags as possible. Show the character cringing or beaming or shrugging.

Another is to delete -ly adverbs. "Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue--smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself."

Adverbs that modify the verb said are an exception. "He said softly." is much different than "She said grimly."  But these should be used sparingly.

A strong verb is better. "He threw the ball hard." vs "He hurled the ball."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Snippet Sunday - A Peek into Debra's WIP

This story will hopefully be the first in a series of short spin-offs of my Corral Series. It features the brother of Zach, from This Can't Be Love, as the hero. As a disclaimer, it is only the first draft and has not been through any kind of edits whatsoever.

Chapter One
"What do you mean you're stuck in Colorado and can't get home?"
Van Rawlings looked over at the woman sitting a few stools down at the bar. Her open-mouthed expression of dismay might have been comical if it weren't paired with the desperate tone of her voice, which carried even over the energetic beat of Luke Bryan's Run, Run Rudolph currently blasting through the bar's speakers.
Although it had been the content, not the tenor, of the sentence she'd spoken into the phone tucked against her ear that had caught his attention. He also happened to know someone stuck in Colorado unable to get home. No way could it be a coincidence. Not in a town this size.
But who was this woman?
She tucked a strand of long, honey blonde hair behind her ear. "How could you do this to me?" She paused to listen. Made a face. "Easy for you to say. You're frolicking in Colorado with your wife. What am I supposed to do now?"
Van frowned as he took a sip of his beer. Cheating husbands and wives weren't anything new to him, but somehow he'd never imagined his brother falling prey. Was his 'perfect' marriage already crumbling into the dust of impending divorce? Goed to show, even the good guys had trouble keeping those wedding vows.
"Fine. I'll talk to you when you get home." Another pause. A sigh. "No, I'm sorry. I know you didn't do this on purpose. Besides, there's always next year. And you owe me one. Huge." She laughed. "Me too, but don't let Jessica hear you say that."
She swiped the phone off and placed it on the bar. "Better make my refill a double, Nick."
The bartender nodded. He returned shortly to place two stemmed glasses in front of her. He winked. “Double chardonnay, per your request.”
The woman laughed. Not the forced sound of polite acknowledgement, but one of genuine amusement.
Van took another swallow of beer. Should he say something? Confront her? What would he open with… 'So, are you fooling around with my brother behind his wife's back?'
Nope. Best to stay out of it. Really, it wasn't any of his business. Not yet. If it came down to it, he'd offer Zach a family discount.
The woman sighed and tapped long, red fingernails on the bar. Since she seemed wrapped up in her own thoughts, he studied her without fear of getting caught staring. A black sweater hugged her curves. Skinny jeans encased the long legs propped on the rung of the stool. Tall boots molded shapely calves. Definitely attractive.
Still. Even though his life was filled with people who didn't give a damn about upholding the sanctity of marriage, he honestly had a hard time believing Zach would cheat on Jessica, no matter how attractive another woman was. Seeing Zach and Jessica together almost made Van rethink his view on the institution of marriage. Almost.

Friday, January 23, 2015

C is for Colour

Margaret thinks about 'colour' in our novels.

Colour in characters
Colour in writing
Colour in descriptions

Characters take on a life of their own when you begin writing and some are more colourful than others. You might think, for instance, that in romance all heroes are similar – but this is far from the truth. They might be larger than life but they are all individuals with their own likes and dislikes, and their own problems. They are invariably dominant characters with colourful personalities. My current work in process hero is red. He’s totally dominant. I’ve only just met him but he’s definitely not a man to cross. My heroine is in danger of crossing him right from the word go. I can see storm clouds on the horizon – and they, most definitely won’t be red. I’ll leave you to imagine their colour. Readers like to identify with characters. How often have you heard them say that they know someone like the person in a book? It means the writer really has brought that character to life.

Colour in writing is the skilful use of words to describe those characters. A need to make them real people in the eyes of the reader. I could write, “She had blue eyes and blonde hair.” And I probably have done! But if I said, “She had hair the colour of ripened corn and eyes that echoed the blue sky.” it would make the writing far more colourful. Colour is also found in people’s emotions – the most common is feeling blue. Not that any of my characters feel this! We also have green with envy and red with anger. And I’m sure you can think of more.

Descriptions of places need to be vibrant and interesting, described in such a way that the reader can easily see them in their mind’s eye. Having said that it is important they are woven seamlessly into the story so that readers don't even think of them as descriptions but a part of the whole.

All of this brings to mind the words I learned when I first began to write: “Show, don’t tell.”

Thursday, January 22, 2015

C is for Complete!

Debra finished the first draft of her WIP.

Yep, that's right. So far my 'attempt' (See my A post for more background information!) to finish a Christmas novella and get it submitted before the March 13 deadline is going well. Extremely well.

Yesterday I finished the first draft. It took me 18 days and turned out to be 13,512 words and 69 pages. I was faithful and wrote everyday. I won't say my writing was consistent (my daily word counts varied greatly), but I got the job done. As I went, I did a running total of my words and how many I added each day. The highest number I did in a day was 2,268, which happened to be a cold/snow day off from school I wasn't expecting. My lowest day was 398 words.

Not only was keeping a daily count of page numbers and progress new for me, I wrote this story in completely different way than my previous ones. For one, other than a few sentences at the very end which I did out of order, I started at page one and kept on, writing the story in chronological order. Most of the time, if I get an idea for a scene, even if it's not at a point in the story I'm at, I write it so I don't forget. This time was a lot more linear.

Another different thing was I didn't go back and do a lot of editing each day. Here and there I did some minor tweaking, but most of the time I used my allotted writing time to keep on moving forward with the story. I also left a few yellow highlighted spots, where I know I need to go back and fix or look for a different word or phrase.

Plus, this time around, I had a definite writing routine and time of day scheduled to write. (For the most part. Days off and weekends were a bit different.) Each night after my shower, I'd sit down at the computer and write. I didn't use that time for anything else: e-mail, blogs, Facebook. It was designated writing time, and I used it as such. Last Saturday I was a bit 'stuck' at one point in the story, so I hopped in the shower. Call it 'muscle memory' or a version of Pavlov's Theory, but it worked. The ideas started flowing, and I was able to finish the scene.

Now, of course, I'll be using my designated writing time for editing and revising. I am curious to read the story from beginning to end, because a lot of the scenes I haven't gone back and looked at since I wrote them. My next step will be to print out the mss and do a read-through.

All in all, I'm excited about my progress, my new routine, and my new procedures. Will they carry over to my next project? Only time will tell. But so far they are working like a charm on this one.

Until next time,

Happy Reading!


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Characters in search of names and occupations

Paula thinks about her characters in her next novel

I’m still in the process of editing my second Irish novel, but I already have an idea for the third one. In fact one of the secondary characters in the second one gave me the idea for the third! He’s a screenwriter and, in one scene, he’s telling my hero and heroine his idea for a new screenplay. I wrote this scene totally off the top of my head, but once it was written I realised it could become the basis of my next novel. It was a surreal kind of moment!

When I wrote ‘Irish Inheritance’, I had no thoughts of any spin-off story until my publisher suggested I had an opportunity for a story about Charlotte aka Charley, the heroine’s best friend. If I’d thought about this beforehand, I would have given the best friend another name, as Charley wouldn’t have been even my tenth choice for a heroine’s name. However, it was too late to change the name in the first book, so I was stuck with it. However, now I’ve written the story, I can’t conceive of my heroine being called anything but Charley!

Charley, like Jenna (the heroine in Inheritance), was an actress, and that fitted well with the plot of the new story, especially as it allowed me to bring in a retired actress (who, I admit, bears an uncanny resemblance to Maggie Smith LOL)

However, with a third Irish story in mind, I’m being rather more careful with names and occupations. Part way through the second story, I introduce a taxi driver called Ben. He’s the one who (I think!) will become the hero in the third story – but do I want him to be called Ben? Or what other name should I choose for him? And maybe taxi driving in the evenings is a way for him to supplement his earnings, so what should his day job be? After having a volcanologist as the hero in one of my novels, and a veterinary surgeon in the second Irish novel, I’d quite like an occupation that didn’t require  so much research! So I’m thinking about an occupation for Ben (or whatever I decide to call him).

As for the heroine, she needs to have been brought up in America, even though she wasn’t born there (no spoilers, all will be revealed in due course!). Somehow she found her way into the final chapter of the second book, as a cousin of Guy, the hero of the first book. I called her Kara, but do I want to keep that name for her? Decisions, decisions! And should she be another actress? Or do I want to get away from actresses for a while, since my last two heroines have been actresses. In that case, what occupation shall I choose for her?

Bearing in mind that both these characters will be living in the small town of Clifden, on the west coast on Ireland, I’ll be interested in your ideas – both for their names and their occupations.

P.S. This stage is fun, isn’t it? Creating the characters you’re going to live with for the next few months! 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

C Is For Character

Jennifer discusses character...

We all have our favorite characters that we read or write, our “book boyfriends” that we can’t stop dreaming about long after we’ve finished the book. I have several characters that I still think about and further develop, even though I’ve told their stories and they should get out of my head to make room for others.

When asked to describe them, we usually start with their physical traits—eye color, hair color, muscle tone, etc. But what about their “character”—their internal traits that make them who they are? Those are the things we need to “show, not tell” so our reader can experience the full personality. Sometimes, though, those traits are harder to describe.

I’m currently filling out a form for my agent, called a Character List. I have no idea how prevalent these are, but I’ve never had to do it. It seems quite simple on the surface—a list of names, whether the story is told in their POV or not, their career, their story function and a physical description.

As I fill it out, I realize I have way more characters in my story than I thought. It sounds funny to say, but I forgot about some of these people—they’re minor townspeople, who flesh out the story, but don’t move the plot along much. Still, every character, no matter how minor, needs to be listed. And after I’d put it aside and checked it off my to-do list, I realized I still forgot a few that I have to go back and add.

I wish there was a spot on the list for character traits, as I’d love to describe the “whys” that give my characters depth. I guess whoever reads the list will just have to find those out when reading the book!

Monday, January 19, 2015


 Since showing is the best way to reveal things in a novel, Ana dives into cadence.

The cadence with which a character speaks reveals (shows) his or her geographical, educational or social background. So does their choice of words as well as their grammar. 

In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (one of my favorite self-help craft books), Browne and King recommend reading dialogue aloud—something I’m starting to do when I edit. Reading out loud reveals places where the reader might trip over my wording.

“Passages of narration and description will read better once they have the sense of rhythm and flow you edit in while (or after) reading them aloud.”

I have also found that re-reading the next day is a good idea. Different phrasing or word choices often come into my mind. (This is a virtue that is readily applied to critiquing. Words or phrases that bubble up when critiquing may well be valid, and sometimes an improvement.)

With diligent attention to cadence, I am deleting places where I used skewed dialect spelling (for effect) as well as many dialogue tags. I’m striving for words that, as Browne and King write, “real people would actually speak. Explanations, -ly words, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings—these can’t really help your dialogue because they don’t really change the dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it.”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Snippet Sunday - a sneak preview of Paula's new story 'Irish Intrigue'

Charley has returned (unwillingly) to Ireland - and this is her first meeting with Luke Sullivan:

She reached Clifden shortly before five o’clock and pulled into the parking area near the supermarket on the outskirts of the small town. Still familiar with the layout of the store, she didn’t take long to collect some basic supplies.
A tall man in a sheepskin jacket stood near the chilled cabinet of yogurts and desserts, speaking on his phone. “Kate, which yogurts do the kids like? Melissa said something about pink pots.”
She reached past him to pick up a pack of mixed fruit yogurts at the same moment as he turned and bumped against her.
“Oops! Sorry,” he said.
“No problem.” She put her yogurts in her shopping trolley, but couldn’t resist pointing further along the cabinet. “The pink pots are those strawberry ones.”
“Thanks.” He gave her a quick smile before speaking into his phone again. “Okay, Kate, I see them.”
She started to push her trolley toward the cash desk, but stopped when the man said, “Thanks again, but don’t I know you from somewhere?”
With a small grimace of resignation, she half-turned back to him. She didn’t recall meeting him when she lived here, but perhaps he’d seen her on television. Or else it was a clichéd chat-up line.
“I don’t think so.” She gave him a perfunctory smile as her glance took in rugged good looks in a square face, and dark wavy hair. Not exactly tousled, but certainly untamed.
The man frowned for a moment before his face cleared. “You remind me of my mother-in-law.”
“Really?” She suppressed a grin. Being compared to a mother-in-law was a novel kind of comment.
“Not really, no. Her hair’s short and straight, not long like yours, and her face is rounder.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “So I’m nothing like her?”
“You’re much younger, of course, but your eyes are the same colour. Unusual.”
“Brown eyes are unusual?”
“Kind of coppery. I’m useless with colours, but that’s what she said hers were.”
“Oh, I see.”
It seemed an odd conversation to be having with a stranger in a supermarket, but his dark eyes twinkled as he smiled, and her heart-beat quickened.
He held out his hand. “Luke Sullivan. Pleased to meet you.”
“Oh—er—yes.” As she put her hand in his, something low in her stomach jerked in response to his strong handshake. “Charley Hunter.” Deliberately she didn’t use her professional surname, which he might recognise if the local press had reported anything about Waterside Hall being used as a film location during the next few weeks.
“Short for Charlotte, but only my grandmother calls me that.”
“Hunter was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Maybe you share the same ancestry.”
“Maybe.” She’d no intention of telling him it was her married surname. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

B is for Beginning.

Margaret recalls the beginning of her writing career.

How does anyone decide they want to become a writer? The thought never occurred to me until one day an idea for a short story popped into my head. I had previously gone to college to learn German, believing I would find a better job if I could speak another language. My plan was German first then French.  But when the whole class failed the exam, and they sacked the teacher, I gave up on the idea.  At the same time I enrolled in an English class so perhaps it was this that set me off. I’d always been good at English at school and looking back I don’t think I really needed those classes – but if they are what started me on my writing career who am I to question it?

I’d always read romance so it came naturally to me to want to write this type of book. Can you believe I did all of my writing at work? At the time I was a secretary in a very small company and often was alone in the office. What I didn’t know was whether my writing was of publishable quality. So I joined my local writer’s circle and as luck would have it the lady who ran it was a Mills & Boon writer. She took me under her wing and I did many re-writes before she said she couldn’t help me anymore and suggested I send it to them.

Sadly they rejected it, but they did say they liked my writing style and would be prepared to read anything else I wrote. Encouragement indeed! (Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, I know I’ve recounted it many times.) So, suitably encouraged, I wrote another story, really studying the market this time. Once I’d sent it off I started another one. The bug had really bitten! And I sent that to them even though I hadn’t heard anything about my other manuscript.

Within days I had a letter accepting both. No phone calls in those days. Can you imagine my excitement? I grabbed hold of my husband and we danced around the room. The kids thought we were mad because they didn’t know what was going on. It was the most exciting day of my life.

That was in 1976 and I never dreamed I would still be writing all these years later.  I have slowed down, two books a year now instead of four, and with a different publisher. Perhaps it’s in my blood, perhaps enjoying writing essays at school was the pre-cursor to my writing career. After my initial success I did manage to get in touch with my English teacher (who had retired by this time) and she was delighted with the news. I can imagine it making her day when she discovered that one of her pupils was now a published writer.

One thing I do truly know, is that I will never stop writing. It is the most rewarding (and I mean in a personal sense not financially) and enjoyable occupation anyone can have. Each morning after breakfast I say to my husband, “I’m going to work now.” It’s only in the next room but it is my work space – and I love it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

B is for Backstory

Debra discusses backstory.

Ah...the B word. Backstory in a novel is always a tricky thing. Questions abound. When/where should backstory be used? How much backstory should be used? Why should backstory be used?

It's not a good plan to include a ton of backstory (aka backstory dump) in the first chapter. It's best to keep the action moving forward. Too much backstory right away slows down the action. However, not enough backstory hints can leave us with no sense of the internal conflicts our characters are facing. Backstory is important because it builds our characters. Our characters act and feel the way they do because of things that have happened in the past.

How we show that to our readers can make or break a story. Hints are good. Little tidbits, thoughts, and emotions sprinkled in throughout the course of the story as the plot unfolds help convey a sense of character, but keep us firmly rooted in the present tense of the story. Flashbacks can work, if they aren't overdone. Too many flashbacks can make our readers wonder which story we're trying to tell.

My current WIP is a spin-off of my Corral series. It's been interesting building some backstory for my characters while maintaining the timeline of already established events from prior novels.

Until next time,

Happy Reading!


One Great Night - available now!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

B is for Body Language

Paula looks at how characters show their emotions.

I just treated myself (courtesy of a Christmas gift voucher!) to an ‘Emotion Thesaurus’, mainly because I liked the look of this when I previewed a few pages online. Yes, I know there are various websites with lists of physical reactions to different emotions, but I decided this one was definitely worth keeping on my desk as a ‘real’ book with pages I can flip through to find what I want.

It contains (in alphabetical order) 75 different emotions, ranging from Adoration to Worry, with two pages devoted to each. Firstly, there is a long list of external physical signals e.g. twisting a watch or ring when anxious, or tapping the foot when impatient. The next two lists are internal sensations and mental responses. For instance, fear may cause a racing heartbeat (internal) and images of what-could-happen flashing through mind (mental). Another interesting section shows the cues of a suppressed emotion – a forced smile when disappointed, or staying silent when angry.

Thinking of Ana’s post on Monday, I had to smile when one of the hints in the book suggested limiting verbal and non-verbal reactions to three at the most, since a list of actions and reactions can become, as we’ve already said, a list of stage directions.

Another hint recommends keeping any movements simple, since complicated movements or ones that are too drawn out can detract from the emotion: He held up both hands. “Whoa, hold on a minute,” is far more effective than, “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up both his hands level with his head with palms facing forward and fingers spread out. Okay, maybe the latter is over-exaggerated, but I’m sure you get the idea. Often a brief non-verbal action combined with a verbal comment will give the reader enough information to picture and hear the character.

Two linked question in the book made me think: Do you have a favourite body part when showing emotions? Do you rely too much on facial expressions? Hmm, my answer is yes to both, so I’m going to challenge myself to use some different body parts!

And here’s an obvious one that we sometimes forget: characters react differently! One may run fingers through their hair when worried; another may twist a finger around a few strands of hair; another may scratch the back of their head (etc). Similarly, relief may cause one character to blow out their cheeks with a huge breath, whereas another will close their eyes and exhale quietly.

I’m sure I will find my new book very useful, but at the same time, I’m aware of the danger of overdoing things. The cliché of ‘show, don’t tell’ should never be taken to the point where you are overloading your characters (and your readers) with actions for and reactions to every emotion. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should write ‘She was angry’ every time she’s annoyed. At the same time, you don't necessarily need to describe some physical signal of her anger every time either! The reader will soon spot the times when you’re trying too hard to ‘show’ your characters’ emotions and may even grow weary of too many actions. As with most things, less is more.