Monthly Archives: August 2022

Need Conflict? Just Let Your Characters Talk

Story conflict has many purposes. It provides opportunities for failure and growth, elevates what’s at stake, and escalates emotion for the character and readers. We also know that our stories will need many instances of conflict, both at the story (macro) and scene (micro) level. But how do we know what kinds to add to the mix? 

First and foremost, conflict must further the story. There are lots of interesting and compelling scenarios that we authors might like to pursue. But, as with every aspect of storytelling, we must separate ourselves from the process to make sure we’re not projecting ourselves—our interests and desires—onto the character and the story. Sure, we might want to write a drunken brawl scene, but would that scenario be likely for our protagonist? Will it reveal something about the character, like a weakness or need, or is it just there to “spice up” a boring scene? 

The best way to incorporate convincing conflict scenarios into a story is to pull them organically from the elements that are already there. Conflict is lurking all around your characters and the story world, so grab a stick and start poking to see what shakes loose. 

Start With the Story’s Cast 

Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—each one can cause us grief on a number of levels. The same is true for our characters. Anyone interacting with them is a potential source for trouble. 

This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial. Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point, will rub him the wrong way, or have goals that are in opposition to his own. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept? 

Then—you guessed it—build characters with those traits, habits, histories, and goals into the story. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise. Not a planner? Not a problem. When you need a reasonable conflict scenario that will provide a certain outcome, consider who in the character’s life you could use to make that happen. This handy directory of adversaries might provide inspiration in this area. 

Let Your Characters Talk 

Once you’ve assembled your cast, just let them talk, and conflict is sure to follow. Dialogue is a great troublemaker because it can cause minor, surface-level tension or set the ball rolling for something huge, like the end of a relationship or a global clash. You’re already including it in your story, so make it do double duty and use it to initiate problems for your character. Here are just a few conversational techniques you can use to generate conflict in a scene.

Unintentional Clashes 

So much of conflict is unintentional—meaning, the person causing the problem isn’t trying to ruffle feathers. Often, it comes down to basic personality quirks, such as someone who is always interrupting, a tactless party who unknowingly causes offense, or a chronic multitasker who doesn’t listen carefully and makes your character feel undervalued. Of course, any of these irritations can be applied to the protagonist instead of the other party, and you get the same result. 

Enough of these slight aggravations can add up throughout one conversation (or over the course of many) and lead to explosions. When a character loses control of their emotions, they are much more apt to speak their mind, cut the other person down, or reveal information they meant to hold back. And what do all of these responses lead to? More conflict. 

Confrontational Communicators 

Purposeful conflict in dialogue can be subtle or overt, depending on the situation and the goal being pursued. The character may be looking to manipulate an exchange to achieve a specific outcome, inflame everyone’s emotions, damage a reputation, or completely eviscerate an enemy with words. Characters who are purposely looking to cause trouble in a conversation might…

  • Make a threat or say something to intimidate
  • Deploy insults, sarcasm, and belittlement
  • Manipulate the conversation toward a topic or away from one 
  • Shift the focus to someone else to put them in the hot seat 
  • Purposely ask about something that will make the other person uncomfortable 
  • Deceive the other party through lies, omissions, and exaggerations
  • Bring up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional reaction 
  • Reveal a secret, stance, or mistake to damage a rival’s standing in the group 
  • Ask questions the character knows the other person can’t answer, making them look bad
  • Call the protagonist out (for a mistake, something they said or did, etc.) to steal their self- esteem 
  • Deliberately provoke an argument
  • Make insinuations (about someone’s loyalty, capabilities, etc.) to sow doubt
  • Make a derogatory statement and pass it off as a joke
  • Suggest disloyalty if the other party doesn’t agree, which forces them to do just that 

When two or more characters are battling it out in conversation, each is seeking the upper hand. The exchange may appear respectful if others are watching or a certain level of decorum must be observed. In these cases, it may not be what the characters say as much as how they say it, or what doublespeak or innuendo they can safely deploy to score a hit that will go over someone’s head. When a comment does leave a mark, show it by using body language, facial tics, and vocal shifts to reveal the character’s waning level of emotional restraint. 

Opposing Motivations 

One of the main drivers for conflict in dialogue is that the parties involved don’t always have the same purposes. One person might be trying to connect with the protagonist while the protagonist only wants to gain information. One may be seeking to protect a secret while the other is trying to bring it to light. Another person might be pursuing a conversation because they want to show off their knowledge while the other participant only wants to prove their own rightness. 

Motivation plays a huge part in conflict development at all story levels because conflict typically arises when characters don’t get what they want. So when you’re planning your protagonist’s conversations, consider what they’re after. What are they hoping to achieve through that discussion? Then pit them against someone whose goal is in opposition to theirs



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The 6 Elements of Fiction

Much of writing is instinctual, born of exposure to good stories and a lot of practice. However, there are some tools every writer needs to make their story professional and effective. Grammar and spelling are the obvious ones, but today, I’m talking about the key elements of fiction: character, plot, setting, point of view, theme, and style.

The First Element of Fiction: Character

In many ways, characters are the foundation for the entire work. Is there conflict? That’s going to involve the emotional and mental condition of your characters. Have you chosen a point of view? That’s you following specific characters as you tell the story. Your characters are the people through whom your reader experiences the tale, and the trick is to make those fictional characters feel completely real through character development.

  • You’ll need to know their backstory. This doesn’t mean your reader needs to know it, but your understanding of your character’s history is crucial for how and why your character responds to things.
  • You’ll need at least a rudimentary grasp of psychology. You and I have both read books which annoyed us because the characters just didn’t feel “real.” Often, this is because basic psychology was ignored, and the characters behaved in a way that made no sense for human beings.
  • You’ll need to understand the power of the character arc. Your character should not be the same at the end of the story as in the beginning. They change, and their growth is a key aspect of your story’s momentum.

If your characters are flat, your readers will have trouble empathizing. But if your characters feel real and relatable, then your readers will eat your story up. Understanding what your characters do and say (and how other characters respond to them) helps to paint the fullest possible picture of your fictional creation.

The Second Element of Fiction: Plot

One small aside: plenty of fiction writers would start this list with plot, not character. Both are fine. Your characters live inside your plot, but your plot revolves around your characters. I just put plot second in this list because when I write, my plot follows my characters, rather than the other way around. If you do it differently, there’s nothing to fear: you’re still right! (I could say “write,” but you might click the back button.)

Plot is like a blueprint. Your plot, its connections, and its structure determine the way you shape your story. It includes the order in which your characters face things. It’s the organized structure, the thing that will end up in an outline on Wikipedia (with spoiler alerts, of course).

The Six Stages of Plot

  1. Exposition or introduction, which establishes characters and setting.
  2. The inciting Incident is an event in a story that throws the main character into a challenging situation, upsetting the status quo and beginning the story’s movement, either in a positive way or negative.
  3. Rising action, which reveals the conflict. Now that your characters are established (along with some sense of what their “normal” looks like), you throw in the wrench and raise the stakes.
  4. The rising action builds to a dilemma, the moment a character is put in a situation where they have to make an impossible choice.
  5. Now comes the climax, also known as the turning point. This should be the greatest moment of tension in your story; everything is critical, with emotion and interest peaked. This is make-or-break, the moment when things matter the most.
  6. Finally, we have resolution (or what Joe likes to call the denouement). Don’t let the word fool you: this ending isn’t necessarily happy or sad. It means everything has been solved, and your conclusion arrives at the place where all the events of the plot have strongly led. It feels final, or at least, final enough that the reader can put the book down without flipping back through the pages to see if they missed something. Again, this doesn’t require a happy ending. It does require a satisfying one, even if you mean to continue in a sequel. If you’ve left any knots still tied, you’d better have a good reason why—and better make sure your reader has a clue that the answers are coming soon.

Before we move on, I want to circle back and remind you that you need conflict in your story. A lot of authors struggle with this since conflict is by nature deeply uncomfortable. However, every really good story has some kind of conflict—even if that conflict is purely an internal struggle with a heavy emotion.

Extra: If you want to dive deeper into writing an effective plot, take a look at Joe’s book The Write Structure.

Every really good story has some kind of conflict.

The Third Element of Fiction: Setting

Setting is one of my personal favorite elements. This includes the physical location (real or invented) and the social environment of the story (including chronology, culture, institutions, etc.).

I love setting because, in many ways, it’s like a character. No, your setting doesn’t have feelings, but your characters are forced to interact with it everywhere they go and in everything they do. Your setting actually develops who your characters are.

How setting impacts characters

It determines, among other things:

  • The skills they’ve developed to survive
  • The tools they’ll have (weapons, money, clothing, transportation)
  • The cultural norms for communication (speech, body language, and relative rules for communication between genders, classes, and more)
  • The presuppositions your character brings into the story (religion, psychology, philosophy, educational assumptions, all of which have a lot to do with the way your characters respond to stimuli)

When designing your setting, it’s a good idea to have some idea how it all works. What’s the weather like? How does the economy function? Do they use money? Where does pancake batter come fruom?

Are you copying a historical culture? (And if you are, I highly advise looking for something that isn’t European. Mix it up! The world is a glorious patchwork of variety.)

Your characters have to swim through this world, so have fun with this. Creating your setting (also known as world-building) can be one of the most exciting parts of writing.

The Fourth Element of Fiction: Point-of-View

Point of View is a fun and tricky tool to work with. POV determines things like tense and how much the reader gets to see. There’s first-person (I, my), second-person (you, your), and third-person/narrator (she, hers). There’s present tense (I see/she sees), past tense, (I saw/she saw), and even that cockamamie future tense nobody uses (I will see/she will see).

It’s the combination of these things that create an effective POV. So how do you choose?

It all depends on (1) the particular feel you’re going for and (2) how much your reader needs to see.

Questions to ask when choosing point of view

  • What feel are you going for? There’s a reason different genres use different POVs.
    • Urban fantasy, for example, is almost always first-person past-tense, because they’re going for the feel of a person telling you an exciting thing that happened. There’s an intimate, immediate feel that goes with this close-up-and-personal viewpoint, like seeing the fist come right for your face.
    • On the other hand, literary fiction usually uses third-person. The reason is simple: literary fiction usually has a much broader scope than urban fantasy and so needs to be able to take the reader to a bird’s-eye view, usually seeing through multiple characters. The pace is often a little slower, but the impact can be deeply powerful, and tends to explore consequences.
  • How much does your reader need to see?
    • Is it essential that the reader sees things happening outside your protagonist’s point of view? Do they need to see things your protagonist does not see, or hear things your protagonist does not hear? Then you need third-person POV.
    • Do you actually need the reader to discover things at the same pace as your protagonist? Do you want your reader to waffle and rage with your protagonist, seeking for answers? Then first-person might be better.

Variety is the spice of life, and you have the joy of mixing and matching as you need.

  • Want third-person present tense? (She turns and sees him, and wonders if unexpected encounters can stop one’s heart.)
  • Want first-person past tense? (I turned and saw him, and found myself wondering if unexpected encounters could stop my heart.)
  • Want second-person future tense? (You will turn and see him, and you will wonder if the unexpected encounter will stop your heart.)

The Fifth Element of Fiction: Theme

Theme is a hidden element, but incredibly important: in essence, theme is what your story is REALLY about.

The plot is the outward details, e.g., “A son stands to inherit his father’s vast business empire, but only if he can prove himself to be a responsible adult by the age of 25.” Theme would be what it’s really about, e.g., “Growing up requires choices.” Or, “‘Family’ means more than wealth.” If you’re really good, you can even use a one-word theme, like love, truth, adulthood, etc.

Yes, all fictional books have themes, even if it wasn’t intentional. Even authors who aren’t aware of theme use it—personal beliefs on how the world works (or should work) always flavor the story.

The tricky thing about theme is it should rarely be bluntly stated in your work; the moment you do, your work slides into the “preachy” category. Of course, sometimes, you want folks to know what the purpose is up front, but if you can manage to make it subtle—to get that point across without ever frankly stating it—your readers will actually take it to heart a lot more deeply.

Think about it. Simply reading about something like statistics on autism might make you think, but entering into the story of a character struggling with it (such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) can do a lot more to help you really feel and understand the challenges and cultural barriers faced.  Effective stories are written by authors who knew the theme. What’s yours?

Examples of theme

  • My first book, The Sundered, is about growing up and realizing you’ve been lied to.
  • My first novelette, The Christmas Dragon, carries the theme that running away doesn’t solve problems.
  • My second novelette, Strings, is about the choice—and cost—of heroism.

However, in all three books, I do what I can to make sure that readers don’t feel “moralized” at. Instead, I want the reader to emotionally arrive at these conclusions alongside the protagonists.

Effective stories are written by authors who know their theme. What’s yours? (Need help choosing one? Check this out: When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know.)

By the way, this “theme” concept has some nifty corollaries. A symbol, for example, shows up to represent individual details within the story (e.g., glass breaking at the moment a friendship fails), and a motif is a narrative element that shows up repeatedly throughout the tale (e.g., “Quote the Raven, ‘Nevermore’”). Read more here: The Difference Between Symbol and Motif.

The Sixth Element of Fiction: Style

Style is awesome. It is needed. Style is the thing that makes your work stand out from everybody else’s, because in essence, it’s your “voice.”

You develop style by working on technique. Your syntax, word choices, and tone all contribute to this. Your style can demonstrate not only your voice as a writer, but is crucial to indicating details about your story and characters. Style shows accent and dialect, character intelligence and observation; it shows the underlying humor or drama of your piece. Your style is your unique flavor, and developing it will not only take your entire writing career, but is also one of the most rewarding activities as a writer.

Developing your writing style takes work; there are no short-cuts for this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

  • Read a lot. The more variety you pour into yourself, the more ingredients you’ll have to cook with as you develop your style. Read books from different countries, different genders, different cultures. Read everything and learn as you go.
  • Write a lot. No writing is ever wasted. Practice, practice, and practice some more—and spend time reading your work out loud. (That last step can be embarrassing, but it’s really helpful.)
  • Listen. Listen to people. Listen to conversations. Tone is a crucial component of style, and you’ll need to learn how to convey that in your work—but you can’t convey it if you don’t know what it sounds like.

Final Thoughts on the Six Elements of Fiction

I know what you’re thinking: this seems like a lot. And you’re right, it is; however, if you’re an avid reader, I think you’ll find you’re already familiar with most of these concepts. The great stories you know and love all use them, and if you are passionate about your story, incorporating theme will not be as hard as it might seem.

You can do this. Now go and start writing!

Have you considered the six elements of fiction in your story? Which one is the first you consider when you start a story? Let us know in the comments below.

by Ruthanne Reid


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An Antagonist vs a Villain: What’s the Difference?

By Neil Chase

What’s the difference between an antagonist and a villain? We often see these terms used interchangeably, but there’s a big difference between them, and you need to know which is the right one for your story.

What Is an Antagonist?

In literature and film, an antagonist is a character or force that actively works against the protagonist or main character. Think of them as a roadblock with a clear purpose and well-defined reasons for their choices and actions.

The antagonist may be an institutional force, such as an oppressive government, or an individual, such as a villainous mentor or a romantic rival. Antagonists can also be nature itself, such as in the case of a severe drought or a hungry animal.

In addition to providing conflict and tension, antagonists also help to create a stronger sense of empathy for the protagonist by highlighting their strength and determination in the face of adversity. And while they may cause difficulties for the story’s protagonist, they are not necessarily bad people. Antagonists play an essential role in making a story more memorable.

What Is a Villain?

A villain is an amoral or evil character with little to no regard for the general welfare of others. They are driven by ambition, greed, lust, or a desire for power or revenge.

Whatever their reason, villains typically use underhanded methods to try to achieve their goals. This might include deception, trickery, or violence.

While villainous characters can seem simplistic, they can be complex and even sympathetic if written well. In some stories, the villain might be the only one who understands the true nature of the conflict. This can make for a captivating and thought-provoking story.

Are All Villains the Antagonist of a Story?

Villains are a great addition to a story. Thanks to their lack of morals and self-serving attitudes, they immediately add conflict, tension, and suspense. But not all villains are created equal.

In some stories, the villain is the clear-cut antagonist, standing in opposition to the protagonist and working to foil their plans. In others, however, the lines are more blurred. The villain may not be an active force opposing the hero; instead, they may simply have their own goals and motivations in parallel with that of the hero.

Are All Antagonists the Villain of a Story?

In any good story, there is typically a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the main character of the story, while the antagonist is the opposing force. They provide conflict and help to drive the story forward. However, not all antagonists are villainous. In some cases, the antagonist may simply disagree with the protagonist or pose a challenge. They might even share the same goal, but have different methods to reach it.

In conclusion, while antagonists and villains are cut from the same cloth, they aren’t necessarily the same. To clarify, here are some popular examples of each.

A Character Who Is an Antagonist and a Villain

Hans Gruber in Die Hard is a classic villain, who is also the main antagonist to the hero, John McLane. Hans is an evil character intent on harming others for his own benefit. He is strongly motivated by greed – he wants the money in the Nakatomi Plaza vault, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.

A Character Who Is an Antagonist But Not a Villain

Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive is a textbook antagonist. He works in direct opposition to Richard Kimble’s attempt to escape, and spends the entirety of the story tracking him down, because it’s his job. It’s not personal and he has no ulterior motives. He’s simply really good at what he does, and he’s been tasked with bringing a known fugitive to justice. He’s not a villain. There are not evil intentions to what he does, but he is the primary antagonistic force preventing Richard from achieving his goal of finding the real killer.

A Character Who Is a Villain But Not an Antagonist

In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is not only a terrifying serial killer but the protagonist. He is clearly evil and motivated to harm others, but the main antagonist working against him is Donald Kimball, a police detective and a good man, simply trying to solve a case.

Who is your favorite Villain or Antagonist? Why?


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7 Killer Tips for How to Write a Bio

You have just opened your email from the magazine you submitted your article to. You read the email you have been hoping for and dreaming of: “Hey there, we want to publish your article. Please reply with a fifty-word killer bio. We will post it at the end of your article. You can include up to three links.”

Wow, your writing has been accepted! Now you have to say who you are.

Writing your biography can seem almost as challenging as writing the piece you submitted. But it is a necessary part of publishing your writing. How will your readers know who wrote your wonderful article if you do not tell them?

How to Write a Bio

  1. Write your name
  2. Share your accomplishments
  3. Use third person
  4. Say something personal
  5. Be funny
  6. Link to your writing
  7. Follow the rules

A Few Author Bio Examples

A good place to find examples of other writers’ biographies is right here on The Write Practice. You can meet the Write Practice team on the About page. The Write Practice also includes bio examples with all articles, so click on the byline on any post or scroll to the bottom to read the author’s bio.

But you do not need a bio from the About page of The Write Practice. You need a bio for your own amazing article that is being published soon. So now it is your turn to write a killer bio.

7 Killer Tips for How to Write a Bio (Including More Examples)

Let me share with you seven tips on how to write a bio and some bio templates to get you started.

1. Write your name

Start with your name. Might seem obvious, but you want to make sure readers know who you are.

2. Share your accomplishments

Don’t be shy. Say what you have done.

A list of accomplishments might include things like where you went to school and where you have been published. This is not a time to brag or list every award you’ve won since grade two. Pick the major accomplishments that are relevant and recent.

For example:

Mary Jones, a graduate of ____________, has been published in____________ and ______________.

If this is your first publication, you can say:

Mary Jones, a graduate of _______________, writes about ________________ and ______________.

3. Use the third person

Write in the third person, even if you are the one writing it.

Instead of saying, “I have lived in Tokyo and have six cats,” say, “Pamela has lived in Tokyo and has six cats.”

4. Say something personal

End with a personal statement about you. There’s not room to tell your life story or share too many personal details, but including a personal detail or two shows readers you are a real person beyond the written page. See the ending of the following examples.

Here is Stephen King’s biography from the back of his book On Writing. It has 65 words.

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. Among his most recent are 11/22/63, Under the Dome, Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, Cell, Dreamcatcher, Hearts in Atlantis, and Bag of Bones. He was the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Maine with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

Stephen King’s biography begins with his name and then lists his accomplishments. But it ends on a more personal note. Now you know that he lives in Maine and his wife is a novelist. This helps you to connect with him as a regular human being, not just a very accomplished celebrity.

(His biography is long, though. If you were Steven King, and they said, “Mr. King, you have only fifty words,” what would you take out?)

Or read this biography from the back of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This one is 42 words.

Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, Tides of War, The Afghan Campaign, The Profession, The Warrior Ethos and Turning Pro, among others. He lives in Los Angeles. In 2003, he was made an honorary citizen of Sparta in Greece.

If I wanted to know what books Steven Pressfield wrote, I could look up his page on Amazon. But I would not know to look up whether he was made an honorary citizen of Sparta in Greece.

Take a look at this one, from the back inside cover of Jon Acuff’s book Finish. This has 49 words.

Jon Acuff is the New York Times bestselling author of Start, Quitter, and Do Over, among other books. He is a popular public speaker, blogger, Tweeter, and the creator of the “30 Days of Hustle” online challenge. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jenny, and their two daughters.

Jon Acuff’s biography tells me about his accomplishments. Then it ends with a note about his family. It is a good idea to share a piece of personal information about yourself so readers can connect with you.

Include a personal note in your bio to connect with your readers.

5. Be funny

Include humor if it fits the publication you are submitting to. Remember, you don’t want to make off-color jokes in your biography, so pretend your mother is reading it.

Unless, of course, it is for an adult magazine. Then you can write humor that fits that publication.

6. Link to your writing

Use only one link. Decide what is the most important place you want your readers to find you. Twitter? Instagram? Your blog signup list?

If you only have one link, have it go to your blog signup page. An email list is the most important, as it gives you direct access to make friends with your readers. You own your blog; you don’t own Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. (Unless of course you DO own them.)

Include a link in your bio so readers can find you and follow your writing.

7. Follow the rules

Follow the rules. If they ask for a fifty-word biography, don’t give them 324 words. Stick to fifty.

Bonus Tip: Be Yourself

It can seem intimidating to write a killer bio. But you are a writer. You have already written an article or story so amazing that someone wants to publish it.

You can write a fantastic bio, too.

Now You Try

It’s a good idea to try out a few different bios for different target audiences. Mix and match professional accomplishments and personal experiences until you have a blend that really captures you as a writer.

You can practice using a conversational tone and then a more formal tone. See which one fits the audience or market you have in mind.

Keep cutting extraneous details until you have a killer bio that represents you, and then polish and edit until it shines.

The handy template above and your own brilliant writing are all you need!

Do you have any tips for how to write a bio? Let us know in the comments.

By Pamela Hodges


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Emotional Writing: One Surprising Method for Creating Emotion in Your Readers

As a writer, you’ve probably learned that story is not about what happens. Rather, it’s about how the events affect the protagonist. The plot points may appeal to the reader’s intellect, but you want to go deeper than that, reaching and stirring the coals of a reader’s emotions. That kind of emotional writing is when you make a real connection, establishing something meaningful between writer and reader.

But how is this done? How do you reach beyond the plot points and offer your reader something more? There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but I’m going to focus on one technique for writing emotional scenes that might surprise you.

Something surprising

Emotion is complex. We never experience a single, isolated emotion. Instead, the emotions that sweep through us are a continually changing, multi-layered twist of complicated and often conflicting thoughts and feelings. We each carry deep emotions and a range of emotion, often at the same time.

When you write a scene where something happens to evoke emotion in your character, you probably have your character feel and express the most obvious emotion so your reader can feel it too. It’s only logical.

And because it’s so logical, it hardly needs to be emphasized. Go ahead and let that predictable emotion come out, but consider edging it aside with something unexpected, tainting it with something shameful, or layering it with something seemingly random.

Dig a little deeper

Instead of focusing solely on the emotion that would logically follow the plot event, allow your character to experience some of the deeper layers of emotion surrounding that event.

Is there something in her past that colors the incident? Something she’s trying to hide? Something she can’t admit, even to herself? What subtleties underlie this event? What unbidden thoughts force their way into her mind?

This is often a good time for a mini flashback, or even a full-fledged one. Memory is very powerful tool for evoking emotion and is an effective way to reveal a surprising emotion, one that goes beyond what your character should be feeling to delve into the deeper layers of her psyche.

Further argument for the flashback

Another good reason to use a flashback when introducing an intense emotion is that it gives your reader time to process. Drawing out a memory slows the pace and gives your reader an opportunity to process what’s happening on the page and arrive at his own emotional response. This is key for emotional writing.

Telling the reader what to feel is a sure-fire way to make sure they won’t really feel it. Much better to come at it sideways with unexpected or conflicting emotion. When the reader processes and generates his own emotional response, the story becomes more meaningful and more memorable.

Let’s look at an example

Imagine your character witnesses a child getting hit by a car. That’s going to generate some emotion, the most obvious of which is horror and concern for the poor child.

What are some of the other emotions that will be flying around inside your character? Maybe pity for the parents, empathy or blame for the driver, impatience for the ambulance to arrive, and so on. Emotions that would logically follow such an event.

These are all normal and expected, but what happens when we peel back some layers and go deeper into the emotional experience?

Might we encounter relief that the child hit was not her own? Guilt for harboring such feelings?

A hint of ghoulish voyeurism, wanting to get closer and be in the drama of the moment? A random, insignificant thought that persistently intrudes like “Do my socks match?” This might be a manifestation of shock or denial, the mind trying to deny what it just saw or avoid the emotional pain of the experience.

Using this emotional writing technique deepens and broadens the range of emotions, allowing your reader an emotional journey of his own.

The importance of distance

Readers are people. Each reader comes to your book with her own unique perspectives and package of past experiences. Using distance in fiction is a little like how Christ used parables in his teaching. It allows each individual to accept and embrace as much as they are ready and willing to.

Like flashback, distancing techniques, such as humor and objective showing, give your reader the space she needs to determine how close she’ll let the story get to her heart.

For example, when a character’s life is too dark or painful to ask readers to deal with directly, give them the option of stepping back. I recently heard from a fan of my work who said she couldn’t read my latest book because it hit too close to home. She knew it would surface painful emotions for her.

The Tower deals with a rough domestic situation, and I didn’t always allow my readers a lot of distance from my protagonist, using techniques to instead pull them in close. A decision that clearly might cost me some readers.

Readers read for emotion

Readers come in all varieties, each looking for something a little different in their ideal reading experience. But on the most basic level, every reader reads for emotion. He wants to feel something. He wants an emotional connection.

If you’re a fiction writer and interested in learning more about writing emotions and working toward emotional mastery, I suggest reading Donald Maass’s very fine book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How To Write The Story Beneath The Surface.

The book includes an in-depth look at several useful techniques for evoking emotion in your readers, and makes compelling arguments for why you’d want to. Here’s one of my favorites:

Only when a situation has heavy emotional baggage will readers pick up that baggage and carry it. —Donald Maass

And that’s a worthy goal—to send readers on a journey through their own emotional landscape. By creating a reading experience that evinces, surprises, and provides space for growth and exploration, we can make a connection with readers through our characters and the emotions they share with the reader.

How about you? What techniques have you used to engage your readers’ emotions? Would you like to develop more emotion tools for your writer’s toolbox? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

by Joslyn Chase


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