How to Write Big Character Life Changes

Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render these events in a believable and relatable way? Read on.

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Rendering character life changes on the page takes a light and thoughtful touch.

Coping With Big Life Changes

Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.

In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big, identity-shifting life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.

The thing is, big stakes are hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.

One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?

Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?

Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.

Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in, as I call it. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the plot that happens next.

Life Before and After

Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big event. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?

In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.

So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.

But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.

The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction

There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big event is not always the best choice.

The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.

As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.

Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.

Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.

When your novel serves up big life events for your characters, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.

*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…

Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.

Writing Emotional Meaning

Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.

And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea what “emotional meaning” even, well, means, read on.

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Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

Writing Emotional Meaning for Character

Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.

I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul.

Instead, I am looking for how things matter to a character, instead of what matters to them. This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character is letting these things affect them.

For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.

An Example of Emotional Meaning

If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:

I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.

This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one:

Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.

This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.

Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.

But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?

Don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.

 

Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It

The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.

Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting.

What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?

Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff

I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.

All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”

Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.

All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.

Writing Active Character Reaction

Sure, we all know to write a character who drives action, but what about character reaction? The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are … wait for it … proactive and reactive protagonists. So why do many writers struggle with this idea and character reactions in general?

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The best protagonists make things happen and react to what’s happening, both are crucial elements to keeping the reader engaged.

Writing Active Character Reaction

We all know that your number one objective as a writer is to make the reader care. Or, well, you know that if you’ve been haunting around the site for any length of time. Readers read in order to experience. Whether they want to experience an event, a new idea, or a story they can’t get anywhere else… To read is to be transported.

The best way to rob your reader of the experience of a novel is to give us a character who doesn’t act or react. Passive characters, or those whose mode seems to be set to “non-reaction” are a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say our character is an orphan, or so she thinks. Then she finds out that maybe, just maybe, her father isn’t dead, after all. This is a big bomb to try and land accurately, in terms of making those emotions seem genuine. I get it. Many writers, then, feeling daunted, would simply not have the character react.

“She read the letter again, her fingers going numb.”

Not only are you relying on an external reaction and a physical cliché here, but there’s really nothing else to it. This is a total non-reaction. It may look like a reaction, it may show her doing something in the moment, but there’s really no substance here if you think about it.

What does it feel to be a girl who discovers she’s not the orphan she thought she was? We don’t really know much more about it, as a result of this underwhelming non-reaction.

Creating Compelling Reactions

So instead of a non-reaction, you really want to highlight your character’s experience in big and small moments that demand a reaction. (Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the big moments, either. A character’s reaction in a small moment could be very revealing, and work to pull the reader further into the character’s world.)

For every time that you want to shrink from an event or leave in a generic physical reaction, put your patience cap on and take the time go dive deeper. If you don’t want to write the reaction, that’s the perfect tip-off that you should. Because it’s going to lead to some tough, challenging, vulnerable stuff, most likely.

Start by really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would their first thought be? How does this turn of events affect them? What’s a dumb thing that can come to mind? If your character’s home is burglarized, for example, maybe they quip, “Good luck with that DVD player, it never worked anyway,” almost as if they can’t help themselves. Don’t go for the expected reaction, either. Is there anything you can verbalize here that will lend the situation the element of surprise?

That’s how you make the situation relatable and, more importantly, human.

Focus on Interiority

Of course, it all comes back to interiority. This concept is the vanquisher of the non-reaction. It is your insurance that you are doing your due diligence and creating characters who are active, plugged-in participants in their own stories.

If you ever feel stuck in an important moment, and you simply can’t imagine how your character is going to take the situation, go back to the most elementary questions of all:

And?

So?

This letter says I’m not an orphan, after all. And? So? Well, I’m going to have to track my father down now. And? So? I’ve believed this one thing about myself for the last ten years…and now what should people call me? What do I call myself?

My home has been robbed. And? So? I never liked that stupid DVD player anyway.

In big moments and small, interiority is a tool to help you discover your character’s reaction. By giving them a reaction and making them an active participant in the scenes you’re writing, you will give the reader a vital connection. Not only to who they are, but to what they’re going through.

And that’s what every reader wants, deep down, to experience.

Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.

What Is Interiority? An Interiority Definition, and Why It Matters

One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner struggles, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in third person. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to define interiority and teach it.

This article will be intended as a comprehensive interiority definition. An introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.

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Interiority is a tool to express your true commitment to seeing events through your character’s perspective.

What Is Interiority?

I define “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. That is the interiority definition. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.

The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough. Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?

Specificity is the Key

Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up.

Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.) Specificity is a big part of my interiority definition.

Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.

The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion

Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.

I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.

If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.

Interiority is Digging Deeper, Asking Questions

Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.

Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.

You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to define interiority. It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.

Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog

I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

How to Hook a Reader and Leave Them Hungry for More

Like any fiction writer, you’re wondering how to hook a reader with your story, especially those all-important first pages. (Heck, this should probably be “first page,” singular, since sometimes that’s all the opportunity you have.) Information plays a key role in how you manipulate an audience. Make no mistake, you’re not just telling a story or getting your character/plot down on paper. You’re trying, with every page, to make the reader care, which is your number one job as a writer.

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Strategic information release is much more effective than information deprivation when you want to string readers along (in a good way).

Ways to Hook a Reader by Creating Suspense

As I’ve written before, confusion is not the same as mystery. You want to leave your reader hungry to continue reading, not flummoxed about what’s going on. Information release is the tool at your disposal to accomplish this.

Sometimes the most dissatisfying manuscripts I read are the ones that trying the hardest to hook a reader. Why? Because a lot of writers think that withholding information is the way to go. That’s the definition of suspense, no? The reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Right? This is what we want!

Unfortunately, it’s a very murky line between suspense and not enough information. If you don’t provide a lot of context for what’s going on, the reader might not care as much as they should. Or, worse, they  might become utterly confused.

How to Combat Confusion

I’m of the school that some context and information about a suspenseful situation is actually desirable.

Let’s say that your character is wandering into an abandoned house. We’ve all seen that scene in a horror movie. Imagine, first, the “maximum confusion” version. The character arrives at the house and walks through the creaky front door. Everything is in shadow. The creepy music swells. The horror element may be just around the corner. The character tries a closet door and…

Scary, right? Well, kinda. There are a few pieces of information missing. The scene overall would be much more “grabby” if we knew any of the following ways to hook a reader:

  • Motivation (Why is the character at this horrible house?)
  • Objective (What do they need to get/see/etc. while there?)
  • Stakes (What could go wrong in this scene and how might it affect the whole?)
  • Antagonist (Who or what has the potential to be hiding in the shadows?)
  • Past (What’s happened to lead the character here?)
  • Future (What do they hope will happen after? What do they worry might happen instead?)

Some of this information will be situational. If you’ve done your plot work correctly, the reader should know why we’re at the house, for example. A lot of this information can be filled in via interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as the character approaches the house and begins to explore. (A related post would be how to create emotional anticipation.)

With two or three additional pieces of context, the scene takes on more weight in a reader’s mind.

Your Goal is Creating Hungry Readers

Imagine yourself arriving at a cocktail party. If you keep from eating beforehand in anticipation of the event, most likely you’ll end up too hungry, show up, and start diving into whatever hors d’oeuvres you can find until you’ve satisfied that initial hunger. It doesn’t feel good to be that hungry, and you don’t really taste the first few bites.

On the other hand, if you have a little snack at home, then go to the party, you’re not desperate for food, so you’re able to enjoy yourself and taste the offerings. Each one might leave you wanting more, but you’re not starving for the next bite, either.

Think of a reader as this party guest. They satisfy themselves on information and emotion. If you go into a scene with too little of either, you’re making your reader hungry … and not in a good way. Wondering how to hook a reader? You want them craving more, instead of starving for it.

Are you pacing your writing correctly? Is it “grabby” enough? General advice can only go so far. Work with me as your novel editor, and I’ll give you actionable, supportive, hands-on feedback.

Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

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It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

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Feeling all the feelings.

Say what? Feelings feel like feelings, duh! Or do they? If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and making it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). You can see older posts where I discuss how to write interiority here. Go ahead and catch up, I’ll wait…

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job is to make the reader care. And putting authentic, relatable emotion on the page is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up here.

Whether they name emotions outright, or engage in a lot of telling, or sink into melodrama, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

There’s so much more nuance to human feelings. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger.

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with adding relatable emotions to your manuscript, let me take a look and give you personalized, hands-on character critique.

Loft Workshop in Minneapolis

If you are in or near Minneapolis, please come see my workshop on Interiority: Exploring a Character’s Inner Life. This topic is always on my mind. I find myself constantly commenting on interiority (thoughts, feelings, emotions) in client manuscripts. There isn’t a protagonist out there, in my humble opinion, that couldn’t stand to be developed more fully from the inside out.

This is an in-depth three-hour workshop where we’ll really dive into my favorite fiction craft topic. I hope to arm you with some inspiration and knowledge so that you can dive into your protagonist more confidently and deepen your own craft as a fiction writer.

The Loft is still taking registrations and you can find more information here. I’d love to see you on July 23rd.

Scaffolding in Scene

There are two types of writers when it comes to scene, I’ve found. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses dialogue tags, adverbs, and narrative to construct scaffolding. If you’ve ever worked with me no a manuscript, you know that I don’t take kindly to a lot of scaffolding. I feel that it distracts from the dialogue, which is the rightful star of scene. It’s usually totally unnecessary. When I see a lot of scaffolding, I often remind writers to trust themselves and their readers. Trust themselves to come across as intended, and trust their readers to pick up on what’s being conveyed.

The point is, if you can’t be clear using dialogue alone, you need to look twice at what’s within the quotation marks, not what’s around them. Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue with no scaffolding. I’ve only used dialogue tags twice, one for each character at the beginning:

“Hey,” Sara said.
“What’s up?” Zach asked.
“Oh, you know.”
“The usual?”
“The usual.”

I would say that there’s not enough here. We don’t know enough about the characters, what they’re feeling, or why they’re talking in the moment. So I would say that something needs to be added. But how much something? Let’s say that you want to really convey what’s going on with Zach and Sara. How might you achieve that? Well, let’s add some emotions, tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography. The simple scene can easily become:

“Hey,” Sara snarled.
“What’s up?” Zach said, icily.
She waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing him. “Oh, you know.”
“The usual?” He made sure to roll his eyes.
Quite annoyed, she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “The usual.”

Well, I would say it’s quite clear now how Zach and Sara are feeling. The dialogue is exactly the same, but now I’ve festooned the scene with all sorts of little extras that clearly tell the reader that Zach and Sara are having some kind of fight. Maybe they’re avoiding one another. Maybe Zach has come into Sara’s coffee shop and she has to serve him but she doesn’t want to.

There’s tension in the scene, I’ll admit. But maybe it’s also a bit of overkill? After all, after reading this, my head is almost ringing from being hit too many times. The writer here (me) is explaining the emotions way too much. “Snarled” conveys anger. Waving a hand in the air is a cliché gesture for dismissing. If that wasn’t enough, the dismissal is also explained (“as if dismissing him”). Eye rolls are another cliché gesture. Then the emotion of annoyance is named, and a tone of voice is introduced that further underscores the tension between the two. We usually only whisper things if we’re trying to be quiet or if we’ve tightened our throats in anger.

The second scene would have too much “scaffolding,” as I call it. Whereas the first scene has not enough. If Zach and Sara were really fighting with one another, there would be no way to tell without some help. You might think that I’m playing the scaffolding up to provide an example, and while that was my objective, I am not lying when I say that I’ve seen scaffolding that thick in manuscripts. And sometimes even thicker scaffolding.

Oftentimes, writers don’t trust themselves to be clear about what they’re saying. And they (subconsciously) don’t trust readers to “get it.” So they go overboard. You will know if you put up a lot of scaffolding because you’ll see that almost none of your dialogue exists “naked” on the page (without any tags or narration).

So what’s the solution? Pare way down. And let the dialogue itself do the emotional talking for you, instead of putting everything in the scaffolding. I’ve changed the dialogue itself to have more emotional energy. You can also use interiority to convey feelings, like I do with a peek into Zach’s head here. This would be my ideal third example, a sort of middle ground:

Sara looked up from the register. “Oh. Hey.”
“Oh.” Zach fumbled with his wallet. He should’ve known her schedule better. Maybe she swapped shifts? This was the last thing he needed. “Um, what’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up. Really? You know.”
“The usual?”
“Yeah, let’s go with that. The usual.”

There’s a sense of tension here between Zach and Sara, but it’s not hammered home. There’s some breathing room for the reader to wonder what they might be thinking or going through, and it opens the door for more of an interaction than “I HATE YOU”/”WELL I HATE YOU MORE!!!” That’s sort of the tone of the middle example, and you can definitely find more nuance.

Novel World Building and Adding Emotion to Writing

When I talk to client about novel world building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in worldbuilding, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for novel world building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything, even if your book is set very much in the real world. Think of it as a worldbuilding approach to all of your writing. It’s also a principal tenet of interiority. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

novel world building, worldbuilding, interiority, writing emotions
Adding emotional layers to a story is just like novel world building, only without the unicorns (in most cases).

Emotional Novel World Building

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. Do some worldbuilding! So the reader is still wondering … so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance into your novel world building.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Worldbuilding As It Applies to Character

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

Layering interiority into your story can be hard. If you want to master character worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.