Dialogue Writing: Pare Down the Scaffolding

In my editorial practice, I see a lot of dialogue writing. I’ve found that there are two types of writers when it comes to writing dialogue in fiction. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses speech 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.

dialogue writing, speech tags
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.

Not Enough Information in Dialogue Writing

Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue writing 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, speech tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography.

Too Much Information in Dialogue Writing

“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.

Trust Your Reader

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 speech tags or narration).

Pare Down the Scaffolding

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.

Are you struggling with the rules for dialogue writing? When you invest in my manuscript editing services, I’ll help you identify instances of telling in dialogue, as well which speech tags you can trim altogether.

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.

How to Write Emotions

This is a great question about how to write emotions that came via email from Matt:

Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?

how to write emotions, writing character emotions, interiority, emotion in fiction, protagonist emotions, protagonist pov
How to write emotions: It’s hard to bond with a character when we don’t know what they’re feeling or thinking. Peel back the hood with interiority.

As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Interiority is a tough topic, and every writer will forge their own path. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some thoughts on writing character emotions that might help you choose your own approach.

How to Write Emotions: Find a Balance

My rule of thumb is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.

The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot.

It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.

Explore Interiority During Important Moments

The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot and not as comfortable with emotional writing. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body.

These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.

Writing Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of the Story

If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moments, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So?

Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet.

This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.

Interiority is difficult to master, and every writer will have their own approach. Hire me for developmental editing to help you tease out just the right balance between writing character emotions and action.

Formatting Interiority

Based on last week’s post, I got a great question in the comments from Kyle about formatting interiority:

Mary, I love your thoughts on developing interiority both on your blog and in your book. I have a formatting question though: should those inner thoughts be set off in italics?

formatting interiority, writing interiority
Did I leave the oven on…?

For Verbatim Thoughts, Use Italics

The straight answer to formatting interiority is quite simple: whenever you render verbatim thoughts in text, you do want to use italics. For example:

Wow, time has sure flown by. The holidays are over and it’s halfway through January! I should probably throw out those Thanksgiving leftovers, she thought, giving the fridge a wary look.

Super easy. Just put the thought in italics, avoid any kind of quotation marks (those are for spoken dialogue), and either add a “thought” tag, as you would a “said” tag in dialogue, or don’t. It all depends. If you’re citing verbatim thoughts a lot, you won’t need to do this after the first few times, because the reader will know that italics mean thoughts.

Alternatives For Writing Interiority

But this question does raise a bigger one. Does interiority have to exist purely as verbatim thought, or are there other ways to render it in narration? In my view, interiority can absolutely exist as part of regular narration, meaning that you don’t have to stick something into italics/thought in order for it to be a thought. If that makes sense.

Perhaps an example would clarify. Compare this with the verbatim thought that appears above:

Mary gazed over at the fridge and, with a pang, realized that there was still Thanksgiving gravy congealing in a Tupperware somewhere on the bottom shelf. Where had the days gone? Only yesterday, it seemed, they were getting the house ready for guests and turkey, stumbling over one another in a cleaning frenzy. Now it was almost time to write Valentines.

The tone is a little bit different. Both examples of writing interiority are in close third person, but the former is directly in the character’s thoughts, while the other takes a step back. It stays close, obviously, but doesn’t put anything in thought formatting. “Where had the days gone?” could easily be a verbatim thought, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be, because it matches the voice in either configuration.

Formatting Interiority Boils Down to Style

Basically, this is a very nitpicky distinction to make, and what you decide regarding formatting interiority is ultimately up to you. It boils down to style. I personally prefer the latter example, but that’s just me. The reason I would advocate for this over sticking everything into thought formatting is that it looks a bit cleaner on the page, you’re not presenting block after block of italics. But it really is up to you. I’m simply so happy to have people playing around with writing interiority and thinking critically about it that I say you should follow your bliss and do anything that makes sense to you.

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? With my developmental editing services, you’ll get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Developing Character Via Interiority in Literature

One of the biggest fiction concepts I champion is interiority in literature (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as a way of getting to know character. (You can view all the posts I’ve written with an “interiority” tag here.) Now that you’re learning what it is, how do you foster it in your own fiction writing?

interiority in literature, character interiority, developing character interiority, interiority, writing interiority, character thoughts, character feelings, character emotions, protagonist
Interiority in literature: Developing character interiority is where you want to work smarter, not harder. Make small changes to really reveal your protagonist to the reader.

Access to Emotions Is Crucial to Making a Reader Care

Some writers struggle with the idea of accessing a character’s emotions. When to do it, how much, whether or not it falls under the dreaded “telling” category, etc. But I maintain that access to your character’s thoughts, if done well, and at the right time, is one of the most important elements of getting a protagonist down on the page in a relatable and nuanced way. The thing is, you don’t have to revamp your whole novel.

Picking small moments where interiority can shine is key.

Developing Character Interiority in Literature Isn’t Intuitive for Everyone

Many writers have a sense of whether or not they excel at developing interiority in writing. I recently worked with a client who came to me saying, “Dang it, I just don’t know how to render a character’s emotions.” It was true, and I appreciated her self-awareness.

When approaching how to describe emotion, instead of accessing her protagonist’s head, she pulled out physical clichés as shorthand for his feelings. His heart was beating, so that meant he was nervous. His fists clenched, and he was angry. His cheeks flushed, and he felt in love. But when you’re simply letting your body parts do the talking for the character, you will never get to the emotional nuances underneath.

He’s nervous…about what in particular? About whether or not he’ll succeed? About a specific worst case scenario, which would give me additional context or foreshadowing about the plot? He’s angry…at who? The other character in the scene, who is a snake, or himself for believing the snake in the first place? As you can see, there are many things beyond the base feelings that we can layer into our emotional writing, and that is where the real meat of your character lives.

Checklist for Developing Character Interiority

If you suspect that you might struggle with interiority, write the following questions on a Post It note and hang it above your writing station:

  • What is your character doing right now (objective)? Why (motivation)? (The why is especially important.)
  • What do they hope will happen?
  • What do they worry will go wrong?
  • How do they feel about themselves?
  • How do they feel about their scene partner?
  • How do they feel about their place in the plot in general?

Obviously, you don’t have to address these questions in every scene, but you can train yourself to think along these lines when your character is experiencing emotions.

Explore the Emotional Nuances of Big Moments

For every big emotion they might feel (anger, fear, lust), there are probably two or three secondary emotions that you can tease out that serve to deepen our understanding of the character or increase tension. When you become better at looking through your protagonist’s eyes with these issues in mind, you can pick and choose whether or not to funnel some, all, or none of this information into interiority.

Emotions are tricky, messy, nuanced. They deserve a lot of attention as you craft your protagonist, and even secondary characters. At any moment, no matter what is happening, you could delve into their inner lives and discover some of these thoughts and feelings. Do you always need to share them? Of course not. But in bigger moments, where you really want to pull the reader in, try to hit some of these notes. Specificity is key. Take a scene you’re really struggling with, or that feels alienating, and try answering some of these questions today!

Interiority in literature is one of the most important concepts that I really drill into with my editorial clients. Check out my book editing services and see how I can bring my years of character development experience to your novel.

Describing What the Mind is Doing by Writing Thoughts

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen attempts at writing thoughts like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. (Filler should be trimmed in your writing revision process — click the link for more info.) If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description.

writing thoughts, how to show thoughts in writing
If someone interrupts your character’s VERY IMPORTANT train of thought about Halloween decorations, make sure you know how to translate that interruption into your writing.

Tips on Writing Thoughts

Let’s look at some examples.

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
“Sweetie?”
“Huh?”
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this example about how to show thoughts in writing. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. 😉 But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Em-dashes Denote Interruption

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash when you’re writing thoughts to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf.

Ellipses Indicate Drifting Off

An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Webs?”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it — some thoughts on, well, how to show thoughts in writing! Happy (early) Halloween!

If you’re struggling with interiority, hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work on it together.

Interiority in Third Person Writing

It’s perfectly possible, essential in fact, to develop killer interiority in third person writing. Most writers these days are getting around the whole “narrative point of view” issue by writing in first person. For years, this has been the vogue for middle grade and young adult fiction (a bit more for the latter).

third person writing, interiority in third person, third person narrative, characterization, interiority
Conveying emotion in third person writing is difficult, but extremely important. Otherwise, the reader is left on the outside, looking in.

There is the perception that first person is more “immediate,” meaning, most likely, that there’s more that readers see from the protagonist’s POV, which means access to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions in real-time (which I have always called “interiority” for short, though Word still refuses to accept it as a word).

Interiority in Third Person Writing Is Crucial

Interiority is important. The character acts as the reader’s closest connection to the story. They also guide reader emotions. If something happens in the plot and we don’t know how to feel about it (I’d recommend that this doesn’t happen that often, because ideally you should be layering in context and anticipation for big events long before they happen), we look to the protagonist and see how they’re reacting. If they are wigging out, we know the event is bad, etc.

Without a lot of cues in the moment, or with reactions that come long after the fact, the reader is often a little stranded. A disconnect opens up between reader and character, and if you don’t nurture that relationship, or too many disconnects happen, then it’s unlikely to result in the type of connection that you’re looking to foster.

So I teach that interiority is important. I’d rather know a little bit more about what’s going on in a character than a little bit less in any given moment, especially if you’re a writer who’s on the fence abut this whole interiority thing and you suspect that you don’t have a lot.

How to Write Compelling Third Person POV

This brings me to third person. It’s first person’s more “distant” sister. And because first person POV already has the perceived advantage of being more “accessible,” third person writers (those brave souls!) need to fight a little bit harder–or at least be more deliberate–about making sure that the reader can still access interiority.

Most third person is “close,” meaning you technically can access one brain, usually the protagonist’s. Writing without this modification is really difficult. Writing “omniscient” is also difficult, as it involves “head-hopping” into many characters’ psyches, which (if you’re going to master the technique) involves pretty advanced characterization and voice development for each new personality.

Examples of Close Third Person POV

So in close, you have some options. You can use the “thought” tag to voice a thought verbatim (put it in italics), then add “she thought.” Or just leave it in italics and leave the tag off. Readers will catch on to what you’re doing.

Why did I ever think calculus was a good idea? What an idiot.

Another idea is to narrate interiority just as you would in third person, only using the different POV.

“She looked at the exam in disgust before handing it over and skulking away, certain she’d failed.”

Lots of emotion in that example. For those writers who have trouble addressing interiority directly and want training wheels, dialogue is going to be your best friend. That and action.

“Thanks for nothing,” she said, shuffling out of the exam room and slamming the door behind her.

Subtle, these examples are not. But they all convey emotion, which is the point of interiority. No matter how directly you want to address the issue, whether you want to break third person for a peek into direct thoughts, or stick to third person that gets into the character’s head a little, or stay away from thoughts completely and deal with dialogue and actions, you should be thinking of ways to inject more emotion so that your characters’ inner lives rise a bit more to the surface. You’ll never regret fostering that connection to the reader and putting a little more heart on your character’s sleeve.

Interiority and characterization are my absolute favorite topics to talk about with clients. Hire me as your book editor if you want to build a strong bridge between your character and your reader.

Creating Subtle Interiority Through Word Choice

I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of developing subtle interiority via word choice. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is about interiority in writing. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post that digs into what show don’t tell really means.)

word choice, active verb
Consider word choice carefully. Evocative active verbs go a long way in creating a “show don’t tell” manuscript.

Telling vs Showing in Writing

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés when I’m trying to figure out how to describe emotion… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

“Emotion in Description”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

Subtle Interiority Via Word Choice

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via word choice in description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one active verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

Some Examples of Evocative Active Verbs

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with active verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description and should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

 

Building Emotional Anticipation in Fiction and Storytelling

I bet you are quivering with anticipation to learn about…anticipation in fiction. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of storytelling and getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

storytelling, anticipation in fiction, make a reader care, making a reader care, creating emotion in fiction, interiority, emotions in writing, creative writing emotions
Make readers ache, hurt, care, anticipate, fear, and long. Creating emotion in the reader is literally the best thing you can do for your novel.

Anticipation in Fiction and How it Builds Tension

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation in storytelling. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat.

It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation. (Here’s a deeper exploration of fiction tension.)

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions.

Generating and Using Nervous Energy in Writing

Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension in storytelling. Build anticipation in fiction. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument in storytelling. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

An Example of Building Anticipation in Fiction

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying.

Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Build Emotions Before the Plot Point, Don’t Just Wait for the Plot Point to Generate Emotion

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened. (Learn more about how deploy interiority here.)

Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion in storytelling? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The orchestration of reader emotions is key when writing fiction. With me as your novel editor, I’ll be able to help you master this powerful instrument.

The Passive Protagonist and the Blurt

Today I want to talk about the passive protagonist and blurting in dialogue. No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and a huge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting in dialogue. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

passive protagonist, blurting in dialogue
Blurting in dialogue may be a sign that you’ve written a passive protagonist.

The Appeal of Blurting in Dialogue

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting in dialogue. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

Curb the Blurt with Interiority

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is what a passive protagonist would do, they will make the choice to say it with intention.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Does your manuscript contain blurting in dialogue? Can you make it work as a choice instead and flip your passive protagonist to an active one? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character? If you want to dig deeper into this topic, be sure to check out my post on writing a proactive protagonist.

Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.