Infusing Emotion into Every Scene and Chapter

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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Creating a book is inventing a believable world the reader can step into and escape. Your characters must seem real, as if the reader can hear them and see them. The conflict and what’s at stake must be strike a chord with readers. Readers are voyeurs who want to be taken on a journey. Since emotion is a key way to pull readers into your book and keep them there, I thought that should be the topic for today.

10 Key Ways to Infusing Emotion into Each Scene

1,) Put the reader into the scene using the senses – If you expect your reader to “feel” the world you’ve created, put them into every scene. If your protagonist is walking down a dark alley with gun drawn, you have to be there alongside him, author. What sounds can he hear? What does he smell? What are his physical reactions to his surroundings and how does that play on his fear that’s building? Anticipation is a key element in creating suspense and building on tension. Have patience to let the tension mount.

2.) SHOW don’t TELL – If you truly write the scene as if the reader is looking through the eyes and body of your relatable character, that will put them into the scene. If you only “report” what the character is thinking, it distances the reader from your character. ‘Telling’ takes all the unexpected discoveries from the reading experience and it stifles what the reader can imagine. The reader doesn’t have to think. They’re ‘told’ what to think and imagine. Focus on the action of your character and give them a physical reaction. Rather than ‘telling’ the reader that your character is afraid, show how that fear manifests itself in trembling fingers, trickling sweat, and a punishing heart beat.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” E. L. Doctorow

3.) Make your characters relatable and sympathetic – Dare to give your villain an odd sense of humor or have her fight for a cause she cares deeply about, so her wicked obsession feels real. Your mercenary could be a loner, but give him a dog to take care of. Load up the emotional baggage in your character’s past and force him or her into a conflict where they have to face their worst fear. Dare to make your perfect hero vulnerable. All these human frailties create relatable and sympathetic characters and will have readers rooting for them.

4.) Reach for the emotion/Make it over the top – Milk the scene for every drop of emotion. It’s not just about choosing the right words. It’s about creating effective imagery triggers that will connect with readers. If you think you’re done with a scene, go back over and layer in MORE of what that scene is about. Ratchet up the emotion beyond where you might normally go. The added touch pays off when you’re using words to put the reader into the scene.

5.) Foreshadow the danger or the obstacles ahead – If anticipation ramps up the suspense, foreshadowing helps the page turning pace of your novel and keeps the reader invested. It creates ‘flow’ between scenes and chapters. Don’t waste a scene ending or a chapter ending. Make it work for you. If a scene or chapter ending fizzles to a close, that gives the reader a chance to put the book down. Tease them with a hint of things to come and they won’t want to let go of the story.

6.) Pepper each scene with descriptive words and choose wisely – Word choices have always mattered to me. I take great pains to squeeze every ounce of emotion or sensation from the words I choose. I particularly like words that enhance the scene by the sound or imagery of the word: slither, sizzle, skitter, hiss, bam, punch, clang, klunk, snap, splat, etc. You can almost ‘see’ the action with the ‘sounds’ of these words. I didn’t realize this was one of my things until readers started to point it out as a good thing.

7.) Make the stakes high enough and make them real – Give your character something meaty to fight for. What would he or she die for? It’s not enough to ‘battle evil or fight for the good.’ Make their reason come from a personal place or sprout from their worst vulnerability. Force your protagonist to give up something he or she values most in the world in order to earn the status of hero in your book. Give your character a journey through your book so there is real change in him or her.

8.) Make your reader fear for your character as time slips away – If you’ve set the foundation for a reader to care about your protagonist and the world you’re creating, now introduce a short fuse burning—and suddenly pull the rug out and make that time table shorter. It will make for a breathless plot but will force the reader to care even more about what will happen.

9.) Savor the Twist – Do the unexpected. If the story appears to be going a certain way, surprise the reader with a well-planned twist that will force the protagonist to rise to the occasion with added conflict or will showcase his or her brilliance. Readers love to be surprised by a plot they didn’t see coming. I enjoy setting the reader up in different ways, especially when the clues were always there. Again, word choice or well-positioned elements of mystery, like red herrings, can enhance the effect of a good twist. Readers get excited when they are fooled and often will go back to reread passages. This is another way to trigger many levels of emotion in your reader.

10.) Wrap it all up and make the ending satisfying – A well-written ending, where the characters have been through hell and have come out of a very dark tunnel, can force the reader into that same feeling of having survived along with them. If there needs to be closure at a grave site, where someone didn’t make it, squeeze out every tear and make the ending a satisfying experience. Don’t squander the opportunity to leave your reader with a fulfilling ending to the

For Discussion:
1.) Did your writing tips (on layering emotion into your scenes) make the list? If not, share what works for you.

2.) What books have stuck in your mind as unforgettable emotional journeys?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She also pens young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs.

21 thoughts on “Infusing Emotion into Every Scene and Chapter

  1. This is probably a disease that only affects novelists, but I invariably notice when a writer is doing all the things you suggest (Oh oh, heart pounding, palms sticky, strange noise behind the door – writer is telling me character is afraid). I have no argument with ‘show-don’t tell’, but after reading a gazillion books, the showing is, in fact, telling. The advice is always to come up with some fresh way to ‘show’, but that’s rather difficult to do after the past trillion words. Sometimes simply telling the reader the character is nervous does a better job than two paragraphs of imagery complete with similes and metaphors.
    But I take your post in the spirit in which it was written – all good advice, and thank you.

    • I believe our job as writers is to find a different way to describe sensations. Peppering brief use of senses into an action scene might not make the “showing” as noticeable. Character portrayal, great dialogue, escape worthy settings are all part of good craft that should balance a scene too.

      I’ve recently read a book of complete telling and it grated on me every page, and another novel riddled with similes and metaphors that were at odds with the narrative. I suppose writers are sensitive to craft. What I look for in a good, well-written book is for the author to make me forget I’m a writer.

      Thanks for your comment, Stephen.

  2. Do you know what a bigfoot smells like? Do they really lop off the heads of humans? If one were to pick you up, would it be itchy for you? People have said that bigfoots have left greasy residue if they, for example, put their face against a driver’s side window or a house window. So, if one were to pick you up, would their hair be warm and cuddly or oily and disgusting?

    And, finally, do bigfoots exist?

    These were things I had to describe and think about when writing my novel about a child being kidnapped by a bigfoot, and his godsister and her twin sister setting out to find him.

    Because I didn’t know these things–again, if bigfoots exist–I had to make a lot of guesses about what those experiences would be like.

    So, due to lack of specific information (that, and the fact that I’m not about to go looking for one of these things even if they may be out there bigfootin’ around), when I wrote of them, I had to hold the emotion high in many places. I didn’t know how else to relate to the big guys to humans.

    In some ways, that was exhausting. Now I know what the old silent movie stars had to go through to get people to understand that something, or someone in the scene with them frightened them, smelled bad, or, in the case of people, told a joke. They were heavy into Delsartian gestures and expression. I can also understand why running high on emotion can be addictive. (When the first movie with sound came out, actors and actresses, directors, and editors said that the sound movie experiment would not last–that people would not enjoy them, and that they would always prefer the regular movies. Silent movies. They were saying that the audiences were addicted to the high levels of acting energy.)

    I found that I was somewhat addicted to writing at high emotion. So I am trying to decide at what level of emotion to write. I’m not at all disagreeing with your statements about going over the top with emotion. What I am saying is that I have to guard against always staying at an emotional high place.

    Does one go from excitement to hysteria always. No, of course not. But when it comes to writing of the quiet moments, those moments when whispers and silent meditation and sudden, hushed cogitation flow into one’s life, I have to wonder what that means. Can a character who discovers that God is in the Holy Spirit as well as in the cleansing of the Temple with a whip, then come to the moves-of-the-spirit in silent reverence after chasing the money-changers out of the Temple courts? Yes, obviously. In my opinion, staying at that emotional high in spirit-inspired moments produces unhealthy experiences, both in real life and in fiction.

    But when I am continually pushed to all-out emotion, it’s SOMEHOW difficult for me to return to the silent, the quiet. I actually have to walk away from it. Once, I wrote a scene about a Cheyenne man who returned from hunting to find that his entire family had been killed in the early morning raid on Black Kettle’s camp at the Washita River by Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. (I still despise Custer AND his regiment. My great-great-great-grandmother was in the camp that morning.) As I was finishing the scene with the man sitting down by his family and picking up his wife’s body and holding it to him, I began to cry. (See? It’s still difficult for me to think about that scene. I diluted the emotion in the writing of that last couple of sentences. In the original writing of the scene, I wrote terse, angry verbs until the man sat down with his wife. Then I changed, as I did here, to participles, to slow down the flow of both time and emotion.)

    After I finished writing that scene, I left the house and went to an 24-hour restaurant and ordered pancakes. I couldn’t go back to the house for some time–sometime that early afternoon.

    So I’m wondering–and I’m asking for your opinion and advice–how much emotion is too much to constantly put in one’s writing?

    Should one ALWAYS fear bigfoot? Or can one occasionally simply think about the woods and the fields where bigfoot wanders and, perhaps, thinks?

    • I love the questions you posed on Big Foot. The care and research you did to come up with useable details that resonated with you is a great example of how authors can achieve a believable scene or storyline without the personal experience to back it up.

      But there’s emotion in quiet too, Jim. Yes, I agree that emotion should be balanced with an ebb and flow to it so the reader gets relief. And it is definitely hard to sustain a high octane action scene but I’ve seen it done brilliantly, so much so that I had to reread it again. I described pushing emotion over the top because that’s the notion that works for me. I tend to be a calm person, even in terrifying circumstances. My normal reaction on paper would not get it done.

  3. Well done, Jordan. “Show don’t tell” is advice that many writers give, including me. But you’ve found a fresh way to state it.

  4. I think you got all of the biggies I could think of. You, Jordan are a master-craftsman of the scene. You really do know and layer in details others might miss that enrich, invoke, and set-up future items.

    Two things I would add for consideration and as a reminder to others. There is “over-the-top” and then there is blue prose. I usually run into it the most in high fantasy, super “literary” styles, and the occasional romance- where someone thinks that literary greatness is in the detail, but they don’t understand that it needs to be necessary and appropriate detail that propels the story forward. Good details keeps you in the story with action sweat, they don’t weigh you down and hold you in place with all the billowy folds of a long, velvet, Victorian dress in the mid-Atlantic without a boat, gasping for air, whilst drowning.

    Now that we’ve talked about sweat – don’t sweat it…. at least not in the first draft, get your story down on paper. That is your first task. The levels of detail that make a scene, chapter, or story sing, are honestly NOT going to be there in the first draft. Hints, yes, but don’t drown yourself and your story by trying to struggle to figure out and cram all of that detail into a first draft. That kind of polish is better left to editing. As you come back to your story, from a completed standpoint, you will be full of the types of feelings and detail that will make it sparkle, because you will a) have a story b) know your story and characters pretty well by then.

    PS Jordan’s new Omega Team- Tough Target book is even better than the first. Tight, fast paced action coupled with descriptive niftiness, romance, badness, and sheer bad-assedness. What’s not to like? Oh, yeah, it was perhaps over too quick… but that was the point – “short reads”. 😀

    • Aww, Penny. Thank you.

      I love your clarifications. Great tip on layering in more with your draft process. Get the basics down before you sweat over the fine tuning details.

      I do a rolling edit process where I make multiple edit passes as I continue writing forward. By the time I get to the end, I’m pretty much done. But my edit process is like you described. All of these tips are to be well-balanced and not overdone so much as that is all the reader sees. Thanks, Penny.

    • I think of each scene as a mini short story, with a beginning to draw the reader in, a middle that shows progress/journey for the character & moves the story by 1-3 plot points, and an ending that foreshadows or creates forward movement or anticipation.

      • I’ve been thinking about setting up things that way. Interesting that you mention that. As things are going I also find myself doing a similar thing for first act, second act, etc. Hey, maybe I am headed in the right direction! Thanks. 😀

  5. My website editor added an excerpt for my upcoming July release – REDEMPTION FOR AVERY and I noticed I had edited the ending of a scene. The first example is the more simplified first draft equivalent. The 2nd includes the tweaks I made to it, hoping to add more creepiness to it, and a better representation of the voice of my character. Both can work but I prefer the 2nd option. This is a work in progress, but I thought it might be a good example of how layering in revisions for emotion can add depth or impact. Hopefully, you’ll agree. If not, too bad. This is my book. Neener, neener.

    Example 1 (BEFORE)
    I dared to look for Crowley, to see if the little girl wasn’t merely my imagination, but after she disappeared again, a blistering cold wind blew through me from a world beyond my own. I knew instinctively what would happen next and braced for it. The dead girl reappeared and stood inches from me, staring into my eyes.

    Oh my, God. I almost gasped in shock, but I choked it down.

    I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.

    I knew in that moment there were others buried here. I stood in the dumping ground of a mass murderer. I would find more bodies.

    Example 2 (AFTER)
    I dared to look for Crowley, to see if the little girl wasn’t merely my imagination, but after she disappeared again, a blistering cold wind blew through me from a world beyond my own. I knew instinctively what would happen next and braced for it. The dead girl reappeared in a blinding flash and stood inches from me, staring into my eyes—willing me to understand.

    Oh my, God. Her sudden manifestation jolted me. I almost gasped in shock, but I choked it down, doing anything to preserve what little remained of my manhood. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.

    What is it? I wanted to ask, but my lips wouldn’t move. She inched closer until I smelled her decay—the familiar tang of old death. I fought hard not to wince, until an abrupt spark of intuition crept into my mind like an insidious beast—and a notion took shape.

    Clarity struck a chord between us. When I grasped her intent, my gut twisted with the realization that I stood in the middle of a mass murderer’s dumping ground. Stunned, I peered over the land surrounding me—certain that other bodies would be found under my feet—before I once again gazed down upon the child.

    With a broken smile, she slowly nodded and chills raced down my spine.

  6. Hrm…I have just been spritzing the pages of all my novels with pheromones to get emotions going. Perhaps I should try your approach.

    • Maybe include a free giveaway with the purchase of any of your books. Readers can spritz themselves. Not a bad idea, Basil.

  7. I can’t add anything to list. You’ve about covered it, Jordan. I, too, love using onomatopoeia words. They add so much to a scene.

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