Sweet Emotion

by James Scott Bell

The other morning, as is my wont (and I want what I wont when I want it) I took a fresh cup of joe and my AlphaSmart to the backyard for some thinking, pondering, and writing time. The joe was brewed in my moka pot, a gift to mankind from the Italian inventor Alfonso Bialetti. Usually I take it black, but we happened to have some Coffeemate Sweet Italian Cream in the fridge. I thought the key word was Italian, but as it turns out the emphasis should be on sweet. This stuff is a sugar bomb. You need less than a dollop of regular cream. My hand trembled, and I poured in a touch too much.

Which almost ruined the coffee. I soldiered on, but the enjoyment of the brew was lessened considerably.

Which naturally got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.

Emotion in our fiction is a sweetener. In the right amount it makes the story beautiful and tasty. Too much can ruin it.

So the trick is putting in just the right amount. But how do we measure?

Start with genre. On one end of the scale is hardboiled. At the other end is romance. In between is everything else. The mistake of the hardboiled school is avoiding emotion. The mistake of the romantics is larding it on.

There are ways around both these mistakes.

Scene and Sequel

Let’s begin with the basic premise that what’s going on inside your Lead is of abiding interest to your readers. They want to know about the emotions, not just the actions.

The latter component, action, is what the great writing teacher Dwight Swain called scene. The former he called sequel. There’s a definite structure to both.

A scene is made up of Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome.

A sequel is Emotion, Analysis, and Decision…the Decision leading to the next action scene.

Jim Butcher has said that the key to the popularity of his Dresden Files is sequel:

This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes–but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.

For more on this, see the definitive text on scene and sequel by Swain disciple Jack Bickham.

Showing and Telling

There are times when telling the emotion is fine. I have a little “intensity scale” in my brain which measures the intensity of a moment. When it’s relatively low, I tell. When high, I show. Here’s what I mean.

A woman is slightly worried when her husband hasn’t called for a couple of hours. You might tell it like this: A trickle of worry hit Pam. Usually Steve would let her know if he was going to be late. There is no need to go into the physiological effects of worry on her body. The moment isn’t intense enough.

But what if she doesn’t hear from him that night? Or the following day? Now it’s intense, so you show: Hands trembling, she punched the number for his office. When the receptionist answered Pam’s throat clenched like a fist clutching her vocal cords.

Overwrite and Edit

Now, when you got to those big emotions, I have a suggestion. This can be done as you write, or you can do it when you edit your draft.

Open a new document and do some focused freewriting on the emotion. This means you don’t stop and edit, you just let it flow. Write in the POV of the character. Let the character tell you how she’s feeling. Let her go on and on, giving you the color of it, the taste of it, the metaphors of it. Do the most obvious feeling first, but then go on to another emotion, one you didn’t anticipate at first. Maybe even the opposite emotion. We’re a tangle of complexities, and that’s what makes for compelling characters, too.

Set that document aside for fifteen minutes. Come back to it and pull out the best parts, the parts that are most gripping and original. Put them in the book.


From the hardest of the hardboileds, Mickey Spillane, comes his PI Mike Hammer in One Lonely Night. Hammer’s backstory includes heavy combat in WWII, lots of kills, and what we would today call PTSD. He deals with his ghosts by shooting bad guys and boozing. So when a judge rakes him over the coals in front of a crowded courtroom, calling him a lowlife killer who doesn’t belong in a civilized world, Hammer can’t forget it. As he’s driving he gets a look at himself in the rear view mirror, and hates what he sees.

I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.

I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?

That’s why I parked the car and started walking in the rain. I didn’t want to look in that damn mirror any more.

Go thou and do likewise.

37 thoughts on “Sweet Emotion

  1. Try a tad of Italian Sweet cream and a tad of Creme Brulee or French Vanilla. I like to blend.

    Thank you for this. I recently unearthed my ancient copy of Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell and have it on my tool shelf to re-read.

  2. Jack Bickham’s SCENE AND STRUCTURE had a major impact on how I write. I still review that great classic from time to time and recommend it to struggling writers.

    Jim, thanks for the idea of a separate document for freewriting to delve deep into a character’s emotions. When I have trouble developing an unlikable character whom I can’t identify with, I let them write a journal. All kinds of interesting stuff comes out. After that exercise, I still don’t like them but I have enough insight into their emotions to justify their rotten actions.

    Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers in TKZ’s family.

    • A good reminder, Debbie, that we have to spend as much time with our antagonist as with our lead to make things of the greatest interest. Koontz said the secret to his villains was not only that we understood their motives, but could see from their backstory how they got to be that way. A drop of sympathy. That really takes the readers on an emotional ride.

  3. Spillane’s One Lonely Night features one of the best openings ever. It’s also a perfect example of what it looks like when a writer captures the right emotions.

    • I agree, Mike. Ayn Rand, of all people, compared Spillane’s opening to a similar descriptive passage out of Thomas Wolfe, and found the latter entirely lacking.

  4. That’s a terrific metaphor with which to start the week, Jim. Thanks.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend!

  5. Why didn’t you just add more coffee?
    Tossing this out for discussion only.
    I recall a workshop over a decade ago where the author (romance) said that current-day readers are in too much of a hurry for a drawn out ‘sequel’ scene, which she referred to as the shower scene, because that’s where the characters would reflect.
    What’s your take on the balance?

    • Q1: Having settled outside, ready to write, another moka pot would have entailed going back inside, cleaning, starting another, while the fresh cup cooled. The ROI didn’t work. Besides, I had a great metaphor going!

      Q2. The balance is dependent on the intensity of the moment. If readers are engaged with the Lead, and the moment has emotional heft, the readers will NOT be impatient. They like to see what’s going on inside.

    • One of the big problems with newer romance writers is they will have the hero and heroine meet again because they have A HISTORY, their meeting will end quickly, then the heroine will muse for page after boring page about it instead of having the fireworks in the meeting scene. Most of the emotional scenes are deferred for the sake of a later internal dialogue.

      I’m a great believer in having almost everything on the page via dialogue, plot, and character interaction. If the reactions aren’t in that scene, it is better presented via the heroine talking to her saucy best friend about it. To semi-quote the great Phyllis Whitney, the only time your heroine should be folding laundry and thinking about what’s happening, the reader should know the killer is behind her with an ax.

  6. Great metaphor, Jim. I like your “Overwrite and Edit” technique. I’m learning to use that more often.

    I would add, IMHO, that within a given genre, the expectations of emotion (more or less) may be affected by the gender of the reader. When my beta readers comment on my YA fantasy, the girls always want more emotion. The boys want more action. Maybe we should have two editions of our books? Wouldn’t that make…someone…tear out their hair.

    • When Yul Brynner was frustrated, what would he tear out?

      Steve, your observation about the difference between boy and girl readers carries more wisdom than a boatload of current social science.

      • “…the difference between boy and girl readers carries more wisdom than a boatload of current social science.”

        Amen and Amen.

    • Steve, even taking gender into consideration it’s still a crapshoot. As a female I have long realized that what some women readers value as the right amount of emotion in a story I often find to be an overload of sap.

      So when I edit, I have to sometimes correct for emotionally dry content. Yet, being the contrary human that I am, there are other times when I’ve gotten crits where I overdid it. These tips to help balance that are a great help.

      I echo Debbie’s Happy Mother’s Day wish to all moms on TKZ.

  7. The example looks like a Mirror Moment. 😉

    Jim, I recently bought Scrivener. Do you free write in the binder or as a separate doc? I’m still learning my way around.

    • Great, Sue! You’re gonna love it.

      For the freewriting exercise I describe, I just use a plain text doc. When I finish with it (having picked out the stuff I want to use) I just trash the doc, for it has served its purpose.

      Anything else I discover I will put somewhere in Scrivener so I can access it. For example, if I come up with some backstory material, I’ll paste that into that character’s document in the Characters folder.

  8. Good morning, Jim. Love the metaphor! My friend K.C. Ball, who I collaborated with on two novellas and a short story, counseled me to put more emotion in than I thought necessary because she saw that I, herself earlier in her career, had a tendency to write restrained emotion in stories that could use more. She said write more than you think you need, you can always dial it back later.

    Your exercise shows how to put that wisdom in action.

    Your point about starting with genre is well taken. Then, of course, look at show don’t tell. I very much agree that there are times that telling is appropriate. I’ve noticed in many cozy mysteries that they have a bit more narrative distance from their protagonists than, say thrillers, and that often we get more “telling” emotion than showing.

    Thanks, too, for mentioning Scene and Sequel. Bickam’s book really helped my writing when I first read it years ago. I’m due for a reread

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Agree with everything in your comment, Dale. We seem to have a lot of Bickham fans here. It was his Writing Novels That Sell that gave me my first big epiphany about the craft, and led directly to my starting to get interest, and eventually get a contract.

  9. Thank you for the focus freewrite suggestion, and the Bickham suggestion. I’m pulling out my copy of the latter to review.

  10. Hmm. I always thought you had to show emotion, not tell. But I’ve been told there isn’t enough emotion in my less emotional scenes, though I try to show what there is. It may be too subtle. Maybe I need to tell the emotions in those scenes, as well.

    Thanks for the tip!

  11. I use my Bialetti moka pot every day, thanks to my Italian daughter-in-law.
    Your metaphor reminded me of a lesson I need to remember. The teacher said, free write about something you love. Coffee. Then free write about the bad side of that love. What a 360 of coffee emotion.
    Adding the scene/sequence test would mix the right amount of sweet Italian crema into the cup. I look forward to this writing week. Thanks.

  12. For a romance reader, there’s no such thing as too much emotion as long as it’s honest and fits the moment. The trick from the writer’s point of view is to write the moment with the same emotional honesty and a clarity that allows the reader to feel what she feels.

    The greatest emotional moments are built through the characters’ arcs. The reader knows the cost and the pain that brought the character to that moment of happiness or utter despair. The emotional moment isn’t only that moment. It’s every moment that led to that point.

    I’m glad you now know the brilliance that is Jim Butcher. His books are standalones with a beginning, middle, and conclusion yet his series story arc continues to be compelling for Harry and all the people who circle around him.

    I taught an online seminar on his first Dresden novel, STORM FRONT, about how to write that first novel in a series. He used the noir detective novel as his structure yet put it in an urban fantasy world. If anyone is interested, the seminar is on my blog which should be linked to my name. Click on the label “Jim Butcher.” Spoilers are involved.

  13. I love the metaphor! Just for the record, though, I would never spoil coffee with Coffeemate. For me, it’s strictly French Roast with half-and-half, no sugar. Thank you very much.

    This post is another great learning experience for me. I’m familiar with Dwight Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” but I’ve never read anything by Jack Bickham. I will now. And I’m working on a project where I can use the overwriting technique. Looking forward to getting a few hours of creative time in today.

    Thanks! And Happy Mother’s Day to everyone.

    • I agree, Kay. The only reason we had Coffee-Mate in the house is that we do a coffee service at church and some people prefer it. I figured, what the heck? Now I know the heck.

  14. Thanks, Jim, though you did cost me some money. Just bought the Bialetti Moka Express 🙂

    Happy Mother’s Day to everyone.

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