Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

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What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?


20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Sparking Empathy: How to create character connection

Several years ago I dragged my nine-year-old son to a therapist. Two years after losing the grandparents we’d lived with for most of his life, he wasn’t coping. Or rather, as I learned through his sessions, the coping he’d learned during their illnesses and deaths had now become unhealthy mechanisms for engaging the world. He was disconnected.
Through family counseling, I discovered my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, defenses tooled in my childhood to deal with the constantly hovering specter of my father’s cancer and imminent death. I remember sitting on the therapist’s slipcovered couch during one of my son’s sessions, picking at a nub in the fabric, unable to say the word “vulnerable.” I literally stumbled over it. It twisted my tongue each time I tried to spit it out as I worked through my own struggles, frustrated to find I wasn’t as heart-whole as I had believed.

Sparking Empathy-.png

Some part of my brain already understood what empathy expert Dr. Brené Brown’s research has now codified: vulnerability is the state people fight because it forces us to acknowledge our fears. However, according to Brown, vulnerability is essential in forging real human connection. She says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” When people occupy an emotional space where they can connect to others, it’s because they have come to believe in their own worthiness. Brown refers to these people as “the Wholehearted.”

Characters must be vulnerable for readers to connect to them and ultimately experience a phenomenon I call “Reader Wholeheartedness.” It’s the sense of fullness and resolution when the reader recognizes the protagonist’s achievement of Wholeheartedness, the point where the protagonist engages her community from a place of worthiness. Reader Wholeheartedness is easy to confuse with catharsis, often defined as an emotional purge—especially of sadness—through literature or art. However, here I use the definition of catharsis meaning “a purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal.” Reader Wholeheartedness is a step before catharsis, and a key part of a specific vulnerability sequence which transitions the reader from an initial character connection to a deeper sense of catharsis or spiritual renewal.

While studying my own reaction to character-driven literature, I discovered my catharsis does not hinge on the protagonist’s vulnerability—it hinges on the vulnerability of the character the protagonist feels most disconnected from, a character we’ll call the Emotional Antagonist. This can be different from the story antagonist. For example, in a classic hero’s journey, the story antagonist may be the dragon standing between the hero and the treasure, but the Emotional Antagonist may be the hero’s disapproving father who is eventually won over.

Resolution happens when the protagonist achieves Wholeheartedness through a sequence of increasingly vulnerable moments and increased connection, but catharsis occurs when the narrative takes the extra step of restoring the last broken connection with the Emotional Antagonist. When this happens, the protagonist has already recognized her own worthiness; however, the reader sees it acknowledged by the Emotional Antagonist when the Emotional Antagonist makes himself vulnerable as a bid for the protagonist’s recognition of his worthiness, which is granted. This releases the final story tension and grants a “spiritual” renewal.

This isn’t necessary for every story. A reader can experience Wholeheartedness without catharsis, which is common in young adult novels. However, that extra moment of catharsis is particularly well-suited for middle-grade novels because it eliminates ambiguity, a story quality better suited for slightly older readers. Catharsis through character vulnerability follows this sequence:

  1. The protagonist must have a sense of unworthiness and a shield to hide it. The shield must reflect the character’s personality and relate specifically to her vulnerability.
  2. The protagonist exposes moments of vulnerability that call forth new connections and build a sense of community with everyone but her Emotional Antagonist.
  3. The protagonist attempts to establish an emotional connection to the Emotional Antagonist who then rejects her.
  4. The protagonist reaches Wholeheartedness despite rejection.
  5. The Emotional Antagonist is drawn to the protagonist’s newfound Wholeheartedness and shows his vulnerability as he seeks connection to the protagonist, which reinforces the protagonist’s sense of worthiness.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “When we were children, we used to think that when were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Children live in a state of vulnerability. Dr. Brown notes, “Kids are clumsy in their efforts to hide fear and self-doubt,” which is why the characters we encounter in children’s literature often become enduring companions as we grow into adulthood. We love the characters for their transparency and fall for them further as they take brave journeys toward Wholeheartedness.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

On Writing About Sensitive (Trigger) Topics

Trigger warning: This post mentions potential trigger topics.

I love writing happily-ever-afters (HEAs) for my characters, but in order for them to get there, they have to go through quite a lot. The following quote from one of my favorite reviews summarizes this nicely:


My stories always include hard and stormy issues (This post explains why it helps to write darker topics for my characters). Some of these issues may be trigger topics: subjects that generate strongly negative emotional responses. Triggers could be related to a damaging experience in one’s past (e.g., war, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, hate crime, bullying, racism, sexism, and more). Triggers may also be deeply rooted in a phobia of varied or unknown origin (e.g., fear of dying, fear of blood or violence, fear of spiders, fear of being alone, and more).

Given the wide range of experiences in your readers, I posit that there’s no way to predict all of the elements of your stories that may serve as triggers. However, you might reasonably assume that what you’ve chosen as characters’ primary struggles or fears will resonate on a very personal level with some readers who have had similar or at least analogous struggles or fears. Ideally, isn’t this what every writer wants, to have our readers be deeply affected by our stories? Readers are more sensitive and also more vocal than they were fifty years ago, and this is a natural result of social media and increased social connections. But it’s also because of an increasing social presence and conscience. Voices in our society rise with the call to address lingering social problems such as rape culture, racial inequality, gender discrimination, and mental illness (just to name a few).

You may decide to write about some of these trigger topics because they are part of life. If you do these topics justice, your readers will respond accordingly. Wendy Jessen had a great post with tips on how to write these tough topics. First and foremost, you need to pick your characters’ issues with knowledge and sensitivity. If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, do your research well. Also draw upon real people’s experiences — perhaps this is you, or if not, seek out the perspective of someone who has gone through the storm.

In addition, here are three tips about emotional preparation:


  1. Deal with the emotions. Make sure you understand your own emotions as you write about these sensitive topics. Channel that understanding to your story so your characters deal with their emotions as they work toward a resolution. You need to also accept the fact that you will have some readers dealing with their own emotions as they react to these issues. If this manifests as anger, know that this is their right. I have seen authors become extremely defensive or (worse) respond directly to a review that is strongly negative about their book with a justification as to why people shouldn’t take offense to how they wrote it. Every reader will take away something from a story, and it is their right to love it or hate it. It is natural, of course, to have your own emotional response when someone reacts strongly negative to something that you’ve written. However, find a healthy way to cope with your own emotions — go for a walk or a run or journal or paint or meditate or hit a punching bag — and then move on and keep writing.
  2. Know your place. This probably goes without saying, but I need to say it. If you craft a character that lives with a mental illness, this in and of itself does not make you a professional counselor. If your character is a survivor of sexual assault, this does not automatically qualify you as a victim’s advocate. Both of these are professional positions with specific qualifications. I have had readers write to me about their connections to something traumatic in my character’s backstory. (In these cases, these have been strongly positive responses, but as I stated in #1, anything is possible.) As an author, thank your readers for sharing their own stories, but it is not your responsibility (in fact, it would be irresponsible of you) to counsel them further.
  3. Trust in yourself. When we craft stories, we risk putting a very personal part of ourselves out there. When we write about highly sensitive issues, this risk of putting ourselves out there increases even more.  But if you want to write these stories, you need to shelve your self-doubt and instead trust in yourself and your abilities to represent your characters’ stories to the best of your abilities. I debated a handful of times whether I should include one particular element into my YA character’s backstory before deciding that yes, this was part of who she was. Like everything that has happened in my own past/backstory, this has influenced my current actions, and so was it with her. As I look back now to some of the vocal responses of my readers (both positive and negative), I do not regret my decision. If you decide to write sensitive topics, above all, you need to trust yourself to guide your characters through that storm and then back out again.  


helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at

The life of a querying writer

The life of a querying writer is–if I’m totally honest–one of the hardest part of my writer life to date. Part of that comes from the inevitable roller-coaster ride that is querying. A writer friend compared querying to going through the stages of grief–and while it does have its fair share of rage and denial, it’s not all downhill. (See what I did there?)

Actually (and please don’t stone me), there’s a lot to querying that I like. I like the sense of anticipation, that clean-slate moment where anything is possible. It’s a lot like dating, actually. Though I’m happily married and I don’t *want* to be single again, there is a little part of me that will always be sad that I don’t get to experience the magical anticipation before a first date. And while I’m happily agented now, I have to admit that I do miss (a very little!) that same sense of anticipation before sending out query letters.

If you’re just getting started on the query roller-coaster, here’s what the trajectory looks like:

1. Researching agents

I started researching agents long before I was done revising my manuscript. I keep my query-related stuff in an excel file, so anytime I saw a new agent alert on Writer’s Digest that looked promising or a great agent interview on Literary Rambles, I’d make a note of the agent and a link to their submission guidelines. Query,, searching #mswl (Manuscript wish list) on twitter or the blog compiled by Jessica Sinsheimer at are all good places to look for agents who might rep the genre you write.

2. Writing the query letter (and synopsis)

Let it be said–I do not love writing query letters. Condensing a 100k novel into 100 words or so is incredibly painful, for nearly anyone. Luckily, there are some great resources online to help with this, including these:

Shallee McArthur’s helpful 4 Cs of Query Letters

Susan Dennard’s tips on writing great queries

Susan Dennard’s tips on writing a synopsis (hands-down the best synopsis tips I’ve seen. It made writing a synopsis not exactly pleasurable, but do-able)

Also, query letters are things that should not be attempted alone–get feedback on it before you hit send! Once I had a decent query letter, I sent it to some trusted CPs who tore it apart. I rewrote it multiple times before I hit on a version I liked.

3. Hit send

For many querying writers, this is one of the hardest parts. We stare at our computer screen. We scrutinize the font (it can be helpful to send a sample email to yourself before sending it to an agent!), we check for mistakes. We take a deep breath, hit send . . . and then see the typo we missed. Try not to freak out about this too much–it happens to the best of us.

4. Hope

I don’t think I realized quite how much hope feels like terror until I started querying. After hitting send, there’s this glorious space where anything is possible. Sometimes that hope lasted all of an hour, in the case of notoriously quick agent responses (Query Tracker can give you some idea of general response times). Other times, it might last months, especially if you have a partial or full manuscript out.

5. Obsessively checking my email and/or twitter

This was my second time querying, so I was smarter and wiser and set up a separate gmail account for writing-related stuff. That way, I didn’t freak out every I got a new advertisement in my regular account.

I still spent a lot of time looking like this:

I actually made checking my email a reward to keep from refreshing all the time–i.e., if I finished a round of grading I could check. After I fed my kids dinner, I could check. It kept the need to constantly refresh from taking over my life.

And then there’s social media. Twitter makes it easy to follow a majority of agents–and it can be hard to resist the temptation to read into every tweet an agent sends. “She says she wants cake! Maybe she just read that scene in my MS where they *eat* cake.” This kind of thinking can make you crazy pretty fast. Try not to do it (I well know it’s easier said than done!) And don’t read anything into agents following you on twitter either. Sometimes it means something (i.e., an offer is pending). Sometimes it doesn’t. Trying to guess the difference won’t do anything but make you more anxious.

6. Reacting

For all that we spend hours as writers imagining how our characters will react to things, I think we (or maybe it’s just me) do a pretty poor job imagining how we’ll react to something as high-stakes and stressful as querying. For most writers, even successful ones whose querying lands an agent, we go through lots of rejections. Some I was able to shrug off (basic forms), but every single full-rejection I got hurt. A lot. Though ironically, the most painful rejection was off a partial from an agent I really admired that I queried really early in the process.

I think it’s important to remember that there’s no right way to react–let yourself feel disappointed, sad, angry, whatever. One writer friend wrote some lovely rejection haiku to assuage her feelings–if this helps, do it! Just don’t actually *send* it:

// And then, of course, there’s the bounding-off-the-walls celebratory high from a request–especially a full request from an agent you’ve dreamed of working with. I found, though, that the highs didn’t last long, and weren’t enough to sustain me over the long haul.

Make sure you have a good support network in place–writer friends, family–people who love you and support your writing. Query fatigue is a real thing. It’s easy to get tired and downright despairing, and you’ll need people to help lift you.

Remember, too, that rejections don’t mean that you are worthless or your writing terrible (though it can often feel like that). Usually they just mean, “not this agent, not right now.” Think of how you feel when you enter a book store and can only afford to buy one or two books–there might be lots of books that were interesting, some that frankly weren’t your type, but only one or two that really tugged at your heart. Agents can’t represent everything–that doesn’t mean its personal.

7. Shake it off–and move on (aka, rinse, lather, repeat)

Some writers, myself included, adopted a strategy of “revenge querying”–that is, for every rejection you get, send out another query. Or two. Grieve if you need to, but keep moving forward. Do more research, get new eyes on your query letter and pages if you’re getting lots of rejections, revise, and hit send again. Then breathe. Let yourself hope some more.

8. Write something new

Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do when I was obsessing over my book baby and agent responses (or non-responses) was to write more. But brainstorming a shiny new idea–even writing a few pages in a new WIP–are great ways to combat querying fatigue.

And there’s nothing like a shiny new idea to remind you why you started writing in the first place. I’m currently on submission, and writing not only helps distract me, but it keeps me from putting all my eggs in one basket. I will write other good things–I’m already starting to.

9.  Hitting “the End”

For a querying writer, querying ends one of two ways. Either you get THE CALL, or you decide to shelve the book.

The first, of course, is exciting and what every author hopes for at the end of their round of queries.

But the other is okay too. Some books aren’t quite ready. Sometimes the market isn’t ready. I got an agent on my second round of queries (third if you count the cold query I sent to Tor when I was 20); I have a writer friend who got an agent on her 10th book. But I’m still glad I queried that first book. I learned a lot about the query process and about agents I admired (and agents who weren’t for me). I learned more about revising and my own writing strengths and weaknesses from the feedback I got from agents.

More importantly, I learned that setting a book aside wasn’t the end of the world. It’s not a failure unless you let it become one. For me, it’s just one more milestone on the road.

And besides, everyone needs a good query rejection story. It’s part of being a writer.

If you’ve queried before, what was querying like for you? If you’re about to query, what questions do you have?


Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

Emotional Pacing

One of the greatest struggles I see in my writing students is understanding the balance of pacing. Many MANY of them talk about how the first chapters of The Hunger Games were boring, which is evidence of their lack of reading experience, but because of this attitude, they tend to think everything needs to be fast and furious.

To let them understand this concept better, I let them dabble in the genres of horror, mystery and thriller. Before they write, we discuss what it is about each genre that amps up tension, how that tension needs to manifest in order to hold the attention of the audience. Every year, during this lecture, I ask the question if they have ever been to a movie that tries too hard to scare them that it ends up comical. Every year, I get half a class of hands raised.
Sometimes I think we as writers forget that people reading are people. We can get locked into a particular emotion that we want to convey, a feeling we want the reader to have, and our plot can turn into the Whack-A-Mole of emotion. We either try to hit the same thing over and over hoping the odds are in our favor, or we jump from happy to sad to happy again without letting the reader fully feel any of them.
To really understand how this works, it is necessary to do some self-reflection and then compare with others.
Think about your own temperament and select 3-4 words that encompass your emotional state most of the time. For me, my typical emotional status can be categorized as the four F’s – usually I’m fine, occasionally frustrated, sometimes fabulous and, on rare occasions, furious. The transition from fine to anything else is rarely quick – it is a series of events, good, bad or stressful, that will start to build a case against fine.
After you know your 3-4 words, compare with others. Chances are decent you may have one or two that are the same, but not all three. When I asked my husband to list his, he said frustrated, fine and happy. Notice he doesn’t have the furious? People who know him acknowledge that he deals with high stress situations in a manner that is very level headed.
There are several tricks to eliciting the reaction that we want from readers (The Emotional Thesaurus series is an incredible tool at explaining this) but the key to remember the importance of distributing other emotions in with the main one we are trying to convey.
NANOTIP: When trying to get the word count, it can be difficult to slow down and get yourself in the emotional mindset necessary for certain scenes. Just change the font, or enable highlighting and leave yourself a note of the emotion needed. Remember, December is the month of revision.
Do you have methods you like to use to transition through emotions? Ever seen a movie or read a book that tried too hard to hit the emotional marks?


Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.