Monday, May 19, 2014

Editing in Layers: Drawing out Emotion and Tension

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Previous posts in this series are:

One of the reasons editing in layers is such a valuable practice is that it forces your brain to focus on a particular element of each scene. If you read your scene looking just for adverbs, for example, you'll have a much easier time spotting them than if you're looking for adverbs, sensory details, and the level of tension.

Last week when we looked at editing the big picture of the scene, a lot of it was surface stuff like sensory details and what the character was trying to accomplish. With this next layer of editing, we drill a bit deeper.

If you're a character-first writer (meaning your story ideas tend to come to you character-first and focus on character growth) then you will likely find that you've already done a lot of the work in this edit. That previous layer of edits, which were more about setting and plot, could have been the most intense edits and this layer will beexcept for in a few scenesonly tweaks. That happens to me frequently. When I'm writing, I tend to have a better idea of what my characters are feeling than I do about what they're doing.

If you're a plot-first writer (meaning your story ideas tend to come to you as a plot and focus on what's going on rather than who's there) then it's possible last round of edits was a breeze for you and this one will be more intense.

In this draft, we're going to focus on emotions and, consequently, tension.

When I started reading craft book and going to conferences, I couldn't believe how many industry experts talked about a good story having tension on every page. That's an intimidating thought, isn't it? It was to me when I first heard it. I didn't write the kind of books that involved car chases and murder suspects, so how was I supposed to create tension?

I didn't know then how critical character emotion is to tension. That without the conflict of emotions and goals, there IS no tension. Even in a car chase.

Looking at just one scene in your manuscript, try to answer these questions:

What is my character’s emotion right now?

In some scenes, your character's emotions may change during. In that case, it's fine to list a couple dominant emotions. (For example, if in your scene, your character spends half of it looking for her younger brother and then she finds he played a prank on her, you'll have a big mood swing in there.)

You're looking for the emotion that (if you don't know not to) you might flat-out say to your reader at the opening. "Paige felt angry when her her father said he wouldn't fight for their family business."

Paige might also feel fear, sadness, loneliness but you're looking for the main emotion of the character and of the scene.

Now your goal is to convey the emotion without ever using the word. While "Paige felt angry" makes things nice and clear for my reader, it does little else. It doesn't raise questions. It doesn't make the reader experience her anger. It's like reading information in a travel brochure versus visiting the place. (Here's a post that details the technique of showing instead of telling.)

Now let's brainstorm some ways to show this emotion:

How could I show this emotion in physical response?

What does the character's body do when it feels this way? Do teeth grind? Does their heart patter? Does their stomach get all swirly? You're looking for those involuntary reactions.

How could I show this emotion in their actions?

How does your character choose to act because of their emotion? If a character is angry, he might ball his fist and throw a punch. But another character might fight to not show their anger. Might be saying they're fine ... while they vigorously scrub their kitchen floor.

Same with a happier emotion like love. A character who's been hurt or who fears getting close to someone will act differently than someone who's fallen in love for the first time.

How could I show this emotion in their descriptions?

When I walk into a party, my gaze instantly seeks out familiar faces versus unknown. How self-explanatory is the food situation? Is it clear where I'm supposed to put my purse? These details stand out to me because I'm intimidated by new social situations, and I don't want to look stupid.

My husband, however, isn't intimidated by these things. He would walk in and be like, "Cool, I get to meet new people!"

It's the same place, but we would describe it differently.

If your character is in love, the rainy sky is romantic. If they're sad, the rain is like tears falling from heaven. 

How could I show this emotion in a metaphor?

This technique can be intimidating, but I don't think it's as hard as it sounds. Start by looking at what you've naturally put in your scene. In one of the scenes I was editing last week, I have a character starting a new chapter in his life, and at the end of the scene he walks out the door and closes it behind him. Crossing a threshold like that is a natural metaphor for making a life change. I had already placed that element in the scene, so what I did in edits was try to find a way to accentuate it more.

Here's how it changed from draft to draft:

First draft:
And when she turned her smile on Graham, his heart constricted. Because her brother was absolutely right—he wasn’t good enough for her. Not yet, anyway. But maybe he could change that.
“You ready?” Paige’s curls sprung about as she practically skipped to the door.
“Let’s go,” Graham said. And he kept his back to Logan as held the door open for Paige, and then crossed the threshold himself.

Second draft:
Graham’s heart constricted. Her brother was absolutely right—he wasn’t good enough for her. The admission left a bitter taste in his mouth, and his answer emerged gruff. “Let’s go.”
Graham kept his back to Logan as held the door open for Paige, who skipped through it, her ponytail swinging. He may not be good enough for her yet. But maybe in the next few months, as they worked together on Open Door, he would become good enough.
He would have to try. Paige was worth that.
Graham crossed the threshold, following Paige into the sun-soaked afternoon, and pulled the door tight behind him.

Third draft:
Graham’s heart constricted. Her brother was absolutely right—he wasn’t good enough for her. The admission left a bitter taste in his mouth, and his answer emerged gruff. “Let’s go.”
Graham kept his back to Logan as he held the door open for Paige, who skipped through it, her ponytail swinging. Then he too crossed the threshold, following her into the sun-soaked afternoon, and pulling the door tight behind them.
He may not be good enough for her yet, but maybe in the next few months, as they worked together on Open Door, he would prove himself.
He would have to try. Paige was worth that.

I had originally closed the chapter with Graham crossing the threshold, but when my husband suggested rearranging the sentences I realized those thoughts Graham has at the end are New Graham thoughts. Old Graham agreed with her brother, that he wasn't good enough for her. New Graham, the Graham who has walked outside into this new life, decides to try to be better. So I edited the scene so that Graham doesn't think those thoughts until he's on the other side of the door.

Something you don't want to do is draw attention to your metaphors. When you do that, your priority has become broadcasting your clever use of literary devices rather than telling the story. If I had said, "As he crossed the threshold, Graham realized how symbolic this was of the choice he'd just made," then I would yank my reader right out of the story.

What is the emotional friction between characters who are together?

When all the characters in a scene feel the same, you've likely just killed your tension. Take a look around your scene and figure out what everyone is feeling in this moment, then adjust accordingly for conflict. 

They don't have to feel opposite emotions to create conflict. Maybe all in the room feel sad because another character died, but one feels survivor's guilt and one feels anger at the enemy and another feels relief that the person is no longer suffering. They feel different shades of the same emotion.

What's the emotional conflict within the point of view character?

You may not have this in every scene and that's okay. But it's a good question to consider. A married character who's flirting with not-their-spouse might feel both excitement and guilt. Those two emotions war with each other and create tension. Which will win?

There's an amazing example of this in the movie The Dark Knight when the villain has set it up so that Batman can either rescue the girl he loves OR the man who's the only hope for the restoration of Gotham. In this case, it's two types of love that are at war within the character. Love for the girl and love for his city.

What nouns and verbs best express the emotion of the scene?

It may work better for you to save this question for the next round of edits, but I've found I like working on my word choices when I'm focusing on the emotions.

Say my character's primary emotion in a scene is fear and someone walks into her office. I might write that as, "Danny invaded my office." Invade is a word that denotes anger or fear as opposed to just saying, "Danny walked into my office."

In the early mornings, a bird outside my window interrupts me with its squawks. In the afternoons, it entertains me with its song. 

See how this works? Take a look at the verbs and nouns you're using and see if you can think of more emotive replacements.

I have a worksheet for these questions, which you can view and download here. I don't always fill it out for each and every scene, but sometimes its beneficial.

Just for fun, look at a scene in your manuscript and identify the dominant emotion. Then, if you want, share an edit you're making (or an edit you've already made) that reflects the emotion.


  1. Mrs. Morrill! Thank you so much for this post! I am working on writing emotion, so this was posted at the right time!

    1. Oh, good! I love it when that happens :)

  2. Thanks for this post! I needed it a lot. :)

  3. Thanks, Stephanie! :) If I ever get a first and second draft finished, this can be very helpful.

  4. I'm really loving this series because when I do get finished with the first draft of my first novel, which I'm working on right now, I'll have a guideline.

    Interestingly enough, when I was in elementary school, I think I wrote stories that were primarily character-driven. Once I got into intermediate school, for some reason, I thought that that was a bad thing and I forced myself to switch over to plot-driven stories. Now, I know that neither way is right and so I write stories with a more or less equal amount of both.

    Also, I really liked how you pointed out that not all of the characters should have the same emotion. I hadn't realized that that was a problem before, but I realize that in my WIP, a lot of the secondary characters have the same emotion as the main character, or they just don't show much emotion at all. Once I finish the draft, I'll have to go back and fix that.

  5. I sort of had a breakthrough while reading this post, realizing that different characters react to emotion in different ways. I guess I had always felt that everyone's heart pounded when they were afraid, or that they all clenched fists when they were angry. I guess I should have realized that that wasn't right before, but it never occurred to me! Thanks!!

  6. Thanks! I'll be sure to return to revisit your editing posts once I finish my first draft of my first novel, but the emotion and tension tips are also helpful reminders for DRAFTING a scene. I'm definitely a plotter/panster hybrid; I couldn't bear to write out every action in an outline before I actually like, wrote it out, but I like to write chapter outlines as I go. Otherwise, I have no idea where a scene is going, and I spew forth drivel. While spewing forth drivel is better than spewing forth nothing at all, it's not exactly desirable...Anyway, knowing conflicting emotions should be a huge clue for on what I need to focus in a scene.

  7. woooooh... this is as an awesome post.. it really helps me a lot.. thank u.. and god bless in your career>>.

  8. Patience BledsoeMay 19, 2014 at 8:10 PM

    Thank you, Mrs. Morrill! This was very helpful, and made so many good points - some of which I hadn't considered before. :) I LOVED the example with the excerpts of your novel! :D So helpful to see examples! Thank you again - I'm so excited to apply what I've been learning in these posts on editing. :)

  9. This is exactly in time Stephanie, thank you. I am so struggling with this. So far this has been my toughest editting round, but I am getting there I hope.

  10. Here recently, writing a novel has come naturally for me. I can start with an idea and pop out a novel. Granted, it's riddled with mistakes and plot holes, but it's still a novel.
    I haven't delved deep into the technical aspect of writing. I didn't realize how important it is.
    Thank you so much for this post! I am getting ready to rewrite the second draft of one of my novels, and this will help me immensely!

  11. This is really helpful! Thanks so much for this post!
    - Katie

  12. Wow...this is just pure awesomeness. I think about five different things just clicked. Bookmarking it! (I have a folder of "writing-related" bookmarks now...there's at least two or three dozen things in there!)