Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. 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 be—except for in a few scenes—only 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.
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.