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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fiction Fundamentals

Captain’s Log, Supplemental

Fiction Fundamentals

Linda Fulkerson has launched this new blog/website with TONS of information for writers, and new stuff being posted every day. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to learning more about writing, this is a good site. It gives lots of links and recommendations.

Here’s what Linda says about it:

The purpose is to help those who wish to learn more about the craft of fiction, especially newcomers. There are tons of links in a number of categories, plus three days a week (Mon-Wed-Fri), I post on the blog. There is also monthly "Leave-a-Link" contest, where everyone who leaves a new resource link during that month will be placed into a drawing for a book.

I hope to develop it into a great resource for those who are learning fiction--kind of a one-stop learning location.

On another note, during the month of June on my personal blog,, (you may not have time/room to mention this), I've revived "Wednesday is Friends' Day, and will have the following guest bloggers:

June 6--Jill Elizabeth Nelson
June 13--Tricia Goyer
June 20--Cyndy Salzmann
June 2--Linda Windsor

Each will discuss their newest release as well as tell a bit about their journey as a novelist. If anyone else wants to schedule a Wednesday guest blog, they can contact me.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Project Publish book proposal contest

Touchstone Books and Media Predict have a contest for writers!

Touchstone Books, an imprint of publishing company Simon & Schuster, Inc., is teaming up with Media Predict. Through our Project Publish contest, Touchstone Books will select a book proposal from our site for future publication.

Via Project Publish, Touchstone Books will be the first major publisher to put our market-based method for evaluating media content to the test. In October, a team of editors, including Touchstone publisher Mark Gompertz, will evaluate the 50 top scoring book proposals on Media Predict. They’ll select five book proposals as Project Publish finalists, and eventually one grand prize winner.

Visit their website at Project Publish.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Emotions -- Settings

One of the best way to reveal character emotions and personality is to have a character respond to the setting rather than simply describe it.

Setup: The heroine is Betty, with an abusive past, visiting her parents' home for the first time in years.

The crystal-paned bay windows followed her with a malevolent gaze as she approached the front double doors, as if to mock her for being forced to return after all these years. She imagined the white columns as teeth about the chew her up. Even the sunlight stung her skin. She forced her feet onward, step by step, keeping her eyes lowered to the blood-red flowers dripping down either side of the concrete walkway. The stiff wind from the bay slapped her cheeks and jerked her hair around her face. Why did she have to come back here?

The reader gets a picture of the setting, but they also get the character’s emotional response to it. Suddenly it’s not just a setting, it’s an emotional experience for the reader. They feel the character’s reaction, get glimpses into the character’s backstory, and extend sympathy for the character.

Look through your manuscript for a paragraph of setting description here or there, and see how you can make your viewpoint character emotionally respond to the setting.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Emotions – show, don’t tell, part two

Writing emotions is very closely linked to other factors:

--the words you use

--character personality

--point of view

A writer can take advantage of point of view to show emotions in different characters. Emotions depend very strongly on the who point of view character is, and how they respond to the action.

On Monday, John kissed Sally and I showed her confusion and denial. But what if John kissed Victoria instead?

She thrust him away.

She stared at him a long moment. Her heart still pounded, still feeling the pulse of his when he had pressed her against him. She didn’t understand. He had just walked into town last week, and today she melted in his arms like butter on her French crepe pan. Why did she respond to him so forcefully? Did she love him? Did he love her?

Of course he didn’t love her. He was probably simply taking a little pleasure in his aimless wanderings. And she, like a wanton woman, had responded to his passion, his fire, his strength. All physical—nothing more. While her body still tingled, her heart was untouched.

If you read Sally’s account, she came across as a bit ditzy and childlike. Victoria, however, is more sophisticated, with a more romantic vocabulary, and with thoughts that don’t bounce around.

Both women are first confused, then in denial. But I took advantage of the point of view of the scene to show their different characters.

Your reader becomes, in a sense, the point of view character in each scene. Milk it for all it’s worth. Reveal depths of personality with words, thoughts, emotions that are specific to that character.

Is your heroine a Sally? A Victoria? Your scene should be distinguishable between the two characters, not just because of the different names, but because of the way it’s written, because of the way you utilize point of view.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Emotions – show, don’t tell, part one

Writing emotions is very closely linked to other factors:

--the words you use

--character personality

--point of view

Because emotions are meshed with these other aspects, often a writer will hear the infamous “show, don’t tell” and yet not understand what exactly it means.

Setup: John has just kissed Sally.

She thrust him away.

She stared at him a long moment. First she felt confused. Why had he done that? Then, like a fingersnap, she was in denial. It probably meant nothing to him.

Camy here:

First, don’t use “she felt” or anything like that—she saw, she heard, etc.—because it distances the reader from the character.

Second, try not to use the words of the emotions—confusion, denial.

Instead of writing “she felt confused,” show the reader how confused she is. Instead of informing the reader she was in denial, show what she’s denying and why.

She thrust him away.

She stared at him a long moment. Why had he done that? Did he love her? He’d just met her—how could he love her? And she didn’t love him, did she? Was that gurgling in her stomach love or the potroast she’d had for dinner? Love shouldn’t feel like overdone beef, right?

No, of course he didn’t love her. And that made her very … happy. Okay, not exactly happy. Relieved. She was relieved. And she didn’t care for him at all. That tingling in her hands was just early onset of arthritis. And her heart pounded because she’d been surprised, that’s all.

Not only does the reader see her confusion and her denial, but the reader gets a better understanding of her personality.

Next: How point of view makes a difference.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Emotion Memory

Brandilyn Collins talks about this in her excellent writing book, Getting Into Character.

Obviously I’ve never been chased down an abandoned alley in the dead of night with a serial killer on my tail. However, I’ve been scared senseless before.

I bring up that memory—painfully embarrassing though it might be, sigh—which is my jumping off point for writing the intensity of my heroine’s panic.

I close my eyes and picture the scene. For me, it was a dark night and a strange shadow that crossed my window as I lay in bed.

I can feel my terror, hear my wild thoughts, and even my body responds to the memory. I can smell the strangely smokey scent of the recent rain.

(The shadow ended up being my neighbor sitting on the stone wall and smoking, but we won’t go into that.)

I recreate my own terror with my heroine’s terror as she races down that lone alleyway. I copy my thoughts, the feelings in my body, the way fright tastes in my mouth. All those things go into my heroine’s point of view.

(Okay, side note here—I really hope you don’t write a heroine stupid enough to run down a blind alley in the dark with a serial killer on her tail. I mean, come on, people.)

Voila! I’ve just created terror for my character in a situation I’ve never personally been in. I used my own memories to create my heroine’s emotions.

This is a skill every writer should practice and hone, because it enables you to color your emotional writing with more intensity and specificity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Emotions – build the emotions in the scene

Your scene should climax both in terms of plot and emotion.

It should start with a protagonist with a scene goal—what he wants to accomplish in that scene. His emotional starting point is determination, a plan of action.

Next, you throw obstacles in the protagonist’s path so he can’t get his goal. This builds frustration, anxiety, sadness. Up your character’s emotional state.

Build the obstacles to become more and more difficult. At the same time, build the character’s emotional intensity. Go from frustration to anger, or anxiety to panic, or sadness to depression.

At last, deliver a final blow—a disaster at the end of the scene. This will also be the height of your character’s emotions. Ride it for all it’s worth.

By building the character emotions, you also build your reader’s emotions for the character. Take your reader on an emotional ride, and they won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Emotions – utilize character point of view

Each character in your book will have a different way of describing things pertaining to themselves and the world around them.

It’s no less for their emotions.

Your manly ex-Navy SEAL isn’t going to describe his surprise as a gasp and a fluttering in his chest. He’s going to feel like a hollow-point copperhead has slugged him in the gut.

Likewise, your small farming town preacher’s daughter isn’t going to describe the heated family argument as the headache-inducing staccato clamor of Chinese grandmothers at the San Francisco Chinatown fish market. She’ll describe the sounds as the fierce pelting of hailstones echoing in an empty barn, resonating in her skull as if they were falling on her head instead of the roof.

When describing your character’s emotions, think about their gender, backgrounds, experiences. Make the emotions you describe specific and unique to that character’s personality and backstory.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Emotions – actions

Actions and body language are terrific tools for showing character emotion. When coupled with dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts, the reader gets a complete picture of what the character is feeling, and better yet experiences those feelings with the character.

First off, don’t resort to cliché actions like running a hand through his hair, or throwing a glass/vase/figurine at the fireplace. You’re a writer, be creative! Think of things more unique, and yet suited to the particular character.

Also, make sure you go in order of how a body would react. Usually it’s physical reactions and thoughts first, then dialogue, then actions and body language.

Scarlett O’Hara didn’t stamp her foot first and then feel her head sizzle with anger. She had a physical reaction first and used her foot stamping to punctuate her emotions.

It’s not always this order of events, granted, but this is the typical order of things according to inertia—it takes more effort and more neurons firing to speak and act than it does to have a knee-jerk reaction or think certain thoughts.

When your reader reads a character acting a certain way, to an extent, the reader feels himself act that way, too. When Scarlett stamps her foot, the reader can almost feel the thump of the boards under her heel at the same time.

That’s why actions are so vital to help your reader experience your character’s emotions.

Use character actions judiciously and with great creativity. Actions and body language can really pull your reader into your character’s head and body.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Emotions – dialogue

Dialogue is one of the best ways to reveal emotions, but it can also be overused.

Just dialogue:

If you only use dialogue to reveal emotions, the reader doesn’t quite get into the character’s head. They’re an audience at a play, not inside the character’s skin.

Use dialogue in conjunction with thoughts, physical reactions, and actions in order to give your reader the full effect of the character’s emotions.


Many times, the greatest emotion is conveyed by what the character doesn’t say.

This is called subtexting or “cross-talk.” Sometimes it is also referred to as “off the nose” dialogue.

Sometimes, you read dialogue and can take it at face value. Other times, there are subcurrents under the actual words said, meanings deeper and perhaps even the opposite of the dialogue.

Those subcurrents make for juicy, conflicted, tension-filled dialogue.

For a good example of subtexting (with commentary), read the Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine September 2006 edition.

One of the best books on subtexting is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. If you haven’t yet read that book, go out and buy it now!

Dialogue is war:

Randy Ingermanson puts out the Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine, and in one of his articles he talks about how dialogue is WAR.

It doesn’t mean people have to have shouting matches at each other, but people should be fighting with each other, usually with subtexting and emotional undercurrents.

“All dialogue had better have conflict in it FIRST. That means two characters talking who have opposing interests.” –Randy Ingermanson, Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine

For example, Character A trying to withhold information from Character B, and Character B trying to get Character A to ’fess up. Or Character C trying to get her point across to Character D, while Character D is holding fast to her denial.

Conflict and undercurrents in dialogue are what make your reader feel the emotions of the character.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Emotions – thoughts

Your characters are thinking all the time. You want to filter out all but their most important thoughts to convey to your reader.

Those thoughts should be the ones that will specifically move your reader’s emotions.

Thoughts are related to the writing craft topic of point of view. If you get deep into your character’s point of view, then his/her thoughts enhance the scene emotionally.

The key here is that your character’s thoughts tell the reader how the character feels about the events happening, other people, or the surrounding area.

Compare these two:

Andrea O’Malley paused on the threshold of the Chinese restaurant. She wasn’t sure if she liked the exotic smells that teased her nose—spices she couldn’t name, as well as nutty sesame oil, salty-sweet oyster sauce, pungent soy sauce. She patted her French twist, which didn’t need fiddling with. She couldn’t help it—she was a golden-haired alien in the midst of these black-haired party guests. At least she hadn’t dressed inappropriately—the other guests stood talking in clusters, the women in short silk dresses like her own.


Lex Sakai raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant, immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes and stale sesame oil. She tripped over the threshold and almost turned her ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, she hated wearing heels.

The reader gets two very different descriptions of the same party, but through different characters’ thoughts. It not only describes the scene, it reveals things about each character, the character’s emotions, and the conflict to expect in the scene.

Andrea is elegant but uneasy because she feels out of place. Lex is in very familiar surroundings, but impatient about being there.

So be choosy about what your character’s thoughts are. Make their thoughts reflect the emotions of your character, and evoke emotion from your reader.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Emotions – physical reactions

Psychiatrists agree that we, as human beings, copy others fairly easily. We copy other people’s emotions or physical sensations, even though it’s all in our heads. It forms the basis for many psychological abnormalities.

However, you as a writer can use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.

“When you understand the feelings of one of the characters in the moving picture, you are copying his tensions. You are feeling in yourself something of what he feels in the fictional situation. You are understanding the story with your own muscle tensions and with the spasm of your intestines and with your own glandular secretions. Without these reactions, the show would have no meaning.” –Psychiatrist David Fink, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

We can apply what happens to people in a movie to what you want your reader to feel as he/she reads.

Describe your focal character’s emotions on a physical level. Make your reader really understand what the character’s body is going through. As they read how the character’s body is reacting, your reader will feel that in his/her own body to an extent, and suddenly the reader’s emotional experience is heightened.

Compare these two examples (the second one is taken from Sushi for One?):

Lex stood rooted to the floor in shock.


Lex's heart stopped for a long, painful moment, then started again at NASCAR speed. Her hands shook and tightened as if they were clenched around a vibrating steering wheel.

Notice I never use the word “shock” in the second example. See my Story Sensei post on naming emotions for more info on that.

Let me also add as an aside—stay away from cliché phrases like “her stomach clenched” and “a shiver ran down his spine.” You’re a writer, be creative!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Using a focal character to evoke emotions

Readers read because they care about the story.

Let me repeat that—they care about the story.

Caring involves emotions, which is why powerful stories evoke reader emotions.

So how do you get your reader to care about the story?

“You give them a stake in what happens.” –Dwight Swain

When you start a scene, first of all pick a focal character for the reader to follow. This is also why one-point-of-view-per-scene has become more preferred by editors. When there’s one person for the reader to follow, it makes it easier to engage that reader’s emotions.

The focal character doesn’t have to be the protagonist. It can be the antagonist, or it can be a secondary character. It can be someone the reader likes or someone the reader hates with a passion. Regardless, pick one person as the focal character for the scene.

Then, give your focal character something to win or lose in that scene. Give them something at stake in that scene.

The reader will have someone to root for or against for that scene. Suddenly, your reader will have an emotional stake in that scene.

Suddenly, the events and plot points that happen in the scene aren’t just actions, aren’t just plot points. Suddenly, the events in the scene have emotional significance for the reader.

You want your reader to emotionally react to the events in the scene.

So pick your focal character for each scene, and have him/her strive for something for that scene. Maybe Bobby wants to ask Jennie out on a date. Maybe Marsha needs to confront her husband about her suspicions that he’s having an affair. Maybe the villain needs to kill the Ambassador before 007 can stop him.

Your focal character—whether someone likeable or unlikeable—and that character’s stake in the scene will get your reader to care about the scene, about the story.
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