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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It’s All About Emotion – or – Why Should I Care?

Over the years, I’ve worked with many writers, helping critique and edit their work. Some were newbies, some previously published. And many times, despite an interesting storyline and decent writing, I found myself either frustrated or bored. Why?

Simple. When it comes to romance stories, it’s all about the emotion. Let me hear an, “Amen, Sister!” or at least a “Duh!”.

As I’ve looked through these stories I’ve been asked to assist with, my most frequent comment has to be this: “But, how does it make her feel?”

Too often writers get caught up in explaining what’s going on, and forget that we’re supposed to be deeply inside someone’s body and mind. You have very different feelings from the same action.

For instance, when someone the heroine is attracted to brushes an errant lock of her hair away, and his fingers brush her cheek—she’s going to feel something. Does it make her shiver? Does it make her blush? Does her heart leap into her throat? Does she stutter over what she was saying?

On the other hand, perhaps the villain has her imprisoned, and does the same thing. When his fingers brush her cheek, again—she’s going to feel something. Does she flinch away in fear? Do tears spring to her eyes. Does she gag?

How does it make her feel?

Recently, I was reading through a love scene and the author very skillfully led us through the action. I knew exactly what was happening, but I was completely disinterested in what should have been an integral and defining moment. It read something like this:

He pulled her down onto the bed. She tugged at his T-shirt until he lifted his arms and she could slide it off. He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers in a moist, hot kiss. She threaded her fingers through his hair and pulled his head even closer to hers.

And, on and on it went. Do you even know who’s POV we’re in? Do you care? I didn’t. I want to know how she feels (and, yes, we were in the heroine’s POV). How much opportunity was lost by this author to reel the reader in, to involve them in this moment? I don’t need to know where each various body part or article of clothing was. I know how it works. What I do want and need to know is whether his breath against her cheek made her quiver, or if the feel of his skin against her hands took her breath away. Did her lips linger over his for a moment in a kiss like none other she’d known?

How does it make her feel?

When her mother dies, or her dog is run over, or her sister tells her that she needs a kidney… don’t tell me what happens. Note the difference in this writing (mine, written on the spur of the moment right now, in case you wondered):

“Rover, no!” Jessie grasped for the leash a moment too late and watched as her nine year-old terrier dashed into the busy street. She looked both ways before following, one hand up to warn the drivers she was crossing in front of them. Horns honked and tires squealed, but she was focused only on the little body darting to and fro before her.

Are you drawn into this story? Do you care what happens to the dog or the heroine? Would you put this book down at this point, and not worry about when you picked it up again? I would.

Now, try this on for size:

“Rover, no!” Jessie tamped down her panic as she failed at a desperate attempt to hang on to the slippery leash when her nine year-old terrier dashed into the busy city street.

Without only a fleeting thought to her own safety, Jessie looked both ways before leaping into the traffic herself, holding up one hand to warn the drivers she was crossing in front of them. Horns honked and tires squealed, but she didn’t care.

Visions danced before her eyes—Rover as a three week-old puppy, rejected by her mother; Rover snuggling in the crook of Jessie’s neck every night for warmth and comfort; Rover licking the tears from Jessie’s face when David had walked out on them.

Nothing was more important in this moment than Rover’s safety. She was everything, the only thing, that kept Jessie sane. If Rover died, Jessie didn’t want to live.

Better? Do you care whether Rover lives or dies? Does this at least give you an idea WHY Jessie leaped into traffic after her dog? Do you know how she feels?

If I could give any one recommendation to romance writers (aside from proper grammar, which should be—but is often not—a given), it would be to take every advantage to show emotion. If your readers don’t care about your characters, if they don’t understand motivation, why will they bother to finish the book? Or worse, why will they ever pick up another one?

What about you? What helps you identify with the characters? What pulls you into a story and holds you? Why do you keep reading one book, but put down another?

Visit Marianne Arkins at her website or blog.


  1. I know exactly how you feel. The other thing that drives me nuts is when you are reading and suddenly, and I mean suddenly, the Hero and heroine fall in love, the end. Nothing working up to the feelings.

  2. Excellent, excellent blog, Marianne. And a great reminder on what we need to concentrate on.

  3. What a great post! Note to self: stop writing an "instruction manual" and go for the emo baby!

  4. It's something I tell all my author friends, esp. the newbees.... SHOW ME, DON'T TELL ME!

    Glad I'm not the only one!


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