Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.
Stories become unputdownable when readers empathise with the hero’s troubles, feelings and emotions, share his inner torment and take sides in the choices he’s forced to make. To create such stories, make your hero’s goal and motives clear, and show how he feels about everything that happens. Then, make your readers fear the worst – promise emotionally wrenching disasters to come that will devastate the hero and his allies, and shatter his plans.
Your readers must be able to relate to the hero at every moment of the story. You do this by showing how he feels at each point – frustrated, guilty, terrified, anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, delighted, resentful, triumphant, loving – and how his emotions change from minute to minute. Sometimes he will be overcome by these feelings; at other times he may fight them, eg by refusing to express his fear. This may be more engaging than giving in to it.
To deepen flat characters, make sure they react to every event. Expose their feelings through their thoughts, what they say and how they say it, what they do, and their body language. Show their reactions to being challenged, disbelieved, threatened, bullied, misunderstood, thwarted, etc; reveal their suffering.
Intense conflict is best shown exactly how the hero experiences it, i.e:
- In real time, as it happens (Cleaver). Don’t generalise, condense, or skip – that’s telling, not showing. Telling allows your readers to be passive and it’s much less involving. Showing brings readers into the story because they need to draw conclusions from the pictures you’ve shown them.
- Show what your hero wants, why she wants it so desperately, and what her expectations are. Does she expect the best outcome, or the worst? Either way, constantly build her expectations up – only to dash them.
- Use the five main senses to show what your hero sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells at that moment (plus, as necessary, the other human senses: heat and cold, pain, pressure, itching, muscle tension, thirst, hunger, balance and time). But only describe things your hero can actually perceive from where she is at that time.
- Show the specific details that make the things your hero perceives vivid, clear, fresh and original. But only show what’s needed; don’t bore your readers with excessive detail.
- Filter everything he perceives through the goal he’s after in that particular scene, at that particular moment – does it help him reach his goal, or does it block him?
- Your hero must have attitudes to, and make judgements (right or wrong) about everyone she meets, and everything that happens. In every scene, and on every page, she has to react to the encounters she has and the conflicts she faces in a way the reader can see and understand. Show her attitudes and judgements in her emotions, thought, dialogue and actions.
- In real life, we constantly react to what’s happening in front of us. Your hero might think, Why is she telling me this? What does she really want? Show your hero’s reactions to everyone she meets, and everything she sees and hears, in strong, active language that comes from her current emotion, eg, loving, hurt, angry, disappointed, enraged, sympathetic, afraid. He hates me – really hates me. But what did I ever do to him? See also The Emotion Thesaurus (Ackerman and Puglisi).
- Her reactions must be specific, personal, and affect whether or not she achieves her goal. Readers don’t just see what she sees – they also see how she makes sense of it, and the personal spin her point of view, expectations and attitudes cause her to put on everything (Cron, Wired for Story).
- Where appropriate, show the hero’s emotions rapidly escalating, eg from irritation to annoyance to anger to fury to apoplectic rage. Or from unease to worry to fear to terror. This is far more effective and convincing than having his emotions jump from a low state straight to an extreme.
- There should be an emotional change through every scene (see Emotions Through a Scene, below), eg if your hero begins the scene with positive feelings, she should end it feeling down in one way or another.
- Don’t describe her emotions, eg, She was terrified. Show the physical reactions and sensory details that evoke the emotion – Her knees shook so badly that she could barely stay upright. She choked back a scream. She had to get away, but how, how? If she moved, if she made a sound, he’d find her. And then, as he’d said yesterday, he would slowly, lovingly, cut her throat from ear to ear.
- Where appropriate, show her emotions in dialogue (Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact, gives examples of 25 common techniques). Eg, in the above situation, in stumbling, high-pitched, gasping or staccato speech.
- The hero doesn’t normally think about or name her feelings – I was so angry. She thinks about what caused those feelings – He forgot to pick up the kids again! Or shows it in what she says and how she says it.
- Use the hero’s unique voice and bring out his point of view and attitudes in his thoughts, dialogue, reactions and the way he sees and interprets what’s in front of him – an uncouth street brawler will see things differently to a naïve girl, a hopeless drunk, a disillusioned priest, a forgotten ex-soldier or an lonely old lady.
EMOTIONS THROUGH A SCENE
Make your hero’s immediate goal clear at the beginning – I’ve got to escape – and show the opposition. The question that your readers worry about, and the scene ending must answer (yes or no) is, therefore, Can she escape?
A scene consists of a series of beats, each a stimulus followed a response, repeated over and over (Bickham). The hero’s response can’t come from his background, motivation, thoughts or feelings. Every response must be caused by an external stimulus. Imagine the story unfolding on stage – the audience must be able to see or hear the stimulus. If they can’t, the story won’t make sense.
A scene provides action and conflict, often ending in disaster. It is followed by a review phase (or sequel), which provides feeling and logic, and the hero’s new plan to achieve her goal. Here is the sequence:
- The hero realises that the killer is hunting her through the abandoned mine.
- She reacts emotionally (eg wild urge to flee, panic, graphic images of what could happen to her).
- And viscerally – inner physical signs of emotional state (eg racing heart, stifles a scream, dizziness, faintness).
- And externally – the visible signals that show her body’s reaction to the emotions she’s feeling (eg her face goes white, she freezes, sweats, trembles, stammers or screams or becomes inarticulate).
- She gets control of herself and analyses her situation;
- She thinks of various options to escape her predicament, or achieve her immediate scene goal.
- She assesses the risks and benefits of each, and her ability to carry them out.
- She makes a decision for reasons that seem good to her at the time.
- She takes action (physically or verbally or both) which either succeeds, partly succeeds or, much of the time, makes things worse (i.e. it answers the scene question negatively).
Review (sequel to the scene)
- Now she goes through the process emotion-thought-decision, reacting to what happened, reviewing what she did and why it went wrong, and forming a new plan to reach her goal. (When she acts on this plan, and faces a new conflict, it begins the next scene.)
- This stage can be over in seconds in a fast-paced adventure, or take many pages in a romance. The hero may do it in an instant if he’s a go-getter, or impetuous or reckless, or take ages if he’s sensitive or introspective.
Opponent’s New Action
- The opponent takes action to block the hero, which begins a new stimulus-and-response sequence.
To show your hero’s feelings and emotions even more powerfully, you can use Deep Point of View. Here the writer goes so deeply into the character’s head that the narrator’s voice disappears and readers only experience the character through her personal senses, thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions. It’s most useful where the hero’s feelings need to be shown at high intensity, for instance when she’s wracked by a strong inner conflict. In Deep Point of View the hero is telling the story exactly how she experiences it, with no intrusion from or filtering by the author. Follow the outline presented in the dot points on page one, but get rid of tags like he felt, he saw, he heard, she thought, she noticed, she tasted, she remembered, he knew, he decided, he wondered.
Ackerman, A and Puglisi, B (2012). The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
Bickham, JM (1992). The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. Writer’s Digest.
Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin.
Cron, Lisa (2012). Wired for Story. A fascinating insight into how fiction works in the reader’s mind.
Iglesias, Karl (2005). Writing for Emotional Impact. An absolutely brilliant book.