On Writing: How to Craft Emotion that Unfolds Incrementally (And Hits You in the Gut)

I came across a blog post the other day that discussed how to write emotion—a subject not new to us—but explained in a new way. I don't like to regurgitate information if someone blogged it better. So I had to share.

Jason Black on Plot to Punctuation says:

To convey an emotion, you can’t just show the beginning point. You can’t just show the endpoint either. Neither one is enough on its own.

The reason is clear: emotion is an arc, not a moment. It begins, builds, and eventually culminates. Emotion always comes in the context of what has gone before, and as a sequence.

He uses movie still frames to show what he means.

I love this way of crafting emotion, because it's something I apply in my developmental editing work. And it's a HUGE part of crafting romance novels, where emotional journeys, dark pasts, present obstacles, and love make up the story arc.

Arcs within arcs. This isn't a bad acid trip.

As I help authors straighten out the big picture of their story, I also get into the weeds, pulling out an example and showing authors how they can clarify and tighten emotional sequences.

Why did the heroine lash out at the hero? This might seem out of character, but we can backtrack and make it work.

  1. Maybe she carried feelings of upset from the previous scene when she parted with her mother. (Reasoning)
  2. Maybe these feelings were churning in her during the drive. (Build up)
  3. Then as she climbs the steps to the hero's door, her foot knocks over the flower pot on the stoop. It breaks. And inside, so does the heroine. (Trigger)
  4. When the hero answers his door—taking just a little too long—she lashes out at him. (Explosion)

If we just read the part where she explodes, without showing the thread, the moment would feel jarring or confusing. We need to layer in details that connect to each other and help readers understand. And paint a fuller picture of what's happening to the character on the outside and on the inside.

It's small stuff, but it's crucial to orchestrating an emotional arc just right. Incrementally.

Read the blog post.

Do you feel overwhelmed? Revise your romance novel with me (and keep your sanity).