In my work-in-progress, I’m studying a scene to see if I can tighten it in any way. It’s a perfectly good scene. The characters go to a jewelry store. The protagonist’s mother has a birthday next week and he’s got to find a suitable gift. In the jewelry store, they pick up a crucial clue for the overarching mystery.
The scene works. There’s some humorous banter between friends. They find the perfect necklace for Mom. And that crucial clue is just sitting on a jewelry cabinet waiting to be found. So, what’s the problem?
It’s too good. It’s blah. There’s not enough emotion. If I was the reader, I’d breeze through without thinking OR FEELING much. Not good.
The reader needs to be on an emotional roller coaster, and as the author, I can’t give them a free-pass chapter.
Evoke Emotions to Gain Enthusiastic Readers
What to do? First, I’m looking to see if there are emotional hooks that I could pull out and work. Specifically, I looked for any of these emotional possibilities:
Why those emotions? Is it a random list? In his book, Contagious: How Things Catch On, Jonah Berger says these emotions will evoke high-arousal in a person. People pay attention to these emotions, as opposed to something like sadness. Berger is specifically looking at why a blog post or YouTube video is passed on to friends. But I’m intrigued with the idea that emotional contagion might be exactly what every chapter of my novel needs.
Berger says that positive emotions such as awe, inspiration, love, and humor are easy to pass along. If you see a funny cat-video, you’re likely to send it to someone. But negative high-arousal emotions are also easy to pass along to friends: anger, disgust, outrage, or anxiety. The last time I passed along a video it was an amazing combination of outrage and humor. Berger’s book is worth a read simply because he’s talking about what catches people’s attention–and we want our novel to catch a reader’s attention.
Revise for Emotions
Usually, the seeds of a strong emotion are present in a scene. Something happened, but you–the writer–are a peacemaker among your characters. You didn’t let it blow up. That mindset plagues me all the time! So the first strategy is to find within the scene the roots of a high-arousal emotion and then work it.
I found outrage in one scene and worked to heighten it. now, the character says things like, “How dare they do XXX?” “Arrogant XXX!” In another scene, it was relatively easy to heighten the protagonist’s anxiety. But then, I had two negative scenes in a row. I worked to heighten the emotion in the next chapter, but for variety, I used the positive emotion of awe. Watching a coronation should be full of awe!
But the jewelry store scene described above baffles me because I can’t seem to find the emotional core of the scene. When there’s no emotional hook, you have two choices. Omit that chapter. If there are no emotions, then your reader will be bored. It’s better to just omit the whole thing. If I do that, I’ll have to find another place to plant that crucial clue. It might be the best choice.
OR, you can find some organic conflict that will fit in seamlessly. To find that emotional core may take some digging. Start by asking, “Why?” or “What?” All sorts of whys and whats and hows:
- Why is the character in this place?
- Why are these other characters along?
- Why are they doing this action?
- What’s at stake in this scene?
- How can you put more at stake?
In other words, try to go deeper into the characters and find something that matters deeply to them. Put THAT at stake in the scene and develop a high-arousal emotional scene around that. Perhaps, last year, Dad bought Mom’s birthday present, but he’s gone now, either dead or just out of the scene. So the protagonist feels added pressure to “get it right” for mom. That would inject some anxiety into the scene and it may be enough to work with. I’m not sure where this scene will go, except that it’s got to change. Drastically. So you won’t be bored!