June 2, 2016

Adding emotional intensity to your writing

By Marcie Geffner

Beginning writers' novels and memoirs often suffer from superficiality.

The writer knows what happened in the story or his or her real life and tries to write about it, but somehow, the effort falls flat. Editors, critique partners, or beta readers say the story “didn't work” for them, “didn't have a payoff,” or “didn't make them feel anything.” If they’re being polite maybe they say they just didn't like the story that much. It was, in a word, meh.

The author is naturally puzzled. This sort of feedback or faint praise isn’t actionable, so it's not clear to the writer how to fix the problem. The writer might simply dismiss the feedback.

The problem might be a lack of emotional impact, and the solution might be to deepen the story.

Here are four ways to do it:

Add sensory details. Writers tend to describe settings and characters visually. To heighten emotional impact, add sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and intuitive senses like the feeling of being watched by an unseen person. Cutting back visuals allows other senses to have more presence.

Add specific details. “A flower” is vague. “A pink rose” or “a withered gardenia” is specific. Even more specific would be “a firecracker plant, a narrow bright-red bell of white-tipped petals around a protruding stigma that attracts hummingbirds.” The more specific a description is, up to the point at which the specificity becomes a distraction, the more emotional impact it has.

Add backstory. Writers are often warned against the backstory dump in which too much information about a character is imparted in a big chunk. Some writers try to avoid this problem by deleting every word of backstory. The result can feel superficial. Appropriate amounts of relevant backstory, properly placed, deepen the story’s emotional impact.

Add conflict. Conflict can be shown between one or more characters, within one character’s psyche or both. To increase the tension, make what’s at stake more meaningful to your characters, put what’s at stake in greater jeopardy, make the possible outcomes of failure worse and the rewards of success as wonderful as can be.

Marcie Geffner is a professional editor who helps fiction, memoir, and nonfiction writers improve their story-telling and writing. She lives, works, and writes in Ventura.