March 26th, 2018

The Comparison Bug – Prevention & Cure

Kerry Schafer

It’s one of those days. Your inner critic is on a rampage. Your writing sucks. All the good words are hiding in the corners of your brain and you’re left with the rejects. You turn to Facebook for cute cats and emotional support, only to discover that every other writer in the world is having a fantastic day.

Friend X is celebrating her arrival on the NYT bestseller list!

Friend Y just signed with his dream agent!

Friend Z  sold the 100,000th copy of a book you personally feel kind of sucks.

Acquaintance A just had a huge breakthrough and wrote 10,000 words this morning…

The virulent comparison bug kicks in and in the dark recesses of your soul you wish for some small bad thing to befall that oh-so-successful friend of yours. Nothing really bad, of course. Something small, like a zit in the middle of a perfect forehead, or a little muscle twinge, or bad traffic on the way to work…

No? You’re a better human than that? Of course you are. Me too. (clears throat, shuffles papers, conceals voodoo doll in desk drawer.)

Of course we are happy for our friends’ successes. But at the same time, maybe there’s a little voice in our heads shouting, “What About Me? When Is It My Turn??? How come I’m not ever the one who gets lucky?”

If that voice is loud enough, you might suddenly notice that the toilets need cleaning. Those boxes that have been in the attic for twenty years need to be sorted through today. A job as a circus performer sounds like a good idea because ANYTHING would have to be easier and make more sense than writing.

What to do?

I’ve found the following to be useful remedies:

1. Keep coming back to the love. Throughout the day, call into your consciousness anything that you love about your writing process. What inspired you to write your current work in progress? Where is the spark? Can you feel that again? Find a way to remember, whether it’s a sticky note on your mirror, a mantra you repeat to yourself while you comb your hair, a dream board, a collage – experiment until you find what works for you.

2. Remind yourself of all of the things that are already in place in your writing career. Connections with other writers. Conferences you attend. Things you’ve written, whether published or unpublished, finished or unfinished. Make frequent lists of what you’ve done as a reminder that you’re already living your dream.

3. Lavishly celebrate your own accomplishments, even the small ones. Treat yourself like the celebrity you are.

4. Consider a Social Media fast. Sign off. Take a break. Read a good book. Go for a walk. The sky won’t fall, and it’s good to get some space.

5. Think of that successful writer as a guide, a scout who has gone before to prepare the way for you. What can you learn from them? What small step can you take to follow in their footsteps? Even if your opinion is that a supremely successful book is not all that and a bag of chips, clearly there is something about it that appeals to readers. Can you be an objective observer and figure out what it is?

6. Practice helps us gain perspective so our inner voices aren’t running the show. Five minutes (or even sixty seconds) a day is helpful and you can do it anywhere. In the bathroom. In your car before or after work. At your desk before you start writing. While you’re rocking the baby to sleep or waiting for the dog to pee. The beginning instructions are simple. Get comfortable. Focus in on your breath. When your mind wanders (as it will) notice and bring it back, over and over again.

7. Loving Kindness Meditation This practice is to the Comparison Bug what Tamiflu is to the flu. It’s magnesium and black elderberry and zinc and vitamin C, D, and X,Y,Z. Find a minute or five where you won’t be interrupted. Sit down, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and breathe out. Bring into your mind an image of the person you are comparing yourself to. Breathe in again. As you breathe out, think the phrase, “May you be well.” Breathe in, and on the out breath think the phrase, “May I be well.” Repeat for your allotted time, ending with, “May we all be well.” Repeat throughout the day in small increments. Practiced regularly, this simple exercise will retrain your brain and your emotions and help you focus your attention where it belongs: on your own writing process.

What have you done to get over the comparison bug?

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Kerry Schafer (also writing as Kerry Anne King) knows of what she speaks. She has six traditionally published novels to her name, one indie, and three novellas. She is also a creativity coach who works with writers to help them discover –and trust—their own unique creative process, freeing them to get their writing done. Kerry would like you to know that she is currently in full remission from the comparison bug and has burned the voodoo doll. You can find her through her coaching website, Swimming North, at her Facebook creative community the Dreamweavers Attic, or drop her an email at contact@kerryschafer.com

March 23rd, 2018

First Page Critique

This month I chose an ‘en media res’ beginning. They can be fast-moving and titillating – but they’re not easy! You need to clearly lay out the stakes, and since you don’t have time to flesh out a character, (and make us care about them) at least give us a rough idea of who the characters are, and lay the emotion!

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

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I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around, careful. I made sure to find handholds at each point in case the plane jolted again. Only when I reached the cockpit did I pull myself upright, grabbing the door frame for support.

Remember, the reader comes cold to the page. We need a bit more setting for us to settle into the story. Questions I have after reading this far: Is this WWII? Current day? Are they still flying, or have they crashed? It doesn’t sound like a commercial flight because ‘cargo hold’, so what is it? Fedex jet? Military plane? See how we don’t know?

Lieutenant Robert Jones, our pilot, smiled when he saw my reflection. Reflection in what? A mirror? The windshield? If they’ve been thrown around – I’m guessing due to a storm – would he be smiling? “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to make sure I heard him over the engine’s grating noise. A motion wouldn’t make him be heard – a motion would be to make his meaning clear in case he wasn’t heard. The engine must have swallowed a huge amount of sand as we went through the storm which would explained why it now sounded so Thanks to the sandstorm, it sounded much worse than it had when we left Malta.

Why are they going? On a mission? Is it critical they get there? That’s important, because it goes to the stakes. Are they in danger of crashing? The readers don’t know how to gauge how dangerous this is unless they know what’s at stake.

I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel identical to his. like the one he gripped.

I find myself wondering why he doesn’t have a co-pilot, or a navigator. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the government/a company would trust a big plane to one pilot, would they? Is anyone else on the plane? These are the only two people mentioned, so the reader will assume it’s  just them if you don’t tell us differently. Easy fix if there are – up in the top, ‘I crawled forward from the airmen packed cargo hold’.

“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you.”

A belt held him to his seat. Ah, ‘seat-belt’. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet.

We all know about the two parts of a seat belt, and how to use them. Unless this person doesn’t know what a seat belt is. Is that what you’re trying to tell us? Since we don’t know the time period, we can’t guess.

“Take the yoke.”

“Yoke?”

“That half-wheel in front of you.”

I threw up my left hand between us as if it could block his words. “But. But I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted as loud as I could although he wasn’t much more than a foot away. I wanted to be sure he heard my objection. We know why.

The sound must be very loud – wouldn’t he think that his ears are hurting? Is it hard to think? Is he afraid? What’s missing here is the emotion (wait, is the POV character a woman or a man? You haven’t told us). You want the reader to feel like they’re in the cockpit, and experiencing this, firsthand. To do that, you have to use the senses (sound, sight, smell) and emotions. Is it day? Night?

“Can you drive a car?”

“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly lie.  “Well…

For some reason, he took that as a yes, though few women had driven before the war. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but just keep it steady. you’ll just be keeping it steady. You just have to remember not to Be sure not to move it forward or back while you keep it steady side to side. I’ll be here to make slight adjustments.”

Ah, here we find it is a woman, and, I’m assuming, WWII? Why is he showing her how to fly the plane? Is he injured and incapable of doing it himself?  But he was smiling earlier, and seems nonplussed, so that doesn’t seem right, either.

I’m betting you had everything I’ve mentioned in that perfect scene in your head. We all do this…we’re so busy getting the scene on paper, that we forget details. That’s what critters (critique partners) will help you with.

This can be a tense, tension-filled scene that will launch the reader into the rest of the book, with a brush-up.  I’d fill in the blanks, and set the stakes early.  Take a line or two to set the stage – set the stakes, then give us the emotion of what it’s like to be in that cockpit! This has the bones to be a great first scene!

It’s a delicate balance, telling the reader what they need to know, in a compelling way, without an info dump. Trust your critters (critique partners) to tell you when you have the right mix.

Hope you find this helpful!

What say you, WITS readers? Have you begun a story ‘en media res’? Did you struggle with it? Why and how?

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ABOUT LAURA

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Laura began a video blog for writers, answering their burning questions. You can watch all the episodes HERE. If you have a question you’d like her to address in a future episode, leave her a comment!

Did you know Laura teaches craft classes? Check out her upcoming ones, both online and in person, HERE.

March 21st, 2018

Capture ‘Cliche Play’ Power

Margie Lawson

Clichés pop in a writer’s mind as fast as lightning. They cover the bases. 

Clichés roll onto your page like gumballs rolling out of a gumball machine. They require no more thought than swatting a fly. They fit like a pair of old shoes. They sound right, look right, feel right as rain.

I get a bee in my bonnet and a burr under my saddle when I think about writers taking the easy road, using clichés to pave the way to lickety-split writing. Haste makes waste. 

Fourteen clichés in eight sentences. 

According to Donald Maass, clichés sprout up everywhere. Donald Maass has a sensitive cliché-meter. So do other agents. So do I.

 Clichés are sneaky. You may not catch them until a seventh or eleventh read. Or you may not catch them at all. Critique partners may catch overused or clichéd phrases and sentences you miss. It’s up to you to decide whether to keep, nix, twist, play, or rewrite fresh. I’m not saying writers need to nix every cliché and overused word pairing. I am saying it would be smart to nix or play with most of them, and see if there’s a stronger option.

Writing experts recommend avoiding clichés. Why?  

  1. They’re predictable. Not interesting.
  2. They invite the reader to skim, to disconnect from your story.
  3. They don’t deepen characterization or draw the reader deeper into the scene.
  4. They may cover up the power you could have had on the page.

This first example is from my Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing course. Rayn Ellis had these two sentences in a chapter she posted for editing.

Soul Song, Rayn Ellis, Multi-Immersion Grad, Golden Heart Finalist

Another charismatic, handsome man had no place in her life.

Been there, done that.

My cliché meter pinged. I wrote this note:

Here’s an easy cliché twist that just popped into my brain.

Been there, failed that.

The overused carry-no-power line is gone. Now that line carries a WOW factor.

And it conveys THE TRUTH. Regarding men, she was a failure.

 Cliché twists can add interest and deepen characterization. Let’s check out some other examples. 

Esther Scott’s Grand Adventure, Megan Menard, Multi-Immersion Grad

  1. Before: Over her dead body.

After: Over her freshly-rehabbed body.

  1. Before: “Forget it. You’re slower than molasses.”

After: “Forget it. You’re slower than dial up internet.”

The cliché twists makes those sentences pop. Add a Hit of Humor

I Do Not, Rhay Christou, Multi-Immersion Grad

By mid-afternoon I was worth about as much as an overwound Timex. I’d taken a licking and wanted to stop ticking.

Rhay played off a commercial for Timex watches. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

Using rhyming words makes it funny. What if they’d used a non-rhyming word in that commercial?

 — Takes a beating and keeps on ticking.

Not funny. Never would have been in the commercial.

They used the rhetorical device: assonance, rhyming vowel sounds. Simple and powerful.

Soul Affinity, A.Y. Chao, Immersion Grad, Golden Heart Finalist

“Get her out here. Now.” Vandenberg’s voice exploded from the intercom, all pissy and pompous and panties-in-a-twist.

Deep Editing Analysis: 

That cliché was amplified with what I call a rhetorical device combo. She combined  two rhetorical devices, alliteration (pissy, pompous, panties) and polysyndeton (many ands with no punctuation), and she gave the sentence a compelling cadence too.

Campari Crimson, Traci Andrighetti, Immersion Grad, U.S.A. Today Bestseller

  1. My B Positive blood began to race. “O Positive can donate to B Positive. So there could be a link to the blood bank break-ins.
  2. Anthony flipped onto his back, splayed his legs, and snored like a drunk with severe allergies and sleep apnea.

Struck By Eros, Jenn Windrow, Multi-Immersion Grad

Angelo was short, chubby, and Puerto Rican. His clothes were louder than Tara’s laugh, and he wore more oil in his deep-black hair than flowed through the engine of my Mustang. They were a match made in tacky heaven.

Evil’s Unlikely Assassin, Jenn Windrow, Multi-Immersion Grad

White granite floors. White granite walls. White granite pillars. All gleaming like a freshly polished fang.

Love how Jenn themed that cliché play. Smart.

Sharing Hunter, Julie Glover, Multi-Immersion Grad, Cruising Writers Grad, Golden Heart Finalist

  1. Before: The plan formed quickly.

After:    The perfect plan zip-lined into my brain.

  1. No Before, Just an After: I grinned and gave her a kiss-my-sass wink. 

The power of playing on rhyming words. Ass/sass. Fun!

All is Bright, Andrea Grigg, Immersion Grad

  1. I could eat a horse, a stable, and the rest of the barn.
  2. Or maybe I’ve had this emotional baggage for so long it’s sick of riding the carousel.
  3. He gives me a long look and I freak out on the inside in case he’s found me out. But he shakes his head and like a lucky fish, I’m off the hook and back in the river. 

Fresh writing carries power.

CEO for Hire, Lisa Wells, Multi-Immersion Grad

  1. It had been a while since Isabella had locked stilettos with someone, but this chic’s four-inch Louboutins were about to become hell-scraping flats.
  2. “I’m telling you, Grandma Patti, the guy thinks he’s a nine-day wonder, but he’s really just a nine-day blunder. There is no way he’s my soul mate. You need to recheck your algorithm.” 
  3. The air whooshed out of her lungs when she read his reply. Pardon my emoji, but I think I love you.

The Curse of Tenth Grave, Darynda Jones, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller

 “It breaks my heart that you don’t remember me. Not bad. Not like a complete break. More like a hairline fracture.”

The way Darynda amplified that cliché makes me laugh every time.

The Dirt on Ninth Grave, Darynda Jones, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller

Darynda and I worked on Ninth Grave in her first Immersion class. I remember our late night editing. Working with Darynda and her characters is always crazy-fun.

The Set Up:  Cookie spilled coffee on a customer and started dabbing at his crotch.

Before:  When she came to her senses and realized where her hand was, she…

After:  When she realized she had her hand on his erector set, she stilled, stood, and stammered.

Deep Editing Analysis: We avoided a cliché and added specificity (erector set) that included a big time hit of humor with the play on words. Darynda loaded the last part of the sentence with alliteration.

Why use rhetorical devices like alliteration and assonance and polysyndeton? Because they often make the cadence compelling. Because the repetition, the rhyming vowel sounds, and the rhythm add power. Because they make writing sound award-winning cool.

Margie grads may have noticed I used polysyndeton in the first sentence of that paragraph. They probably noticed I used alliteration in the third sentence. They should have noticed the last three sentences of that paragraph created anaphora.

I encourage writers to take a long moment and give cliché-busting their best effort. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day. There’s no time like the present to go all out and push harder. Time flies when you’re having fun. And cliché-busting is more fun than falling off a log. 

I shared a few more clichés, and I also shared my truth.

I hope you all find your clichés and overused word pairings. I hope you consider nixing or twisting or rewriting to add interest and power.

Kudos to the Immersion grads cited in the blog. Impressive writing!

As always – a big THANK YOU to the WITS gals for inviting me to guest blog.

THANK YOU ALL for dropping by the blog.

Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!’

Post something — and you have two chances to be a winner.

You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Lawson Writer’s Academy – April Courses

  1. Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More

Instructor: Becky Rawnsley, Teaching Margie Lawson’s course  

  1. Story Structure Safari

Instructor: Lisa Miller

  1. Taking a Book from Good to Sold

 Instructor: Shirley Jump

  1. Author Power on Pinterest

Instructor: Lana Pattinson

  1. Write Better Faster  

Instructor: Becca Syme

  1. Revision Boot Camp or Revision Retreat

Instructor: Suzanne Purvis

  1. Navigating the Tightrope Between Historical Fact and Historical Fiction 

Instructor: Anne Mateer

Post a comment. Let me know you’re here.

I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS Thursday night, at 9PM Mountain Time, and post them on the blog.

If we have over 100 people post comments, I’ll triple the drawings.

That’s right. TRIPLE.

We’ll have SIX WINNERS!

Ha! Surprised you. Right?

Like this bog? Give it a social media boost, and you’ll boost your chance to win!

Okay, your turn! Share a cliche twist with us!

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Margie Lawson —editor and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.

She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Los Angeles (2), Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, Bellbrae, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com

March 19th, 2018

From the Editor’s Desk: Mining Your Manuscript

How to Dig Deeper for the Buried Treasure in Your Story

There is a scene in the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love that wrings my heart out every time I see it. Childhood sweethearts and longtime spouses, played by Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore, are separated after the wife’s infidelity. Carrell’s character can’t stop sneaking back over to his house, though, to take care of his lawn under cover of the night, and one evening he’s startled when his cell phone rings and it’s his wife, whom he can see through a dining room window. Unaware that he’s watching her, she pretends to have called for help relighting their pilot light, and although he can clearly see she is nowhere near the furnace, he proceeds to talk her through it.

It’s a simple, beautiful scene that lasts no more than a few minutes, but says a great deal: that Carrell’s character is still in love with his wife in the way he watches her, the tenderness in his voice. That she misses him but is afraid to say so. That there is hope for the two of them to reconcile. Even the ostensible reason for the call carries metaphorical weight—she needs his help relighting the pilot light.

This kind of writing is almost like poetry in the way it packs a lot into a small package. It’s sophisticated storytelling, using a single scene and every beat in it to not only further the plot, but to advance each character’s arc, to raise the stakes, and to create wonderful tension. (The screenplay is written by Dan Fogelman, also the creator of the television show This Is Us, so his ability to squeeze a lot of emotional juice from his stories should come as no surprise.)
 
Adding dimension and depth in this way isn’t necessarily something you have to worry about in your first drafts (though as you get more adept at it, you may find it weaves itself into your storytelling naturally). Think of it as home décor—you wouldn’t hang the curtains while you’re building the house. But as you revise your work, you can look for places to enrich a scene, mine deeper and create nuance and layers.
 
For instance, say you have a scene where a stay-at-home mom is invited to a party of “corporate wives” when her husband is being considered for a huge promotion, and she winds up making a huge gaffe and costing her spouse the job.
 
You can look for ways to add layers from the moment she walks in. Perhaps she stammers her thanks for inviting her to the woman who answers the door, only to have the hostess come up behind and greet her, as the housekeeper who answered the door takes her coat. “There’s coffee in the kitchen-help yourself,” the hostess instructs, and when the woman finally finds the huge kitchen she freezes at the sight of a fancy espresso machine on a counter, all chrome and gleaming and industrial. She gamely walks over and tries to use it…blushing furiously when she can’t figure it out. Then one of the other wives walks over to point her toward the silver urn of brewed coffee on the island, and the woman glances around to see whether anyone noticed before fleeing to the powder room to splash water on her flaming face.
 
These are just a few seemingly minor moments, but notice how much they accomplish. The intimidation the character feels tells us that she’s uncomfortable/unfamiliar with these upscale surroundings (which are in turn implied by the housekeeper, the high-end appliance, the huge kitchen)- suggesting to the reader that she has a humbler background. Her trying to fit in anyway shows pluck and courage, traits that strengthen her an reveal character. Her blush and looking around when another guest has to help her with the espresso machine shows her embarrassment or shame-and additionally suggests that her flash of courage was fragile-thus showing us an Achilles’ heel for her character and giving her arc somewhere to go. That’s a lot of meaning and facets in a few simple beats of blocking.

You can dissect how skilled writers do this by analyzing scenes in books or movies that are particularly affecting or impactful to you. List out everything you know about the characters and plot in the scene based on what you saw—and see if you can pinpoint exactly what let you know it, as with the Crazy, Stupid, Love scene I describe above. (Try the final scene in that same film, or the opening montage in Up. Or the first chapter—or page—in Elizabeth Berg’s Say When, or Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, or Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye for Now.) Even the smallest moments and details can reveal fathoms about a plot, a scene, and all the characters in it (watch how much screenwriter Martin McDonagh does with a glass of orange juice in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri).

As you’re creating or revising your own scenes, look for the places where you can “bring in the décor” and add this kind of visceral impact and depth. Without overstating, you can examine every scene, every page, and nearly every single sentence to see whether it’s working as hard as it can for your story, and make it do double (or triple, or more) duty. You can make your prose multitask for you at the overarching macro level and all the way down to the most granular of choices.

With blocking and stage direction, for instance, see if you can turn action into story by layering in color: a character stalks or lumbers or glides—all say something very different about him and his state of mind. One who orders a scotch, neat, and tosses it back is very distinct from the character who asks for a frozen margarita with a straw.

You can also weave in more depth through your characters’ inner lives. Vivify and flesh out character with specific POV references—perhaps a pilot feels that trouble follows him like sparrows in the slipstream, or a Vietnam vet thinks of distance in klicks instead of miles. The sinking stomach and uncomfortable drop of a gaze from one half of a couple in therapy can convey volumes about both characters’ feelings—and their chances.

Look at the words you use and consider shades of meaning, connotation, even sound. If you think “sparkle” and “glitter” are interchangeable, for instance, compare the warmth and joy of the sparkle in a new lover’s eye to the sharp, tawdry glitter of a peep show. Even the phonetics create distinct impressions, the sibilant, breathy fricatives of the former and the sharp, hard plosives of the latter.

Richly textured, multifaceted writing isn’t something reserved only to literary savants—it’s a skill any writer can work on and master. And it’s not a technique applicable only to certain scenes or stories—the most effective storytellers make their words work for them, packing layers and dimensions into every single moment and creating a tapestry with rich strata of depth and color.

Have you ever nuanced your words to do double duty? Have any other examples for us?

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Tiffany Yates Martin has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty-five years. As a developmental editor she works both with major publishing houses and directly with authors through her editorial consulting service, FoxPrint Editorial.

She has worked on titles by New York TimesUSA Today, and Wall Street Journal best-selling authors as well as manuscripts for unpublished writers, single titles as well as entire series. She’s presented editing and writing workshops for many writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences, including RWA National, Pikes Peak Writers, and the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and has written for numerous writers’ sites and publications.

March 16th, 2018

Want to Push Your Protagonist Over the Edge? Add an Emotion Amplifier

Angela Ackerman

Put your character up a tree and then throw rocks at him.

This iconic advice is something every writer hears at some point and keeping it at the forefront of our minds when writing is one of the wisest things we can do. Not only must we make good on our back-jacket blurb promise that the protagonist will find themselves in an impossible situation of some kind (thanks to the twisted events we set in motion as part of the plot), we also want to ensure tension is on every page, hooking the reader and keeping them in thrall.  

Tension is that beautiful feeling of anticipatory uncertainty that we seed in the reader’s mind:

I think there’s something more going on here…

What’s the significance of that, I wonder?

Uh-oh. This doesn’t sound good…

Wait…does that mean what I think it means?

Oh my gosh, what will happen now?

Big or small, tension creates a “need to know” within the reader: Who was that creepy guy standing in the middle of the moon-lit field, watching the farmhouse? When will the protagonist’s best friend admit her feelings? Why didn’t the killer strike when he could have?

Secrets, danger, desire, problems, complications, omissions, challenges, decisions, stakes…all of these are ingredients in a tension-rich story. But, to work, they all require one very important thing: emotional investment.

THE EMOTION—TENSION CONNECTION  

Emotion and tension often go hand in hand. If emotion is low, chances are that story tension is also waning. When emotion is high and it’s written effectively, tension will most likely be on the rise. Tension is important in a story because it increases reader interest. When the hero’s outlook is grim, readers worry over his success. This worry translates into empathy with the character and a desire to keep reading to find out what happens. They become emotionally invested.

For us to encourage this emotional investment, we need to help readers feel close to our characters, meaning that effectively showing what they feel, and why, is crucial. Sometimes to keep the emotional intensity, we need to juice things up a bit. This is where emotional amplifiers come in.

WHAT IS AN EMOTION AMPLIFIER?

Hunger. Stress. Attraction. Exhaustion. Pain. Each of these is an amplifier—a state that can impact a character’s physical and mental condition and make them emotionally unstable. Amplifiers up the ante in a scene because they throw your characters off their game and make life more difficult. And because they can cause the character’s emotions to become volatile, they are much more likely to misstep and make a mistake. When their situation grows worse, readers are pulled in deeper, frantically flipping pages to find out what will happen next.

Adding the right amplifier at the worst time is akin to walking up to the tree your character is in and setting it on fire.

SPEAKING OF HUNGER…

As an example, let’s consider The Hunger Games. Tension is high throughout the story because of what’s at stake. But Collins doesn’t let it stay at that level. Instead, she ramps it up by adding stressors to Katniss’s situation. At the start of the games, Collins removes fresh water from the arena, thereby threatening dehydration and adding another life-or-death scenario for the heroine to worry about. She introduces the tracker jackers and their hallucinatory stings, increasing tension and the reader’s fear over the hero’s well-being. Like a sadistic Head Gamemaker, Collins never lets the heroine off the hook. She continues to throw Katniss new and more alarming problems that make it more and more difficult to survive an already impossible situation.

And the torture pays off. With each new amplifier, two important things are accomplished.

First, Katniss herself experiences heightened stress. Each amplifier makes it more difficult for her to think clearly and make good decisions. Poor decisions lead to more problems, which lead to heightened stress…it’s a continuing cycle that keeps the reader riveted as tension inches upward across the pages.

Secondly, these amplifiers heighten the heroine’s emotions. With each new stressor, Katniss becomes more afraid, paranoid, angry, or depressed. As readers, we feel those emotions right along with her. We’re drawn into her story and begin to root for her success in a way that guarantees we’ll keep reading the book until the very end.

LIKE ANY TOOL, USE AMPLIFIERS WITH CARE

In the case of the Hunger Games, applying amplifier after amplifier works, because the aim of the Gamekeepers is to push the tributes to their limits and break them, one by one. But this won’t be the case in every story. Consider which amplifiers might work best for your scene and choose one that offer the biggest payload. For example, if you know your character’s emotional soft spots, try an amplifier that has personal significance. It will affect them the most.

If you need help showing how your character’s behavior changes when affected by an amplifier, Becca and I created an Emotion Amplifier e-booklet as a companion to The Emotion Thesaurus. You can also find Emotion Amplifiers at One Stop for Writers, along with a helpful tutorial and tip sheet.

Have you used Emotion Amplifiers to increase the tension and up the stakes? Let me know in the comments!

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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, an