Guest Post: Emotion, Tension, and Zombie-Moms

Robyn Hoode has been my faithful follower for a very long time.  It was only recently, however, that she made herself a blog, so I could give her publicity via a guest post.  Give her post a read, then follow her blog.  It’s worth it.  Enjoy the post.

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(Thank you for this guest post, Liam. This is awesome!)

One of the things I have been working on is the emotions of scenes. This is a concept that I’ve had some trouble in understanding and it’s kind of difficult to work on a specific concept if you don’t understand it.

When it comes to writing emotions, ideally, the reader should be feeling the same thing as the POV character or some sort of sympathy or something like that. Unless there are scenes where the reader just wants to keep reading and doesn’t necessarily feel anything. However, the character should still have emotions and those emotions should still be in the scenes.

This is where I struggled. What if the character doesn’t have a specific feeling? What if they’re almost indifferent, just like the reader who wants to keep reading? Because humans don’t necessarily have constant emotion all the time, either. What about when you’re watching a movie that you’ve seen a thousand times before? What about when you’re just making dinner? Unless you actually are sad about the onion you’re chopping, those tears aren’t emotional.  And what about when you’re sick? I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick, I don’t want to do anything except curl up on the couch, drink hot tea (which I do not normally drink at all), and watch My Little Pony.

But wait a minute. I do have emotions during all that. When I’m watching that movie I’ve already seen a thousand times, it’s because I want to and it’s probably a favorite (unless it’s something my siblings picked and then I might ignore it to write). There’s emotion there, right? It’s how I feel. When I’m cooking dinner, I’m usually thinking about something or I’m hurrying to get done with the hands-on work so I can read or write or just do something else. And when I’m sick, I’m often too emotional and am thoroughly convinced that everything I write is awful.

People don’t ever stop thinking. They might be concentrating on something, but that is a form of thought, right? When you’re writing first person or third person limited point of view, you are showing the world through one specific person’s eyes. You are showing us how they feel about things through what they notice and how they describe it. Action sometimes tells us how a person feels. If they fidget, they’re nervous. If they rebel against authority, they probably think that the authority in question is wrong.

But here’s the other half of the problem I faced: What if the POV character is happy?

Of course, your POV character can be happy. However, there are a couple of things that you need to balance with that happiness to keep the readers from putting down the book. Timing is extremely important. Happiness right before the final battle is not a good idea. Determination, sure. Hope, absolutely. A small smile because the plan is so clever? I think that’s mostly pride or joy that they might have finally figured out a way to defeat the villain. But your characters shouldn’t be having a tea party and laughing without a care right before the final battle.

Another thing that happiness should be balanced with is tension and stakes. If your character’s mom has been kidnapped and the villain announces that he has plans to make MC’s mom into a mindless zombie in just a few days, it’s better if MC doesn’t go to that concert (even if he’s been counting down the seconds until the show). In fact, most good offspring would probably go and rescue Mom instead of going to the concert.  Tension: a time limit. MC only has a few days. Stakes: Mom being turned into a zombie. And if you wanted to really up the tension, you could make it so not going to that concert had some pretty serious stakes, too.

I’m not saying that the POV character should never be happy. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to have a very happy scene right before a tragedy so that the tragedy hits harder. But you need to keep the reader reading. So happiness at the end of a chapter is not necessarily a good idea. Most chapters should end with a plot twist of some sort.  If there’s a plot twist, chances are good that the character is not happy about it. Many things factor into the emotion of a scene. Characters thoughts and circumstances do. If something bad has happened, they’re either angry or sad about it. That’ll affect the way they see things and how they act and it’ll put emotion into the scene.

The other day, I had just read through notes from a beta-reader and was talking to her about them. I was telling her how my favorite part of any feedback notes is seeing where my readers laughed, were shocked, scared, sad, etc. I realized then that I’ve been trying to evoke reader emotion for a long time. I love shocking readers. I want to make a reader cry one day. Some of my favorite feedback from any story ever was hearing how I scared a reader in a short horror story. I just haven’t been trying to evoke emotion for more than a scene or two. I need to evoke emotion for the whole book.

That means that before I write each scene, I need to decide what my POV character is feeling and what I want the reader to feel at the end of the scene. Because writing a scene without emotion isn’t an option. It feels very dry. Stale bread dry. If my character isn’t feeling anything, she’s too comfortable. If my character is too comfortable where she is, I need to raise the stakes or add a plot twist. And I need to look at the book as a whole as well so I can foreshadow properly. When something tragic happens, my readers will feel the sadness my character feels if I set things up correctly.

This topic interweaves with promises and foreshadowing and other techniques of writing that I don’t have the space to talk about here (this post is over 1k words as it is). I wish I did, but this is only a guest post. Thanks again, Liam.

All right, I’m curious… if you were writing the story with my zombie-Mom example, how would you raise the stakes in the other direction? What terrible thing will happen if MC doesn’t go to the concert? I think that it’s possible MC is a band member. If he doesn’t go to the concert, he’ll be fired. There are numerous variations and you certainly can make the stakes higher than that. Go for it.

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22 thoughts on “Guest Post: Emotion, Tension, and Zombie-Moms

  1. Great guest post, Robyn! You’ve gained a subscriber.

    I’d have the main character be not just a band member, but the band’s main attraction—the reason people bought tickets to begin with. Though that may be changing things to much.

  2. “In fact, most good offspring would probably go and rescue Mom instead of going to the concert.” Okay…that made me snort a little. (That’s my emotion for you. I think.)

    Good point. Emotion is what keeps the reader invested.

    I honestly never thought too hard about whether or not I have emotion in my stories…I mean, I’ve never tried particularly to put it in. Sometimes when reading what I’ve written, I’ll notice and say, “Hey, Amanda, good job there with the emotions” (Well, hey, I need to give myself a pep talk now and then!), but I won’t usually think about it more than that. So…something to add to the editing/writing checklist, right? 🙂

    1. Thank you, Amanda.

      Yep, definitely add it to the checklist. 🙂 I’m trying to make a habit of thinking about the emotion in a scene as I write it. I’m hoping one day it’ll be subconscious. (And you aren’t the only writer who gives themselves a pep talk.)

      1. Probably. But I’d rather this be subconscious instead of me having to actively think of it. Because if it’s not subconscious, I’m more likely to forget about it and fall back into writing I’m used to. So, yeah, it’ll take work, but it’ll be worth it. 🙂

  3. Robyn, you have a blog! (I’m sure you needed to be informed of that fact) Anyway, ditto Matt, this is a great
    post and I’ll be heading over to get a subscription.

    Emotions are something I think much too little about in my stories, considering how crucial they are. In fact I would argue that if a reader is feeling any strong desire to keep reading, that is down to an emotional connection to the story.

    And I’m exactly the same, my favourite part in getting any feedback is hearing I made some emotional feedback on the reader — whether it made them laugh or made them shocked / surprise. Probably my greatest feeling of accomplishment as a writer to date came when a substitute teacher said she had “tears in [her] eyes” reading something I wrote, but not knowing anything about the teacher I don’t know if she is a very emotional person or perhaps prone to exaggeration. Needless to say, such an emotional response to my writing is exceedingly rare.

    With happy moments, I think what works really well is getting the character really happy and then following it immediately with a plot-twist/disaster.

    Thanks for focussing my attention in this topic. I think probably the ultimate goal of a writer is to produce emotions in the reader of some kind, so it’s strange that I consider it so little.

  4. Thanks, Leinad! (Thank you for telling me. The guy who usually tells me is on vacation and I forgot.)
    Indeed. Make them happy, then send disaster. It makes whatever happens hit harder emotionally.
    You’re welcome. And I agree. This is the ultimate (or one of the ultimate goals) of a writer, to evoke emotion in the reader. And if the reader is connected, it probably is emotionally. Yet so few of us actually pay attention to this. It’s interesting.

    1. (I’m glad I could fill in for him)

      It seems like, to a large extent, we writers (or at least I) tend to write by instinct, rather than checking off boxes of important things we need to have in our story. I guess, similar to what you were saying to Amanda, we need to make a conscious effort to make these important things part of our subconscious instinct. (or maybe I’m talking nonsense — it’s one of my fortes)

  5. That. That right there, is exactly why all of my previous novels have sucked. Boy, the characters were wwwaaaayyyy too comfortable and I never did anything about it. There were plot twists, sure, but I never really raised the stakes.

    I definitely know what not to do this time around…

    Anyway, good post!

    As for the concert thing, perhaps… I really have no clue. Let me think about it.

    1. Thanks! And good luck! 🙂

      Oh, by all means, take your time. I’m still waiting for someone to come up with the other concert stakes I came up with. Cliché, perhaps, but still no one has said it.

  6. Great post!

    Emotion can be tricky. Sometimes there’s WAY TOO MUCH and sometimes the characters just act like rocks. (Which is fine if your character is supposed to act like Mrs. Bennett or a rock, but those aren’t the only types of people out there.)

    As for the zombie mom story… What if the character’s dad is reconnecting with them for the first time in years, and this is the only chance the MC will get to see him? If MC doesn’t show, s/he’ll never see his/her dad again?

    OR, the character is the only one with the code to defuse the bomb that’s set to go off at the concert.

    …I could probably come up with more but I’ll stop there.

    1. Thank you!
      Mrs. Bennett is hilarious, but admittedly annoying. And I’ve never written a rock as a character (Liam has though, but even that rock had emotions).

      Ooh. Those are good stakes!

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