How Writers Can Avoid “Underwriting” Emotions

This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #9—Underwriting. Too often necessary information is left out of a scene, leaving readers scratching their heads. This may pertain to narrative, dialog, setting—every and any component found in fiction. Today editor Robin Patchen continues our look at “underwriting” by showing how we sometimes fail to explore and reveal the emotions our characters are experiencing. (Be sure to read all the prior posts to know how to conquer this fatal flaw, starting with this one!)

Show, don’t tell. That lesson is drummed into novelists’ heads, and for good reason. Readers don’t want to be told stories; they want to experience them. They want to charge into battle with your hero, face down the enemy with your heroine. They want to be in the action, not just watch it from the sidelines. They want to feel your story.

And great writers oblige, moving from scene to scene quickly, including vivid details to help the reader imagine the settings, filling each moment with tension and conflict. But sometimes, the emotions get lost along the way. And this can lead to “underwriting”—what we’ve been looking at all month. Leaving out important pieces that are needed to engage your readers.

What’s Missing When You “Tell” Emotions?

You certainly don’t want to name emotions with fabulous writing like “She was sad.” That’s pure telling. So writers find a way to show it. “Her eyes filled with tears.” Great, now we know she was sad. But there’s always more to sadness than just tears.

The last time you cried, was your brain engaged? Because mine was. In fact, it was probably what was happening in your brain that caused the tears. Let me take it a step further. Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper.

You might be able to tell if your spouse is mad because of that little vein that throbs on his forehead, but can you tell what led to his anger? Was it frustration? Irritation? Jealousy? Was he feeling critical? Or defensive? Or perhaps fearful. Some of us rage against fear.

So as an author, if you just show us the throbbing vein or the teary eyes, you’re missing an opportunity to show us the character’s emotions. You’re underwriting.

The Bedroom Made Her Cry

In this snippet, my character Reagan is searching for something in the house she grew up in. Her grandmother, who’d lived there all Reagan’s life, has just passed away, but her parents, who also lived there, died years before—her father eighteen years earlier, her mother fourteen. She’s just stepping into her parents’ old bedroom to continue her search.

Before:

After breakfast, she carried the baby upstairs and laid him in the middle of what used to be her parents’ bed.

The room looked much like it had when her parents had shared it, though the knickknacks of daily life had been removed. Tears pricked her eyes, but she brushed them away to begin her search.

Why is she crying? We know she’s sad about something, but what exactly leads to those tears? It probably isn’t grief for her parents, who’ve been dead most of her life. And even if it is grief, it has to be triggered by something. The trigger isn’t clear.

The reader may assume she’s sad about her parents’ death and move on, but they won’t have an emotional reaction. There’s nothing here to react to.

Mining for Feelings

I know I want Reagan to feel something in this scene. Sadness over her parents’ death is easy—and a little obvious. What else might she be feeling? In her case, Reagan has always felt abandoned, but I cover that in other places in the book. And frankly, don’t most kids who grew up without parents feel abandoned? The last thing I want is cliché.

So what else might she be feeling here? Rather than go with sadness or the ache of abandonment, I dug deeper to a third less obvious emotion.

 After:

After breakfast, she carried the baby upstairs and stood at the door of her parents’ bedroom.

The room looked much like it had when her parents had shared it, though the knickknacks of daily life had been removed. No half-finished novels lay on the nightstands. No jewelry casually lay on the bureau. Eighteen years had passed, and still Reagan could remember the scent her father’s cologne. She’d always thought that the most comforting smell in the world. Deceiving, more like, because it had made her feel safe.

She cradled her newborn closer to her breast as her gaze scanned the space. She could still hear the echo of her father’s laughter, imagine the slight smile he could coax from her mother, even when she was in one of her dark moods. She could feel his arms around her, protective, as though he would never let anything happen to her. And she’d believed that, too, in her childish naiveté. Believed it until the night the car accident had ripped him from the world.

Turned out her father was flesh and blood, just like everybody else. The solid ground she’d thought her life was built on had been washed away like a sandcastle in the surf. First Dad, then Mom, now Gram.

She kissed little Johnny’s head and remembered her parents’ caskets at the bottom of those dark graves. If Julien found her, would it be her body next laid to rest? Or little Johnny’s?

The image floated to her mind: the miniature casket, his tiny, perfect body sinking into a deep hole, She shook her head to throw the image off until just its shadow remained.

Not since the last time her father had stood in this room had she felt secure. Since then, her life felt built on shifting sand, and all Reagan could do was hang on and try to keep her balance. Before Johnny, all she’d had to lose was her own life, her own future.

But now, this child had become her sun and moon and breath and heartbeat. She’d lost everything to the tides of life. Would she lose him, too?

Okay, so I never showed her tearing up. Truth is, sadness is just one of the many things she’s feeling in that segment, and it’s not even the most important. By digging down to the next layer of emotion, and then the next, I discovered something unexpected.

By skipping the obvious feelings, you can catch your reader off guard. My goal when I write is to connect emotionally with the reader. Maybe my reader didn’t lose both his parents when he was young, but perhaps he has felt like life is tenuous and terrifying. Maybe my reader has also held a child and wondered if she could protect him. Maybe you can make your reader feel something too.

Can you write this much emotion into every scene? Perhaps not, but when your character has an emotional reaction, don’t always just show us what happens on the outside. Instead, dig deep and show your reader what’s beneath the surface, and hopefully, you’ll find something lurking in your reader’s heart too.

Your turn:

Now that you’ve looked at ways writers tend to underwrite, and have seen how to bring into your scenes the needed bits to make them stronger, clearer, and more effective, what tips stand out to you? What areas are you weak in, regarding underwriting? Do these examples show you how to go deeper into showing your story?


Want to master the emotional craft of fiction?

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In this course, you’ll be given tools to show emotions in your characters. You’ll be given techniques to help spark emotional response in your readers. What is going to bring it all together for you is practice. Study and practice. And you’ll have exercises in this course to help you put into practice what you learn.

There are two facets of emotion in fiction: conveying what your character is feeling and evoking emotion in your reader. We’ll look at these two facets separately and in depth. Yet, they are intrinsically connected.

Emotional mastery requires writers to set up the dynamics of a scene in such a visual, textural way that readers can’t help but feel what they are meant to feel. Understanding that emotional mastery requires a twofold approachthe emotional landscape of both the character and the reader—is the first step.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in my new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers.

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4 Responses to “How Writers Can Avoid “Underwriting” Emotions”

  1. Florence Osmund September 23, 2015 at 4:38 am #

    Overwriting, underwriting–sometimes it’s difficult to strike the right balance. This was a helpful article with a great example. Thanks!

  2. Christine Henderson September 25, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

    Thanks for the tips on adding emotional tension. This is one of my weaknesses, I get involved with dialog and scene and gloss over the emotions.

  3. Victoria Marie Lees December 8, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    To be real, a character needs to feel and experience emotion within the scene. Thank you for showing us how.

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