Write Better. Right Now.

Emotional Depth 6: Fattening Your Scenes

The title here is pretty self-explanatory! How do we go about adding emotional depth to scenes without doing two pages of looooong flashbacks (or, as someone from my last workshop put it, “whining and pining”) about the past, or what the hero, my mother or so-and-so did to me 5 or 25 years ago?

Well, like my example on workshop one, we can’t create a perfect work of art in one sitting. We write our books in drafts — or most of us do. I remember growling when I read Lori Foster say she writes one draft only, and then sends it off! I hate her, I swear! I could never do that — can you? I can tell you now that the accepted, contracted version of Her Galahad was draft 17, and the final Author’s Alteration copy was Draft 21. (I do a lot less now — like about 6-8 drafts.)

Here’s a breakdown of those 6-8 (or more) drafts, and each one is 100% necessary for me:

Draft 1

Draft one performs an important function — it’s my “character knowledge” draft. I get to know my characters, what their story is, what they like and hate, etc. It’s a necessary draft for me — what I call the “author’s information” draft. Yet I usually dump this one by chapter 8 or so, take what I need from it and create a strong character analysis, and then start on

Draft 2

Draft 2: this is usually a whole new story because that first version has too much back-story and narrative. The next draft usually makes it to “the end” — sometimes not. It’s what I call the “bare bones and fleshing” draft — giving me the plot, the romance, etc — the full idea of where I want to go.

Draft 3

Next, in Draft 3, I finish the full ms if I can, then this is my “sexy” draft — I fill in the love scenes with sexuality and tenderness, craft beauty into the romance, etc. This one is exclusively for emotional and sexual additives.

Draft 4

Then it’s edit time — in Draft 4, I cut tags and adverbs, and scenes or passages I might love but serve no purpose for the ultimate storyline. This is my ruthless draft. I cut it, hack at it — savage it, if you will. I look at my ms as an editor would: Does that passage make sense, or only to me? Uh duh, I’ve repeated myself here again! Cut that scene out! Take that paragraph out! Add something with real meaning, girl! In other words, I talk to myself like a fool all the time, trying NOT to be me, but someone who HATES my work, wants to tear it down and destroy it. I usually lose at least 25 pages this way, but when I’ve finished, the work is taut, tight, fast-paced and much, much stronger. Then I have more space to put in stuff with real meaning!

Draft 5, 6, 7

In Draft 5, 6 and 7 (just wait, I do explain this) I do my “action and motivation” drafts — filling in the blanks, seeing what’s needed to make each scene have action and pace and flow, seeing if I need extra scenes. Filling in bits and pieces, asking myself: have I answered all the unanswered questions? Have I left anything hanging? Here is where the motivation, not whining question comes in, in part. If I think I haven’t made the hero and heroine’s motivations and goals clear enough, I do a separate search for this alone, because this is a vital part of the book, and deserves its own search. For my third IM, entitled Can You Forget?, I found I had left out a huge question in the book (thanks to Anne-Louise from this list, as Maryanne was sick at the time!) relating to the plot, and also relating to the connection between the hero and heroine being both spies and married – so luckily, since I was 15,000 words short, I could add a scene or three, and take the time to answer all questions, cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Get it right!!! This can actually take me two or three drafts or even more, but because it’s so incredibly vital I don’t begrudge it: I embrace it. I NEED it! Who wants to send a not-good-enough book to their editor?

Draft 8

Finally, Draft 8, I get to my favorite — the elevation of a book from ordinary to poetic, a true creation of art – what I call the “beauty” draft. MY CHANCE TO FILL THE BOOK WITH TRUE EMOTION, NOT “WHINING AND PINING”. I add sights, scents, sounds — all the senses — and, most importantly, the look, the gentle touch — the look on a face, the one word that makes him/her laugh, cry, think or have a life-changing perception — in other words, I complete the budding emotion I began in the earlier draft. This can sometimes seem like a natural extension of the other drafts, because I now know the characters so well — or it can be a separate entity in itself: a brilliant idea I came up with at 2am. This is where what I did with that face-slapping paragraph I put in Workshop #4 comes into full effect. I take every paragraph of my book if necessary and remake it, with each or all of the above, if necessary. Some of this, of course, comes naturally with first, second or third drafts; but some doesn’t, and this draft, to me, is vital. I love this one, being able to take a good book and make it, I hope, unforgettable.

And — very, very important point here! — I don’t block a single word of my beauty draft. I go over every single paragraph in my book to make it beautiful, to make it glow and shine like the moon on the water at night, like mountains at sunrise. (Can you tell I’m a nature girl?) If my almost-final draft is now well over the word count, so what? I can savage out a few more things, like unnecessary descriptives (I quite often use 2 or 3 when one will do), a few more tags, a bit of telling I’ve missed! This is like chemo after cancer is cut out: one more time over to make sure all that bad stuff is gone! Every scene in a book needs beautification, in my opinion. I re-read the whole book from line one with an objective eye, again pretending to be my agent or editor. To do this, you must step back from your love of your book. It’s hard, but you have to be objective. “Yes, this scene’s all right — but that paragraph’s a bit bland.” “This scene has great emotion, or the potential for it — but it’s not strong enough. Improve it!”

Every scene in a book needs beautification, in my opinion. I re-read the whole book from line one with an objective eye, again pretending to be my agent or editor. To do this, you must step back from your love of your book. It’s hard, but you have to be objective. “Yes, this scene’s all right — but that paragraph’s a bit bland.” “This scene has great emotion, or the potential for it — but it’s not strong enough. Improve it!”

One thing is vital for those small parts: ASKING THE QUESTIONS. Where, what, when, why — what does it look/smell/feel/taste like — and WHAT ARE THEY DOING? This is something that, for me, never comes in first draft. A Duets editor told me I needed to work on this. So when I did the revisions, I had to ask the questions in every scene — every paragraph!

So let yourself go on first draft — work on those big things, the bones — the plot — and the muscle, the storyline and romance — since they are the most vital things to get across. But the little things are what bring a book to life! So, always go back with one final draft in mind ONLY FOR THE LITTLE PARTS. Get some Post-Its and tack them around the edge of the computer screen:


And the biggie:


Keeping the Post-Its there constantly should keep these vital aspects in your mind. But remember: always, always WEAVE IT IN. Don’t have full paragraphs of description unless it has a solid purpose, like when Tessa was checking out around the school in Workshop #2.

I’ll give another example from “Her Galahad” to show you what I mean, picking up where the last example from chapter two left off:

She leveled a small gun in his face. “Shut up.”

He shut up. Yeah, she’d changed all right.

“Good.” She spoke with a fierce, terrifying quiet. “How much did he pay you to do this? Did you set this up — or did he?”

His heart pounded in sickening rhythm, but he lifted a brow in a show of cool unconcern. If she saw the fear clenching his gut she’d leave him behind on the road alone and unarmed. “Which ‘he’ do you mean? Your dad, your brother or your husband?”

She held the gun before his eyes without wavering, her vivid, glowing face filled with grim hatred and desperate resolution. Terror lurked beneath the steel in her eyes, held at bay only by the force of her will. “Damn you, David, answer me!”

He reached out to reassure her, but halted as she lifted the gun barrel to level right between his eyes. “Does it matter now? For God’s sake, Beller’s after us!”

Her eyes glittered. “How much is he paying you this time?”

“What?” Paying him? What the —

“I hope you asked for more this time. A resurrection’s a rare occurrence. After all, anybody can die. It’s Easter holiday, too: very appropriate. I hope you asked for double time, at least.”

He blinked again. “Are you insane? What the hell are you talking about? And why now? Beller could be here any minute!”

She shook her head, showing her teeth in a fierce smile. “Don’t move, David. I know how to use this — and don’t think I won’t. Did you work out this plan, thinking I’d be so shocked by your sudden resurrection from the dead I’d go along with anything you said without question? How much is Cameron paying you to bring me to him? How much?” She was screaming now, her forehead beading with the perspiration of intense stress.

He could feel tiny drops of sweat breaking out on his upper lip; he watched in wary fascination as her finger curled around the trigger, her thumb pulled off the safety catch. “I’ve never taken a cent from your father, your brother or Beller. I’d never sink as low as that.”

The gun wobbled in her hand. “They told me you were dead — and you never came for me,” she whispered a second time. “Why?”

The half-terrified, confused betrayal in her eyes was something he understood — he’d been there. He’d hated this woman every minute of the past six years, and her look, her words said she didn’t exactly hold tender memories of him, either. “When we’re safe I’ll explain,” was all he could think to say.

Explain? What a joke. Could anyone understand the crazy mess his life had become since meeting Tessa?

“This is a scam.” Her voice was a hoarse croak. “You can’t pull a trick on me he hasn’t already tried – and I’d rather die now than go back to him.”

He finally lost it. “Tessa, for God’s sake will you look at me? It’s not just you he’s after!” With a lightning movement he had the gun in his hand, jamming the safety into place, checking the barrel for bullets. “Don’t scream — if I was going to shoot you I’d have done it years ago. Now look at me, woman! He did this to me because of you!”

Eyes wide with horror gradually unclouded. She seemed to look at him, to take in the blood trickling down his temple, the swollen eye and torn lip, the contorted purpling masses on his arms, chest and thighs through his torn T-shirt and ripped jeans. “If I had a car left I wouldn’t be here. Beller blew up my truck, right in the middle of town. God knows how; I was only gone three minutes. Thank God whatever he used had a faulty timer.”

Or maybe it didn’t? He frowned. Maybe Beller didn’t want him dead — just disabled. Unable to reach Tessa before he did.

I thought you were dead, she’d said —

There’s no time to think!

He handed her back her gun with the bullets still in the barrel, sweating on the hope she’d understand the significance of his act. “Your landlady’s watching us from the back window. How long do you think we’ve got until he charms her into spilling her guts? When he knows what type of car we’re in and which way she saw us go, we’re stuffed until we can get a new car. So can we please get the hell out of here now before he kills both of us?”

Her eyes searched his for a moment — the strange, unforgettable eyes of amber and gold that still visited his dreams after six years. Then she started the car and screeched away from the house. But she left the loaded gun on her lap — and whether it was to use on him or Beller he didn’t know.

Right now he didn’t care. He was safer taking his chances with Tessa than an obsessed maniac like Cameron Beller. On a blown-out quiet sigh he said, “Head for the northern highway. We can stay at my place tonight.”

“We? You think I’d stay with you? I’ll get you out of town, but that’s it.”

“We don’t have time for this,” he snapped, stung by her contempt. “When we’re away from here and safe we can take a stroll down memory lane, throw a few recriminations around. I’ve got a few questions I wouldn’t mind asking myself. But let’s work at keeping alive first!”

“We’ll talk? About what, David?” Her voice quivered with dark fury; her hands clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. “About how you walked out on me? How you disappeared without a word, leaving me to believe you were dead until now?”

“Keep your eyes on the road. I didn’t escape a car bomb to have you slam me into a pole.” He put out a hand, steadying the steering wheel as the van flashed past farms on the northern edge of town. They hit a straight stretch of open road, flanked by flat brown paddocks and half-rotting fences. He kept an eye on the road behind them, throwing up a fervent prayer for a quick sunset, a sudden autumn storm or miraculous fog; but the sun kept shining and the van could be seen for a mile either way. “And don’t call me David. I go by the name Jirrah now. Jirrah McLaren. David Oliveri no longer exists. And I didn’t lead you to believe anything. I had no idea you thought I was dead.”

“What do you mean you don’t exist?” Tessa drove one-handed; the other caressed her brow, as if soothing herself. “What did you think I’d believe when you didn’t show up? They said — “

“If you haven’t worked out by now that your family are lying, cheating sons of bitches, you’re a fool.” He flicked another glance back. “There’s a car coming up behind us. Fast.”

With a high-pitched gasp she floored the accelerator.

Hopefully this shows you all the little things: when he hopes for a fog, I weave in a description; she pulls a gun on him, and I describe her face; weaving in acts with their words, that speak for them, instead of “Tessa said”, etc, while advancing the plot. Doing them all at once stops that three paragraphs of description a lot of readers skip — or the half-page of emotion that can appear to be a hero/heroine “whining and pining”. It’s true! But by weaving all of it in as action happens — the emotion, the description and the plot — leaves the pace trotting along so there’s no room for the reader to “skip” anything. These are all the little things that make a book come alive, and again, they should be treated with the respect they deserve. It also helps give the reader a moment’s space from the intensity of an emotional scene, to be able to envision it.

Someone asked this question the first time I ran this workshop, and I wanted to include it as it’s a really good question!

“For myself, I know I don’t lack for description on what his/her eyes/mouth/hands are doing, but I’ve been asked: what about the character him/herself? Is he/she just standing there? Or could he/she be, say, taking a shower, or scrubbing the kitchen floor with a vengeance or whatever action might help me convey how they feel without my actually saying it out loud?”

Again, putting Post-Its up around the screen may help you to remember this, and not forget. But the second half of your question is a great character analysis topic. In my second romantic comedy, my heroine Sylvie, the hero’s Cinderella housekeeper, always has to be doing something when she’s upset. She dives into the fridge to give the hero his lunch, cleans the mantel, mops the floor or runs. My hero covers hurt with harshness, but she has to work. And the hero picks up on it. Having your characters have a “signature” stress act shows the reader everything you don’t want to tell.

In “Who Do You Trust?” Lissa becomes flippant or tends to her kids or her vegetable garden when she wants to hide something; Mitch turns rampantly Alpha on her, intensely brutal (with words only) or sexual. In “Can You Forget?”, Tal becomes even more tactless than usual when he’s upset; he usually grabs her and throws a home question in her face, then regrets the hurt he’s caused later — and his limp becomes worse, like a signal stress reaction. Mary-Anne runs, runs, runs — both physically and emotionally. She starves herself and works out like there’s no tomorrow. When she finally stops, she’s ready to talk, and Tal knows it’s time to drag it out of her — usually after they’ve made love.

There are so many ways to handle this “filling in the blanks” and each character is and should be different. So if your heroine wants to scrub a floor, either make sure this is totally in character — or completely out of character — a real, strong, this-isn’t-me act that shows where they’re at and why! These are great ways to show your reader the depth of emotion a character is feeling without telling them.


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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