Sunday, January 19, 2014


People read fiction for a vicarious emotional experience. Therefore, it is the author’s job to “hook” the reader and sustain his interest by building an emotional arc which promotes empathy for the character while driving the story forward. This is accomplished through the use of visceral reactions, thoughts, and body language. The character’s feelings draw the reader into the story and allow him to share the character’s emotional experience. Let’s look at Mac’s encounter with a thug.

Mac looked into the store’s barred windows. After the police car passed him and rounded the corner, he walked past the rats and overflowing garbage cans that lined the street.

A man bumped into him.

Big Spike Malone, the Bull Dog’s errand boy. They know I have the merchandise.

Mac prepared to fight.

 The snippet tells us that Mac is going to fight an unsavory character that has bumped into him. It’s interesting but about as exciting as a newspaper account. We don’t know who Mac is or why he is walking up the street. He could be a store owner, a courier, a customer that just left a store. He could be nonchalant or scared half to death. Let’s add some body language.

Mac’s throat constricted. He flipped up his trench coat’s collar and stared through the barred windows into the dilapidated store until the crawling patrol car passed him. As soon as it turned the street corner, he let out his breath and patted the packet of diamonds in his breast pocket. Lowering his head, he passed rats and the overflowing garbage cans lining the street and hurried in the opposite direction from the cops.

A man bumped his shoulder. Hard. Then stopped.

 Mac cocked one eyebrow, spun around, and, looking up at the man’s Adam’s Apple, gulped. Big Spike Malone. The Bull Dog’s errand boy. They know I have the merchandise.

 As he stood rooted to the gum splotched sidewalk, his pulse ratcheted to overdrive. Then a flush wafted over his face. He drew his eyebrows together and darted a sideways glance toward the street corner. A crooked smile screwed up his lips. He lowered his chin and raised his fists.

Now we know a lot more about Mac. The constricted throat, the raised collar, and the attempt to hide his face show he has some reason to be afraid of the police. Patting the diamonds and quickly putting distance between the police and himself further betrays nervousness. Could he be a thief? He identifies Spike, gulps, and freezes, presumably fearful of what the huge thug could do to him. Max is not a cop, so why does he know Spike is a gangster? Is Max part of the mob too? The glance toward the corner shows he is still cautious of the police, but the crooked smile, the tucked chin, and the fists show he has courage and confidence and is ready to fight the much larger man over the diamonds, which are probably stolen.

To help draw your reader into the story world, show the character’s actions and body language. Let the reader see what he sees, hear what he hears, and feel what he feels both physically and emotionally.--Quinn.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


In previous discussions, we learned emotion is a reaction to a motivator. When writing about emotional reaction, we break it into its components. First, there is an involuntary visceral reaction to the stimulant (fight or flight mechanism), followed by thought, then dialogue and/or action. These steps must come in chronological order or the reader feels unsettled. We’ll look at methods for portraying thoughts.

The point of view character (POV) can express his thoughts through the use of Inner Dialogue. With his own voice, he can emote, reflect, and make observations. He can fantasize, reveal hurts, desires. He can discuss things he’d never say aloud or act upon.

In third person, there are two ways of doing this. The first is by expressing the thought in first person. This sets it off from the narration. Used sparingly, it is always placed in italics. The second way is by leaving the words in third person and allowing the context to show they are thought. Italics are never used and tags (he thought, she pondered) are rarely used. It is intimate and when done correctly the line between inner dialogue and description is blurred. This promotes smooth transitions back and forth between description and the POV’s thoughts.

The following is an excerpt from my novel Echoes. The POV character is former linguistics professor Dr. Alejandro de Cordoba de la Rosa, now a foreign agent who is tracking an arms shipment that was sent from his country in South America to California. Working incognito, he has presented himself to a semi-rural community as an immigrant day laborer who has limited English. I’ve underlined his inner dialogue.

A purring engine approached. Tires skidded on the gravel, and a dusty GMC truck crunched to a stop by the barn.

“Hey, Alejandro.” Dr. Crossman jumped from the cab, agile as a man half his eighty-five years.

Alejandro leaned on the axe handle and nodded.

The old man whistled at the woodpile. “A job well done, my friend.” He pulled out his wallet and handed his worker three crisp twenties. His gaze rested on Alejandro’s arm. “That’s quite a scar you got there, son. Looks fairly recent. I got a couple just like it at Normandy.”

Alejandro buried the axe blade in the chopping block and stuffed the bills in a pocket of his baggies. Reaching for the shirt that hung on a fence post, he chided himself. He’d have to be more careful. Keep quiet. Never do anything memorable. Never attract attention in any way. [he’s impatient with himself and reveals he’s hiding who he is]

“I’m heading down for a load of hay,” Crossman said. “If you’re interested in helping out, hop in.”

Alejandro stepped to the passenger door and glanced over his shoulder. A delivery truck had turned into the nursery’s driveway. It could be hauling anything. Plants. Guns. Fertilizer for manufacturing explosives. [shows he’s curious]

He swung onto the passenger seat, and the GMC lurched forward. His head jerked back as the door slammed shut. Heart pumping like a piston, he hunted for the seatbelt. The truck zoomed down the long driveway toward the bridge, turning the light shining through the trees into a high-speed strobe. On the narrow canyon road, the vehicle flew through twists and turns. He gulped. The old man was insane. [shows fear]

“You a praying man, son?” Crossman made eye contact, whizzed past a sign that said speed limit 30 mph, and barreled directly toward a knot of bicyclists.

Alejandro flinched and grabbed his armrest. “No, señor.” But he might become one soon. [fear for his safety is mounting]

“Where ya from?”

“Here, now.”

“Hmm…” Crossman chewed his toothpick. “Most immigrants I know are either running from something or searching for something. My guess is you’re a searcher.”

Alejandro shrugged.

“Or maybe you’re both. Running from something to find something.” Crossman stomped on the brakes, slamming Alejandro against his shoulder restraint. “Gotta watch it along this stretch. Sheriff hides on those rabbit trails, and he’s just plain unreasonable.” He craned his neck and waved at a half-hidden patrol car. Around the bend, he floored the accelerator. “Yep, too bad you’re not a prayer. Makes it a lot easier for a man to determine God’s plans for him.”

Alejandro kept his eyes straight ahead. He didn’t need help—except for surviving this trip. He knew his destiny. It involved putting a bullet in Esteban’s greasy face. [he is determined, fantasizes, and reveals more of his dark mission]

“Ya got a Green Card?”


“How about a driver’s license?”

.” Both courtesy of Vito’s counterfeiters. [He’s thankful to his handlers and reveals more of who he is]

“Haven’t kept the ranch up like I did before the missus took ill. Our daughter’s helping out, but she has a boy at home that’s a handful. I’m impressed by your work. Would you be interested in $500 a week, the use of the cabin, credit at the grocers, Sundays, half Saturdays and holidays off?”

Alejandro grinned. “Sí, señor.” What could be better? A twenty-four-hour-a-day view of the nursery. [he’s delighted at his mission’s progress]

Unlike Dr. Crossman who thinks he has hired an immigrant day laborer, a common occurrence in his community, the reader sees that Alejandro is quite educated and has a dark mission he is keeping secret. Inner dialogue adds depth and intimacy with the POV character.—Quinn


Friday, January 17, 2014


In my blog on emotion (1/16/14), we looked at ways of demonstrating the point of view (POV) character’s feelings. Why are we interested? Because story is conflict or tension fueled by emotion. In response to a motivator (see The MRU 8/26/13), an internal reaction provides the reason for the POV’s response, which moves the story along.

The portrayal of an emotional reaction within a story is broken down and shown chronologically as it happens. Immediately after the motivation, there is a visceral response followed by thought then dialogue and/or action. If taken out of order, the reader feels unsettled.

So what is a visceral response? It is the fight or flight mechanism. Triggered by a threat, the body shuts down organs not necessary for survival and concentrates on those that do. Eyesight may narrow. Attention may concentrate on a particular sound. Adrenal glands may spurt adrenaline. There may be physical reactions like goose bumps or flushing. The contraction of the muscles in the stomach wall may cause nausea or butterflies.

The visceral response is the strongest indicator of an emotion that will activate a change in the POV’s mind. If powerfully written, the story world becomes real and vivid as the reader imagines the same emotion in his own body.

Ways to portray visceral reactions are with involuntary internal and physical reactions. Here are a few:

 Emotion                         Visceral Response

 Anger            Internal: body tense, heart pounding, face flushing
                       Physical: noisy breathing, protruding eyes, veins that pulse

 Fear               Internal: speechless, weak leg joints, rapid heartb
                       Physical: frozen to a spot, shaking, hair standing on end

 Love              Internal: flutters in stomach, tongue-tied, heart hammering
                       Physical: brightening, euphoria, nervousness

 Sympathy      Internal: ache in throat, emotionally strained
                       Physical: sad countenance, deep sighs, crying

 Never label an emotion. Show it. This allows the reader to experience it. And always depict the emotion as it progresses. When a sad person finds joy, show his sadness. Have the sadness go to wonder, then to belief, then to joy.

The second phase of an emotional response is thought. Next time we’ll investigate internal dialogue.—Quinn

Thursday, January 16, 2014


We’ve been talking about some of the elements of story, but what is story? Conflict. What fuels conflict? Emotion. Let’s see how emotion works by using a few examples.

            1.  She felt happy that Tim had returned.
            2.  He was annoyed since Tim was late.
            3.  He was angry that Tim showed up.
            4.  She was frightened that Tim found her.

 These are examples of telling rather than showing. They relate information about the characters reaction to Tim, but it is dry as a laundry list and doesn’t engage the reader. It’s the writer’s job to allow the reader to feel the character’s emotions. This holds the reader’s interest and pulls him into the story. First, let’s let the characters show how they feel about Tim by using dialogue.

            1. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.”     (happy)
            2.  “It’s about time, Tim.”                     (annoyed)
            3.  “Tim, how did you get in here?”      (angry)
            4.  “It’s Tim. Hide.”                               (frightened)

 Now we’ve stepped into the characters’ world. Through their voices, we hear what they feel about Tim’s appearance. Let’s get closer to the characters and add their visceral reactions.

            1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.”
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.”
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?”
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.”

 Now we’re getting their primitive reactions to Tim. Let’s add their thoughts.

            1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.” My goodness. How handsome he’s grown. And no ring.                 
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.” Moron. The clients have been twiddling their thumbs half the morning.
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?” Did he plant any bugs on his way in? I’m going to fire that airhead receptionist.
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.” He said he’d find us. He said he’d kill us.

 We know exactly how the characters feel about Tim and why. Now we understand their motives and participate vicariously in their actions.

           1. Warmth washed over her face. “Tim. It’s wonderful to see you.” My goodness. How handsome he’s grown. And no ring. She tore her gaze from his soft eyes and patted the open stool next to her. “Join me for coffee?”               
            2.  His jaw tightened. “It’s about time, Tim.” Moron. The clients have been twiddling their thumbs half the morning. He grabbed Tim’s arm and dragged him toward the boardroom
            3.  He ground his teeth. “Tim, how did you get in here?” Did he plant any bugs on his way in? I’m going to fire that airhead receptionist. He punched the button that alerted security.
            4.  Time seemed to stop. “It’s Tim. Hide.” He said he’d find us. He said he’d kill us. She shoved the children behind the couch, grabbed the gun, and aimed at the door.

Using dialogue, visceral reaction, thoughts, and action, the writer draws his readers into the story world by allowing them to feel the characters’ emotions and participate in their actions. As the emotions meet obstacles, conflict heightens and the plot progresses.—Quinn