A Punch of Emotion

What do you think about the emotional impact of the following passage?

It was midnight and there was a full moon. Henri and Anne moved quietly through the tall grass toward the Spanish border. The four French guards were on the constant lookout for émigrés and patrolled the station with large guns posed to shot anyone without papers. The search light moved around in circles, alerting the guards to any movement. Henri and Anne had been watching the guards for over a week and they knew they had to run across the border when the guards changed shifts and the search light moved away from them.

 They moved carefully and were just short of entering Spain when a guard saw them and shot Henri in the chest. He fell and Anne bent down to cover his wound with her hand. He was bleeding and the guards were coming toward them. Anne wanted to pull him into Spain but the Spanish guards were running back and forth, too. She put her hands under Henri’s armpits, pulled him back into the forest and dragged him until she was certain no one knew where they were. Anne checked Henri but he was dead. She started to cry. She lost her husband but when she was ready, she got up and walked into Spain without anyone seeing her.

If you said there wasn’t any emotional impact in the passage when it should have been searing and smoking, then you’re right. The passage focused on the setting, the movements, the reactions, and the circumstances in a narrative voice that never wavered. It didn’t make the reader feel Henri and Anne’s heart pounding as they made their attempt to cross that forbidden border, or Anne’s panic when Henri was shot, or her victory amid her loss.

So, what can be done to generate emotion and make an impact with the reader? Lots!


As authors we’ve all heard the analogy that pacing is the speed of the novel. We’ve also heard that the author is the driver. The author controls the speed for the desired effect or goal of a particular passage or scene. A slow pace allows authors to describe settings, get into characters’ heads, tell their history, chat about the weather, or in short create and develop. A fast pace focuses on the characters’ immediate goals and the stakes. The goal of the above passage is not a report of a stroll in the park. It is a life and death situation with freedom as the ultimate prize. Henri and Anne are illegally escaping France. Henri gets shot and dies in his wife’s arms. But the narrative continues at the same even pace to chronologically report the actions. The pacing needs to be terse and cranked up to its highest speed to mirror Henri and Anne’s anxiety, then Anne’s panic, followed by her fear, and ending with her tragic victory.  As authors we want to set readers’ hearts pumping, so they feel what the characters do.

Sentence and Paragraph Structure

The sentences are long and sequential and the paragraphs are dense. They don’t reflect the terseness of the moment. The sentences and paragraphs need to be short and sparse while the words need to be hard and sharp. Use phrases but don’t overdo them and avoid the frill of adjectives and adverbs. Stick to the minimum and to verbs and nouns that hit hard.


We need to know where the characters are but the setting should be set before the scene begins. This is not the time to tell the reader about the number of guards, the type of guns, the moon, the grass, the intensity of the search light, etc. Set the scene up, including the stakes, before your action begins so you can move your characters through it without disrupting the flow and the tension. This way the focus is on the characters’ immediate actions and emotions as they work toward their goal.


There is no dialogue in the passage. Dialogue can heighten a scene or detract from it, but it can say in the present tense what a narrative can only say in the past. The effect of dialogue in a terse scene is immediacy and real-time emotion.  If dialogue is used, keep it focused and sharp.

Let’s redo the passage now.

It was dark, but the search light was all-seeing. Anne gripped Henri’s hand as they crawled through the tall grass toward the border.

“Now,” Henri whispered.

They sprang forward. An arm’s length from freedom a shot blasted the silence of the night. Henri groaned and pulled Anne to the ground.


Blood was gushing from a hole in his chest. “No, Henri, no.” She flattened her hand on his wound. “Not now, please, mon amore.”

The pound of running and illegible shouts resonated above the pumping of her heart. The guards were racing toward them. All of them. The Spanish and the French.

 Anne dragged Henri back into the forest until she didn’t hear anymore shouts or running. She dropped to her knees and pressed a fist onto his wound, but the blood oozed over her hand.

Henri grabbed her arm, his gaze piercing into hers. “Go.”



His hand slackened. Then it fell like a rock.

Anne waited for him to speak.  She prayed for him to speak. Then she shook him so he would speak. He had to speak.

“Mon amore?” She lowered her head to his chest. He was still warm but she heard nothing. Not a sound, not a breath, nothing.

She wiped her tears with her sleeve and waited. She didn’t know how long she waited but when the searchlight moved away and the guards were huddled, laughing and talking, she stood up. With her head held high she strode across an undesignated line to another world that would never know Henri.

Better?  Give it a shot and rewrite the passage yourself. You’ll come up with your own version that sizzles with emotion and delivers a punch a reader will feel.

Descriptive Writing and the Five Senses

Writing comes to life through the descriptions authors present. Readers are engaged when those descriptions draw them into the scene. But most authors rely only on the visual to describe. This makes for a one-dimensional scene that excludes the reader. Adding sounds, smells, tastes, and touch to narrative can turn a scene that reads like a grocery list of description into a dynamic three dimensional narrative.

Here’s an example of descriptive narrative that relies only on the visual.

Ashley threw her long dark hair back and adjusted her little black dress. She gripped the handle of her purse, opened the door to the Gentleman’s Club, and stepped inside. Several people were mopping the floor, putting away glasses at the bar, or organizing a synthesizer on the stage. She walked to the woman at the bar who had a great body. Ashley hoped she looked older than her eighteen years old. She really needed the job.

Is this boring? Yes.

Is this flat? Yes.

Does this short paragraph make you want to read on and find out about Ashley in the Gentleman’s Club? Maybe. But that’s not what we authors want. We want the reader to read on.

So, what can we add to make it three dimensional and engage the reader? Let’s start with the senses. An easy exercise for any author is to make a chart and then choose what is significant to the character, the setting or the scene. Here’s my chart for Ashley and the Gentlemen’s Club. These, of course, are only some possibilities and limited by my imagination.







Ashley’s perfume or shower gel

Ashley’s hair

door opening or closing

Ashley’s gum or candy

her clothes

cleaners’ floor detergent


shoes on wooden floor

food cooking

Gentleman’s Club

cigarettes or cigars (residue)


mops on wooden floor

food odour



door knob

clang of glasses at bar



air conditioner

people talking




 Now that we have a reference chart, we have to decide what is significant to develop the character, the setting, the plot, the scene or, in short, the story. Then we have to decide how to describe it.  The how is the narrative part. It’s is also the hardest part. It assumes we know our scene or character inside and out. Most of us don’t until we’ve actually finished our story. But Ashley’s story is simple—it’s only one paragraph. Underage girl tries to a get a job in a stripper’s club to make money. So, how would an underage girl walking into a stripper’s club to get a job feel? Probably afraid of being found out and possibly intimidated of entering a world she knows nothing about.  Now we can go back to our chart and pick and choose from our list to develop Ashley, her feelings or thoughts, and this foreign world of the Gentleman’s Club.

Her hair as silky and smooth as an Asian princess, Ashley straightened her one and only little black dress and removed a blade of grass from her stilettos. Gripping the strap of her purse, she opened the door to her future in the Gentleman’s Club.  Her future welcomed her with a mixed cocktail of stale cigarettes, whiskey, and the overpowering smell of sin. Several men who looked like bouncers were mopping the floor with bleach, making her stomach churn. It was the same lemony-scent her mother used to remove stains. A buxom woman at the bar was throwing cutlery into a plastic bin, the clang competing with the heavily-tattooed man tuning the synthesizer on the stage. Everyone’s gaze landed on her. Could they tell that she was only eighteen years old? She needed the job, and her Chinatown ID would ensure she got it.

I didn’t use everything in the chart. I did try out several descriptions but settled on those that best developed Ashley and the club and brought out her fear and intimidation. Along with the visual descriptions, you can feel Ashley’s hair, smell the club’s “next day” odor, and hear the cutlery clanging and the tuning of the synthesizer.  When a description wasn’t strong enough, I used comparisons or images. “Sin” doesn’t have a smell but it evokes a powerful image of immorality. Ashley knows what she is doing is wrong but ignores her better judgement.  “Asian princess” is a visual description but it instantly tells the reader about Ashley’s ethnicity and regal looks.  Ashley has a strong reaction to the smell of the lemon-scented floor cleaner. It reminds her of her mother, tugs at her guilt, and makes her nauseous. A character’s personal reaction to some object, however it is described, is more powerful than the actual description. It appeals to the reader’s feelings and brings the reader into your story.

What if we use the same chart but turn Ashley into an underage girl who has experience with stripper’s clubs? She may be afraid of being found out but she would see everything differently and wouldn’t be intimidated.

Her hair fluffed and sprayed to new heights, Ashley straightened her mother’s little black dress and sky-high dancing shoes and strode into the Gentleman’s Club.  A mixed cocktail of stale cigarettes and whiskey welcomed her back like an old friend. Several men who probably doubled as bouncers were mopping the floor with some lemon-scented cleaner that could never remove the stench of sin. A buxom woman at the bar, probably some veteran stripper, was throwing cutlery into a plastic bin, the clang competing with the biker-looking man tuning the synthesizer on the stage. Popping a strawberry-flavored bubble gum into her mouth, Ashley sauntered up to the woman.  Ashley knew that with her heavy makeup she looked more than her eighteen years of age. Her Chinatown ID would confirm the deception if her looks didn’t.

I may have used some of the same items to describe as the first paragraph, but they are now described and colored by a new Ashley.

You don’t have to develop charts for every scene that needs description. And you don’t have to go all out and use all the senses for those scenes that need description. Charts should be done only for those characters, settings or objects that are important to your story. If a coffee in the character’s hand is only a coffee in the character’s hand, then don’t go overboard describing it. Don’t even bother describing it. But if that hot and frothy Grande Latte Macchiato is going to have some function for the character holding it or for the setting or plot, then bring it forward and develop it. If it’s going to be thrown into an ex-lover’s face or stain an expensive but borrowed gown or be the catalyst for a class action lawsuit, then build up that whipped cream. Otherwise, let it be part of the background.

Descriptive writing doesn’t have to be long to be effective.  It should be long enough to state your case. Too much description runs the risk of the reader skimming through it. Too little description runs the risk of the reader becoming confused later on. Try this simple test. Write the descriptive scene (and rewrite, edit, re-edit, etc.) until you’re satisfied with it.  Then let it sit for a week or two. Now go back to it and read it. Did it bore you or did it impress you? Your answer will tell you if that descriptive piece was effective or not.



Action Tags for Setting and Characterization

What do you learn about the two characters and the setting from the following exchange?

“Brian, is that you?” Lisa asked. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“I’ve been busy,” Brian replied.

“Yes, your new job.  A new job can be overwhelming.”

“It’s so far from home, too. Well, it was nice seeing you.”

From the exchange you learn the characters’ names, that they know each other, haven’t seen each other in a while, and Brian has a new but distant job. Does the exchange make you care about the characters? Do you want to continue reading the story? More to the point, would your readers want to continue reading? The answer is probably “no”.  The exchange between Lisa and Brian is nothing but small talk.

In writing there is no small talk.

In writing there are no conversations.

In writing there is only dialogue. This is not dialogue.

But, you say, you need to include this exchange between the two characters? You can. You just need to make it over into dialogue. You can either rewrite the whole conversation or simply add action tags to the existing exchange. Action tags are sentences that can go before or after dialogue to not only identify the characters who are speaking but describe where they are and what they are doing. Action tags report the actions, body language, facial expressions, or mannerisms of characters, which reveal or hint at their personality and emotional states. They also create settings and roll them out gradually as the dialogue unfolds. And they do this with very little words.

I’ve taken the exact wording between Brian and Lisa and added action tags.

“Brian?” Lisa almost dropped the boxes of shoes she had spent the whole morning fighting for with other bargain hunters. “Is that you?” She moved closer to the order counter. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

Brian stopped pouring honey into his coffee. “I’ve been busy.” He stumbled around a woman with a baby stroller to grab a lid.

“Yes, your new job.” She began to reshuffle her boxes to get to her purse. “A new job can be overwhelming.”

“It’s so far from home, too.” He pulled his car keys out of his coat. “Well, it was nice seeing you.”

The action tags showed the setting and continued to add pieces to it as the dialogue progressed. You can see the mall, Lisa’s purchases, the coffee counter, and sense that it may be winter from the mention of Brian’s coat. The action tags also suggested personalities. Lisa sounds like a bargain hunter and Brian attempts at healthy eating habits. How about the nature of their relationship? Lisa advances while Brian retreats. Lisa is interested but Brian is not. We may not have hooked the reader from this short dialogue, but we did create conflict and questions. Were Lisa and Brian ex-lovers? Why is Brian avoiding her? How good was that shoe sale? We also turned insignificant small talk into dialogue worthy of a scene.

Action tags are versatile. They can be revamped or as we authors say, rewritten or edited, to create new settings, new personalities, and new relationships. Here’s the same exchange between Brian and Lisa but with different actions tags.

“Brian?” Lisa dropped the towel on the lounge chair. “Is that you?” She weaved around the sun-tanning bodies, her feet sinking in sand, toward the hut turned bar. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

Brian poured vodka into a glass of fruit. “I’ve been busy.”

“Yes, your new job.” She grabbed a pitcher, leaned over the counter, and flung the ice water in his face. “A new job can be overwhelming.”

Brian added a pink umbrella to the drink and gave it to a buxom blonde. “It’s so far from home, too.” He picked up a napkin and began to pat his face dry. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”

In both examples the point of view is Lisa’s. You can have a different scene by presenting it from another character’s point of view. Here’s Brian’s POV. I’ve added a little narrative around the actions tags.

“Brian? Is that you?”

Brian dropped the bottle of honey into his cup, spilling the coffee over the counter. It was the “I love you woman”, “where are we going woman?”, “I want you to meet my parents’ woman”.

She threw her flamed-colored hair back. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“I’ve been busy.” He bumped into a woman with a stroller as he grabbed napkins.

“Yes, your new job.” The full lips that had damned him with words of commitment and some heavy but great kissing were addressing him. “A new job can be overwhelming.”

“It’s so far from home, too.” He threw the napkins on the coffee and dropped the cup in the trash. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”

Since we’re not supposed to use creative dialogue tags such as cried, exclaimed, screamed, hollered, bellowed, whispered, and so on, a good action tag can tell the reader how a character says something.  Lisa has finally had enough of Brian. She’s going to tell him how she feels. Her words are the same in each example, but her actions are different. What does each action tag tell the reader about her?

Lisa opened her boxes of shoes and whipped them at him. “I hate you, Brian.” (Angry drama queen.)

Lisa leaned in and swept her lips over his to his ears. “I hate you, Brian.” (Frightening!  Nobody messes with her.)

Lisa took Brian’s coffee out of his hand, took a sip, and wrinkled her nose. “I hate you, Brian.” (Brian better watch his back.)

Some words of caution about action tags. If you use them, don’t include dialogue tags.

       Lisa grabbed Brian’s arm. “What do you mean it was nice seeing me again?” she said.

“She said” is redundant. We know Lisa is talking because she grabbed Brian’s arm. Also, don’t overload dialogue with too many action tags. Use only what you need to establish the setting or the look or feel of it, to reveal characteristics, or to show emotion.


Writing the Action Scene

An action scene isn’t just a car chase in an espionage novel, a sword fight in a historical, or even a hot and heavy sex scene in a romance. An action scene is any scene that needs the pace cranked up to its most intense level to build tension, deliver emotional impact, and thrust the plot forward with one big punch. So, how does an author turn an action scene into a heart-pounding experience for the reader, while building tension and emotional impact, and advancing the plot?

First and foremost, the action scene should not be overloaded with description of any length. The setting should be set up before the action begins so the reader knows where the action is taking place. A winding mountain pathway during the night, a crowded downtown street during morning rush hour, the prince’s secret boudoir on his private island, whatever your setting, it should be introduced before the action begins to limit the need for description. When the action begins, an author only needs to mention the details that create the immediacy, urgency, or the sense of dread, panic, romance, or in short, the scene’s emotional goal. More important, these details should be mentioned as they relate to or affect the character.

Compare the following two sentences.

Kate quickly maneuvered her old car around the sharp mountain path lined with thick trees and littered with rocks the size of soccer balls. It was a long and deep fall over the edge and she didn’t want to fall.

Kate gunned the car around the mountain path. The trees grabbed at her. The rocks jabbed at her car. She banged her head on the window and gripped the wheel. She wasn’t going over the edge. She wasn’t dying today.

The first example is straight description. The second uses the description to reinforce the sense of danger and its impact on the character. The first is long and factual. The second is hard-hitting and emotional.

The action scene should also not have any character internalizations. In an action scene the character runs on instinct. It’s not the time for characters to think up a vaccine to neutralize a killer virus, make deductions based on hieroglyphics, or wonder whether someone loves you or someone loves you not. Characters can reason, question, or deduce all they want after the scene but not during. During the scene characters should only react, and it doesn’t matter if they are running away from the bad guy, fighting with him, or wrapped in his tattooed arms. Compare the following two examples.

Kate knew she shouldn’t have gone to the castle. She had been warned against visiting by everyone in the town.  But she had wanted to know the truth. Now the truth was shooting at her. She pressed the accelerator of her car. She couldn’t become victim number six. She would lose her deposit on her trip to Cancun in December with Ashley, Maxine, and Diane, she had to plan her sister’s bachelorette party or her mother would never forgive her, and she definitely had to catch one of her niece’s soccer games.

Kate shouldn’t have sneaked into the castle. A bullet shattered her back window. She ducked and floored the accelerator. She wasn’t going to become victim number six. She wasn’t through with life yet.

In the first example, the action is stalled because of the character’s reflections. In the second example, it’s all about the action.  Kate doesn’t even realize that she is panicking. She’s simply reacting. The action scene must also be told in real time so the reader participates. Don’t summarize. Let the action unfold in front of the reader’s eyes and describe only what is happening, not why.

Dialogue can be used in an action scene if it contributes to the tension. But it should be direct and succinct. There should be no fillers, no small talk, and no pleasantries.

Kate’s cell phone shrilled. She couldn’t answer. The prince’s Ferrari was gaining on her Mini Cooper.

But it wouldn’t stop.

She grabbed the phone. It was her partner. “Not now!”

“Don’t go to the castle!” Diane shouted.

“Too late.”

“You went?”

“Call the F.B.I.”

“You found him?”

“And his five victims.”

The quick-fire volley of the dialogue builds on the urgency and emotional chaos of the scene.

The structure of your sentences contributes to the pace. An action scene is not the place for long flowing sentences of narrative value. Your sentences should be short, clean, direct, and punchy. The best way to achieve this is by using subject/verb/object constructions and vary them up with sentences that use “and” or “but”.

Kate spied the knife. It was buried in mud. She yanked it out. The edge was ragged and blood stained. She had to get out and now.

Don’t complicate sentence structures by using “before”, “after”, “during”, “while,” or “when”.  They lead to confusion and weigh the sentences and the action down.

Kate spied the knife before she picked it up. After Kate picked it up, she saw the ragged edge and blood stains. While Kate was examining it, she heard someone approaching. During the time she heard someone approaching, Kate put the knife in a bag.

You can use phrases to offset the basic sentence structures, but sparingly. They can be annoying as they are in the following example.

The knife. It was buried in mud. Edge blunted. Stained with blood. She had to leave. Now.

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs. Instead, use action verbs and succinct nouns.  Compare the following.

Kate saw the expensive butcher’s knife. It was slightly hidden in thick mud. The deranged, filthy-rich prince and his big gun were not too far behind her but she pulled the knife out. Its teeth were heavily dulled and the fat blade was covered with dark blood stains. She gingerly placed it in a clear Ziploc plastic bag and put it in her dog-eared purse. Then she started to move fast.

Kate spied the knife. It was buried in mud. The prince was on her tail, but she yanked it out. Its teeth were dulled and the blade was stained with blood. She threw it in her purse and ran.

The second far outweighs the first and without the use of unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, or wish-washy nouns.

Last but not least, keep your paragraphs short. They will quicken the pace of the scene.






Immediacy in Writing Genre

To read a novel is to experience a character’s highs and lows and everything in between. To be carried away into the make-believe world of an author’s imagination. To experience what you would never experience and in ways never imagined. Yet some authors steal these joys from their readers by distancing them. They don’t bring readers into the character’s head or heart, the pulse of the action, the nuances of the fictitious world and so on. They rob readers of the immediacy or the moment of the scene.

Recapping an important scene instead of presenting it firsthand is one way authors deny immediacy to readers. In the following passage, Anna is confronting an unfaithful lover. She has never stood up to a man. Once she does, she leaves empowered.

Anna stood in front of her boyfriend’s door.  Her heart racing, she thought of all the mean things she wanted to say to Luc. He had made her believe she was the only woman in his life, when in actuality, she was one of five. Five! She had never been so insulted in all her dating life.

She knocked on the door, hoping Luc wasn’t home, but he opened it. Before she could run away, she began the onslaught of all the wrongs he had committed against her. Luc countered with one lame excuse after another—probably well-rehearsed from all the practice he had had with all the other women who had come before her—or alongside her. When she couldn’t remember any more injustices, she turned on her high heels and strode off. She was shaking, but she had stood up to Luc. No man would ever make her one of five women again. No man would ever wrong Anna Broughton ever again.

Anna’s experience is life alternating and significant to her character and the story. Yet the reader doesn’t get to feel it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or hear it. The two paragraphs should have been developed into a scene, possibly even a chapter. There should have been lots of dialogue, and some minor narrative to flesh it out, which would have put the reader, standing right next to Anna, experiencing the shake of her knees but the thrill of her ride, and cheering her on firsthand. The reader then would have left on the heels of Anna’s high. But the past tense narrative, which is a recap, robs the reader of the immediacy of Anna’s moment. We’re left without having experienced anything.

Author intrusion also distances readers from the scene’s moment.

In her dark corner, Anna saw Luc cuddle up with a tall blonde. The blonde left and a buxom brunette showed up. He made the same moves on her. Four cappuccinos later Anna had counted two more women. Well, you wouldn’t believe what Anna did next.

Among other things, suspense is created by conflict and tension. Suspense is not created by an author, jumping into the story to tell readers that they are in for a big surprise and to keep on reading if they want to know what that big surprise is.  Authors who do this pull me right out of the story and tell me they aren’t confident handling suspense or just want to get the story over. This technique also reminds me of the classics and of allegorical novels, where authors intrude to make sure the lesson or the moral of the story is learned. Unless you’re writing an allegory, don’t interrupt the flow of the moment by jumping in.

An author’s choice of words can also pull a reader out of the moment of the story.

In her abstruse corner, Anna witnessed Luc cuddle up with a prodigious blonde in a diaphanous dress, and an hour later with an esoteric-looking brunette in an affluent suit.

As authors, we search for the right word. The right word has to work for the time period, the character, the culture, and all the other details of our work. We are presented with choices and may opt for an impressive-looking word rather than an every day one. But, when was the last time you were in the throes of a passionate scene or the grip of a hair-raising action scene and been stopped cold by an unknown or over-the-top word? When was the last time you pulled out a dictionary to check the meaning of that word? A work of fiction is not a textbook. Don’t use a word that will stop readers cold and ruin the momentum of the scene.

Creative speech tags in dialogue can also disrupt immediacy and readers’ enjoyment of your work. There is nothing wrong with “he said/she said” or even “he replied/she replied”. I’m the first to admit that “said” and “replied” are boring. After all, they’re not creative, and we as authors are. But we have to remember that if we’ve engaged readers, they will be focused on the dialogue and not on the speech tags. Which one of the following keeps you focused on Anna’s moment?

“I loved you, Luc,” Anna managed to squeak out.

“I loved you, Luc,” Anna shrilled at the top of her lungs.

“I loved you, Luc.” Anna said.

“I loved you, Luc.”

My guess would be the third, but the last one works even better. If the author develops the scene properly, the reader doesn’t need to be told how Anna says her parting words to Luc. The reader knows, and the speech tags are redundant.

A misplaced description or an overload of irrelevant information will also ruin the scene’s momentum and pull the reader out of the story.

Anna stood in front of her boyfriend’s door. It was a beautiful redwood door with a bevelled glass that must have cost Luc a fortune. She knocked, hoping he wasn’t home, but Luc opened it. He was wearing a Lacoste polo shirt, a pair of Hugo Boss jeans, and cologne that reminded her of climbing the Rockies with her Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sisters.

Is the description of the door important? Is what Luc’s wearing essential? Is the memory of mountain climbing with her sorority sisters necessary? At that very moment, no, they aren’t. This is Anna’s moment. The author should be focusing on her emotions and then on her triumph. The author should not be focusing on extraneous descriptions or thoughts that detract from the immediacy of Anna’s moment and of the readers’.

Be careful with slight point of view shifts that can also jar a reader. If you’re in one character’s POV, don’t switch to another character’s in the same paragraph.

Anna knocked on the door, hoping Luc wasn’t home, but he opened it. Luc was surprised to see her. He was expecting Marguerite.

The shift in POV is slight, but may lead to reader confusion.

The biggest compliment readers can give authors is that they lost themselves in their stories. Don’t rob the readers’ experiences by distancing them from the moments that make up your stories.

Characterization through Dialogue

Have you ever overheard a conversation while sitting at a coffee shop or on a bus? Without looking at the people speaking, have you been able to pick up on their personality traits, educational levels, ages, social circles, etc.? The answer is probably yes. This should work the same when reading dialogue in a novel. No matter how much an author describes a character physically, the reader gains more insight about that character from the words that come out of his or her mouth and how he or she uses those words.

What does the following piece of dialogue from The Witch’s Salvation reveal about the character who is speaking?

“I have no intention of waking the slumber of Wallachia’s soil or invoking the Strigoaic’s wrath. I do not wish to be choked by its roots or tossed out as an enemy instead of one of its most loyal sons. I want that witch to grant me entrance or to leave her domain and meet me on neutral territory. I want a private audience with her. Once she hears what I have to say, she can either turn her back on me or consider my plea. I want to go home. I want all of us to go home.”

Does it show how archaic, pompous, and authoritarian the character is? It should. Constantin Mushati Seneslau is an immortal prince and military ruler from the fifteenth century. From his language we can infer that Constantin is still throwing his weight around in the twenty-first century. Do you like him? It really doesn’t matter. You’re supposed to be intimidated, just as the hero and heroine of the novel.

How about the following dialogue? What does it say to you about the character?

“Ah, you both render me speechless, ladies. Dusk and dawn. You are most certainly not little girls. I’m afraid we meet during deplorable circumstances, my fair maidens, but civility should never be forgotten. I am Austin the Imprisoned, and this is Matthias the Damned. You, my sultry dawn maiden, are the damsel the old hag requested—I recognize you from your image in the water. If you will allow me to say, you are far more beautiful than your image in that environmentally challenged pool. But you, my cool dusk maiden, I don’t know and desire to know.”

Does the dialogue suggest a chatty and outgoing young man, a smooth talker, as well as a poet at heart? That’s Austin. I needed a light and airy character to offset the dark and brooding male protagonist of The Witch’s Salvation. Austin was the perfect foil for Matthias. Do you like him?  I’ve had many readers tell me they do. That’s good because I needed Austin to be entertaining. He doesn’t take anything away from the male protagonist. He merely offsets the male protagonist until he can come into his own and be understood by the reader. 

Dialogue authenticates characters. Characters talk the way they think and feel. Their voices reflect their lives, backgrounds, cultures, histories, education, aspirations, and so on.  Of course, this means that we as authors need to know our characters before we can make words come out of their mouths. If we don’t, we probably don’t know that character’s function in the novel. Most of us, however, will never really know a character’s function until we’ve finished the first draft of the novel. Once that first draft is completed, we go back to the beginning and personalize and validate our characters with the right voice and dialogue.

Some of us find it helpful to interview characters in order to get to know them. By interviewing characters, we are forced to think about our character’s age, culture, educational level, position in the family, greatest fear, greatest loss, weakness, strength, immediate goal, long-term goal, etc. This exercise may help some of us shape our characters better or it may be superfluous.  Either way, don’t lose the opportunity to create a two or three-dimensional character through authentic voice in dialogue.

Dialogue does more than bring characters to life. It can move your plot or character into another direction, and sometimes more quickly and smoothly than narrative can. I needed my female and male protagonists to go from dislike and disrespect to attraction and mutual understanding in a very short time. I needed them to start working together and to get on with their romance. Dialogue was the perfect vehicle.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Matthias demanded.

“I’m going back in time,” Anasztasia replied.

“You’d never survive.”

“I’d rather risk going back and finding that cup than marry a man who wants  nothing to do with me. I’m not spending the rest of my life in hell for you.”

        “This marriage is a farce.”

        “I don’t hear you laughing.”

        “It’s the Strigoaic’s revenge.”

        “Then fight her instead of your grandfather.”

“You overheard?”

“Who didn’t?” She leaned in closer, pulling him down into the searing condemnation of her eyes. “I have some news for you, Matthias Stefan Bogdan Craiovescu. You may hate your grandfather, but you’re exactly like him.”

Matthias drew himself to his full height, looking way down at her. “I am nothing like my grandfather. My grandfather is a man imprisoned in his past, in his godforsaken soul, and in the mortality of his only heir.”

“And you’re a poet like him, too! Get over yourself, bro!”

He propped his hands on his hips. “I inherited the damnation of his cursed deed!”

“Sorry, I’ve got my own curse to worry about,” she replied, stomping away.

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into!”

She brushed his words off with a wave of her hand…and kept on stomping.

“I don’t want any of this!” he cried. “I want out!”

She stopped, and turned around. “Do you want to be immortal?”

“I want my grandfather off my back.” He hesitated. “You?”

“I want my grandfather to be happy.”

Matthias’s indignation came out as mirthless laughter. “You don’t need me to be in hell. You’re in hell already.” 

The exchange between the two characters is direct and to the point.  Each character also has a distinct voice. Matthias’s voice is cut and dry, strung with pride and arrogance. Anasztasia’s is light but at the same time, blunt, her honesty, openness, and feelings evident. I provided their names only when I thought it was necessary.

The dialogue is also dramatic.  Most of us could speak like Matthias and Anasztasia or even like Constantin or Austin if we had time to plan and edit and write and rewrite what we wanted to say.  But we don’t.  Dialogue is not conversation. It needs to be edited and re-edited not only to suit the character but to make a point. It also has to make that point in the best possible way that will keep the reader entertained and interested. A reader doesn’t want to read every day, ho-hum conversation. He or she can get that sitting at a coffee shop or on a bus. If dialogue doesn’t have a point, then it’s just fluff and should be edited out (even if it’s the best dialogue you’ve ever written).

A lot of us authors muse over descriptors. Should we use said, asked, told, exclaimed, whispered, shouted, demanded or something different like rattled, stammered, or hummed? If we’ve set up the scene properly, the reader should know how a character would say something. “Said” is neutral and unobtrusive. I have used descriptors, such as rattled, whispered, and hummed, when I wanted to make sure the sound of the words was heard. Rattled, whispered, and hummed are sounds as much as they are descriptors. However, I have had some authors remark that my use of these descriptors was intrusion. Be careful with descriptors and use them only when you feel you need to add some element that the scene or dialogue or narrative can’t provide.

Most of us use dialogue during our first drafts. It’s easier to write “he said” and then “she said” to help us plot rather than to write paragraphs of narrative, which will probably be edited extensively. Use dialogue to flesh out characters. Just don’t let your characters converse.



Characterization through Names

Have you ever been stuck trying to come up with a name for a fictional character in your novel? Sometimes the perfect name comes to you easily but usually research is involved or should be.

A name for a fictional character isn’t just a name. It’s a personality, a history, and sometimes a future.

I spent a lot of time researching the names for the large cast of characters in The Witch’s Salvation. I not only needed regal-sounding names for the majority of characters who belonged to lost houses of ancient monarchies, but names that crossed social statuses, cultures, religions, and, more importantly, centuries. The majority had to be fifteenth-century East European names. The first place I went to were the family trees of the ancestral royal houses of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Hungary. After this I checked the names of the political leaders of the time, followed by lists of cultural names. Here’s the rundown and the rationale for the major characters in The Witch’s Salvation.

Anasztasia, my heroine, is a Hungarian name, meaning resurrection. The actual spelling is Anasztázia but the second “z” made the name too severe- looking and the accent was irrelevant for English speakers. The name alludes to Anastasia of the House of Romanov, the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. It was, therefore, regal-sounding, but, more importantly, it could be shortened to “Annie”, an everyday and endearing Anglo name.  In The Witch’s Salvation, Anasztasia always tries to do the right thing. She is a kind-hearted urban princess, who is uncomfortable with her royal status and heritage. But she comes into her own, experiencing a “resurrection” on several levels. The name was perfect for her.

Matthias is the Anglicized form of the Hungarian Mátyás. Matthias is a borderline genius, wildlife advocate, and sports enthusiast, who rejects his nobility and his stuffy royal family. I named him after Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary from 1448 to 1490 and a military commander, who introduced the Renaissance to his kingdom. Matthias’s middle name is Stefan, which in Romanian means “crown.”  At the beginning of the novel, Matthias doesn’t suit the integrity and significance of his names. However, by the end of the novel, Matthias grows into their nobility.

The secondary characters in The Witch’s Salvation were given names either for their root meanings or historical significance. Anasztasia’s grandfather is Constantin, which in Romanian means steadfast. Constantin is the prince of the House of Senesti and an unmovable force of tradition. Matthias’s grandfather is Alexandru, the prince of the House of Barbat. In Romanian, his name means defender of mankind. The name “Alexandru” is as formidable-sounding and looking as the name “Constantin”. These two princes were rivals in history for the Wallachian throne, but they are mirror images of honor, pride and nobility. The rule of thumb for fictional characters is to distinguish them by using names with different initials, syllable counts, and tone. This is one instant where it worked best not to distinguish between the weight and sound of the names.

Strigoaică is a female witch in Romanian folklore. I changed the name to “Strigoaic” and applied it as a generic name to a girl who has lost her real name and yearns to reclaim it along with her humanity. Hence, the witch’s salvation and the title of the novel.

Andrei is a major character in the historical section of the novel. In Romanian, the name means “warrior” and that is exactly what he is. Friar Gavril also appears in the historical section. Gavril means “man of God”. The reference to Gabriel the Archangel is intentional. Renata is a Gypsy but I gave her a Hungarian name that means reborn. Renata has been raised away from her clan. She is also almost killed when my hero and heroine show up and save her, giving her another chance at life.

Whether a novel has a large cast of characters like The Witch’s Salvation or only a few, avoiding names with the same letter, syllable count, and tone is always a good rule to follow. How can you distinguish between characters if they are called Anne, Anton, Andrew, Allie, Alice, or Ariel? You should have a good reason to ignore the rule, which I believe I did when I named my characters Anasztasia, Andrei, Alexandru, and even Austin (yes, British, and, yes, as quirky as Austin Powers—intentional reference). The names were not only perfect for the characters, but they were solid and distinct enough in tone, meaning, or reference to allow for distinction. Also, except for Anasztasia, none of the other “A” named characters share scenes, which could have created confusion for the reader, and forced me to rethink the choice of my perfect names.

What do you think of these names for the characters in one novel? Florence Fae, Don Dobson, Bob Budsen, Marnie Murphy?  Nice alliterative initials, but I’m going to have difficulty distinguishing between them. They don’t tell me anything about their characters except that they come from an English-speaking country. The names should reflect their personalities, heritages, significance, or future. The alliteration doesn’t make me take them seriously, either (unless, of course, this is a comedy). Leave alliteration for characters that need to stand out. Are you likely to forget a character named Bilbo Baggins, Severus Snape, Sam Spade, or even a non-literary character like Betty Boop?

Unique names are great if they don’t work against the function of the character. “Schnooze expanded his chest, his muscles rippling like water, and aimed his sword at Barrbee, the two-meter high leader of the Barrbee Clan of warrior princesses.” Do these names make you believe in how big and bad Schnooze and Barrbee are? They don’t for me. They make me think of someone who likes to sleep and Barbie dolls. They also don’t bring me into the author’s special world. For science fiction or fantasy, where worlds are created, names should reflect the special nature of that world and the character’s function or role in it.

“Lucrezia Joyce Xhipeng Chekova pulled out her iPad and goggled her manicurist’s name.”  Is your character of mixed heritage? If not, then rethink the names. Names also go in and out of vogue. Lucrezia was a popular name in fifteenth century Rome, while Joyce was popular in Anglo-speaking nations in the 1920’s. Check what’s popular for the generation, culture, and country that your characters hail from.  Also, the iPad tells me this is a contemporary novel. Four names per characters are not the norm. Unless you have a solid reason, one name is more than enough even when introducing a character to the reader. The rest of the names can come when and only if necessary.

I ignored one significant rule when I assigned names to the characters in The Witch’s Salvation. Most of the names are difficult to pronounce. Reviewers have mentioned this. But historical authenticity was the priority for me. I couldn’t name my characters Anne or Matt or Alex or Cory and get the same tone and feel.

A name for a fictional character is part of his or her personality and role in the novel.  I find that once I have assigned the right name to a character, I can think and write from his or her point of view and to stay in character.  In other words, you need to know the background information of your character before you can assign a name.

Overloaded Sentences

What’s wrong with this sentence?

“On an unusually cold summer day for August in Peterborough, Ontario, Helen Anne Duncan dropped her newly washed load of Martha Stewart bath towels to run quickly to her second daughter’s fluffy feline that was lazily padding through her prized red geraniums, growing in a rectangular bed of carefully manicured low-spreading white periwinkle beside the Muskoka brown deck chair given to her for her fortieth birthday as her neighbor’s younger brother Raoul looked on with undisguised interest.”

I’m sure you as a reader see the setting well and what Helen, the cat, and Raoul are doing. But when did you stop taking in the details? When did you get bored or frustrated and put the book down or flip ahead to find something that would be more than a list of description?  Probably sooner than later.

The sentence is exaggerated to illustrate a point. It’s overloaded with prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition (at, in, by, about, from, etc.,) and a noun or word that acts as a noun (pronoun, gerund, clause). It can also include a modifier. The prepositional phrase acts either as an adjective (to describe a noun) or as an adverb (to describe a verb).  As an adjective, it gives information about “which one” (“Go get me the vase on the top shelf”). As an adverb it supplies information about “when” (Before you leave, go get me the vase on the top shelf); or “where” (We got the vase at a garage sale); or “how” (We got the vase for a steal).

As writers of genre we are warned about adjectives and adverbs.  Both “tell” as opposed to “show”. We are supposed to “show” and not “tell”.  Since the prepositional phrase acts as an adjective or adverb it “tells”.

Most of us use overloaded sentences in our first drafts. But no one sees our first drafts (mine, certainly). We then fix these sentences when we have a better handle on what we want to say and how we should say them for our desired effect or goal. Then our overloaded sentences evolve into several paragraphs or pages or are written out of existence altogether. But other times we get so frustrated with editing and rewriting and more editing and rewriting that we ignore them. When they are pointed out to us we reply they are for “sentence variety.”

There is no rule about how many prepositional phrases (or for that matter, adjectives or adverbs) to use. But after several in one sentence or many in a paragraph, readers turn their brains off.  It’s too much information to digest at one bite. A few choice words to create an image, setting, character, tone, sensation—whatever our goal is—should be sufficient for those of us who write genre, where the action and the plot are the real stars. If we choose our words well, they should also add depth.

So, how can we change that overloaded sentence so it doesn’t just state facts and adds dimension? First and foremost, we need to choose the important details. It’s Helen’s fortieth birthday, and she is hanging the wash outside. That’s significant. I can ignore the reference to summer since most of us don’t hang our clothes outside in the winter. The mention of the town is also irrelevant at this point, including Helen’s middle and last name and the brand names.  But the deck chair is important because it shows the sorry state of Helen’s family. I can lose the cat, possibly even the flowers, but I’m going to keep Raoul. He might come in handy as a subplot. If not, I’ll write him out in edits. Here goes…

 “It was Helen’s birthday and what was she doing? Hanging clothes outside because it was Saturday. She should be pruning her flowerbeds or sitting and reading a book—a romance with great sex and multiple orgasms and love ever after—on that deck chair her husband and daughters had given her.  She cracked a clothespin and then another.  Didn’t her family understand the meaning of forty birthdays or the Las Vegas travel brochures left casually by remotes and bananas?  She ought to have an affair and with a younger man. Like her neighbor’s brother, Raoul…from Colombia…”

I reduced the prepositional phrases significantly. I also spread them over several sentences. You can still make out the setting, but now you have insight into Helen’s character. I added depth and even introduced conflict.

Take a look at your own overloaded sentences. What can you do to reduce the list of prepositional phrases and add depth?

Dos and Don’ts of the Opening Paragraph


Those of us who write genre have read all the dos and don’ts about that all-important opening scene. But who reads an opening scene when deciding on his or her next read?  We read the back cover blurb and then we read the opening paragraph. That opening paragraph determines our book’s fate with readers, and if the reports are accurate, with editors and agents, too.

So what does an opening paragraph for a genre novel need to convince a reader that this is the book he or she has been looking for? In one word, conflict.

Look at the opening paragraph of the first chapter of The Witch’s Salvation.

 “On her eighteenth birthday, Anasztasia got the Fendi purse she had told everyone she couldn’t live without, the latest and greatest tablet to ease her way through her first year at Columbia, money toward wants and needs, and a plane ticket to Romania to meet a five-hundred-year-old witch. The Fendi purse was pure bliss, the tablet an academic luxury, the money a given, but the witch gift, if she could call it that, left her unable to enjoy her strawberry gateau with crème patisserie. But it was time her grandfather had proclaimed with the clarity and conviction expected of a crown prince without a country. Time to move beyond the facade of her comfortable life in Manhattan to the royal court of their noble homeland. Time to shed the frivolities of the common adolescent and embrace her inheritance as a princess. Time to change the circumstance of her birth and become like him, her grandmother, her parents, and all those people who had followed him out of their homeland over five centuries before. Immortal.”

 Anasztasia sounds like your average adolescent with expensive taste. She’s18 and university/party bound. More important, she’s mortal. But her family is immortal. They are also royalty and want Anasztasia to be like them. They disapprove of her mortality, of who she is. I have immediate conflict in my first paragraph: Anasztasia vs. her family.  Does this conflict intrigue you? Does it make you want to read on to find out how it will play out? If the answer is yes, then my opening paragraph is effective.

 My opening paragraph also has inferred conflict. Whether you’ve read the back cover or not, you’re probably assuming from that opening paragraph that Anasztasia is the protagonist. But do you know if she will become a heroine? Do you want to know? Do you want to know how she will do it? If the answer is yes here, too, then my opening paragraph has another level of intrigue. This can only work in my book’s favor.

Is there anything else an opening paragraph should have? You may call it something else, but I’m going to call it respectability.

 Have you ever been intrigued by a title and back cover blurb only to be let down by the opening paragraph? Did that opening paragraph have conflict but lack integrity? When you read that paragraph, were you convinced that the writer was going to tell you the story in a voice or tone that appealed to you?

 Let me give you an example of what I mean. I’ve rewritten the opening paragraph of The Witch’s Salvation without any frills.

 “On her birthday, Anasztasia got an expensive purse, a tablet for school, money, and a plane ticket to meet an old witch. The purse, the tablet, and the money were nice, but she didn’t like the witch gift. Her grandfather, a prince without a country, said she had to visit the witch. It was time to make her immortal like him, her family and his loyal people.”

 The conflict between Anasztasia and her family is evident, but the writing is flat and the voice nonexistent. It sounds more like a report. If you the reader are okay with that report-voice, then great. But if you the reader are not and are looking for depth of writing and an authentic voice to carry you into and through the novel, then that book isn’t going anywhere.

 Conflict and respectability are not new.  Take a look at Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress.  I’ve just reworded and applied what the author says about the opening scene to the opening paragraph. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is also invaluable for any aspiring writer.

Does your opening paragraph have conflict, whether stated or inferred? Does it have respectability? Conflict is necessary to hook the reader, especially for genre. Respectability is something that may be important to a reader or may not. It all depends on what he or she wants to read. But it doesn’t hurt your writing to have it.  Voice can only add depth to your writing.

 What do you look for in an opening paragraph for genre novels?