This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, September 08, 2008

Creating the Emotional Heartbeat of a Story

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

I think of the plot structure as the bare bones to a story and the main characters as the vital organs. But emotion is the heartbeat. It’s what makes a story come alive, and helps us experience what the characters are feeling. Our emotional response is our sense of reality.

Without emotion, our stories are flat, boring, and nothing more than a narrated documentary.

We experience emotion through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These senses are the pathways or arteries through which we experience emotion. In order to make the heart of the story beat with reality, we must stimulate emotional responses in the reader and create a pulse—a source of life.

Emotional Senses
1. Sight—It isn’t enough to simply state what is being seen. The last thing you want is to make a scene sound like a boring police report. You need to layer in images that include similes, analogies, and metaphors. Include color, shapes, sizes, textures, and picture words that create vivid images. Painting a setting with words creates a mood, which stimulates an emotional response in readers.

He looked back at the photo for more clues. Her smooth skin cast an enchanting radiance against the outline of her austere face. High cheekbones narrowed into a chin of determination. She wore dark lipstick on full lips that drew into a tight smile revealing a straight row of perfect white teeth. Her hair framed her face, only an inch above the shoulders. Everything about Nicole from her red suit jacket and white pearl earrings to her matching necklace implied a confidence that had not existed in high school.

Simile—Shows a comparison by using the word like.
Example: His head pounded like a persistent woodpecker knocking against him with every pulse beat that raced through is head.

· Metaphor—A comparison that uses a creative word or phrase to substitute for something else.
Example: A bouquet of red roses lay across Casey’s arm. Casey bent forward, passing them to Catherine as if an infant was wrapped in the package.

· Analogy—A comparison of two things with common elements.
Example: The beginning of this blog post opens with an analogy in comparing a story to the human body. Other analogies include: 1)The plot as bare bones 2)characters as vital organs 3)And emotion as the heartbeat.

2. Sound—Sounds can range from a soothing, calm response to a loud, annoying noise that makes a person cringe and want to escape. An author should use words that imitate the sounds they describe to give the reader an immediate idea of what the character is hearing. You don’t want your readers to have to stop and imagine it. This will pull them out of the story.

Don’t make your readers think too hard about what the characters are hearing. Instead, make them experience it. Think of words sizzle and crackle. These words sound exactly as they are. If you’re going after the simile or analogy effect, most everyone knows the sound of thunder, a whistle or the ocean. Use these common things in a creative way to compare to other sounds. These words will trigger an emotional response of sound.

He took her hand in his and led her back toward the wagons. Just as they emerged from the woods gunfire exploded through the atmosphere, echoing across the sky like thunder.

3. Smell—Every place you go has some kind of smell whether or not it’s a pleasant fragrance or an unpleasant odor. Your characters should be experiencing something similar. A smell can spark a past memory, remind you of someone, or spark a specific transition from one setting to another. While each place may have a unique smell, we may have become so used to it we’re immune, but a newcomer will notice it right away, or we’ll notice new smells as soon as we arrive in a new place.
Smells bring the senses alive and connect to our sense of taste. It’s hard to smell the aroma of coffee or blue berry pie without smacking our lips and almost tasting it. Your characters need to have these same sensations to make them seem real.

Keep in mind the connotation of how we interpret certain words. The word stench wouldn’t have the same meaning as fragrance. Stench brings a nasty smell to mind, while fragrance reminds us of pleasant perfumes.

Lying in the wagon bed, Jacob peeked out from under the cover that concealed him. By the time he got back, he’d reek of dried tobacco leaves. The thin layers crackled beneath his weight with the slightest movement. It sounded like the rustle of papers. He’d have to be statue still when they arrived at J.P.’s farm.

Taste—Taste is used in Christian fiction less often unless it involves food. But taste can also refer to someone’s preference when describing what kinds of things they like or dislike. This is an excellent sense to use when introducing our characters to our readers. Creativity is the key.
In romance or in a romantic scene taste is often used, in kisses. And in Christian romance, this has to be handled tactfully.

Bryce could taste the salt of sweat upon his upper lip as he grunted with the heavy pressure on his shoulder.

4. Touch—Touch is another creative way to give people a sense of what a character is feeling and bring your story to life. Use words that describe textures, temperature, surfaces, and liquids. What is one of the main things a baby wants to do when he/she sees something new for the first time, they reach out to touch it. Curiosity draws the craving of our sense of touch. Even now if I go to a science museum or Disney World where great wonders are present, I have the urge to touch things to see how they feel. It is in our human nature, so as authors, we must show our characters experiencing the sense of touch.

Intimacy is best shown through touch. Authors do this by having characters brush hands, feeling soft hair, the breeze of the wind, describing the texture of clothing whether it is itchy or silky, or the cold water running through her fingers. The feel of textures and our sense of touch complete the setting of a scene. Without touch, the scene may not be flat, but it will feel like it’s missing something.

The grandfather clock chimed the hour, but Jacob had lost count of time. It had to be late afternoon. The sun still shone through the open window but hardly a breeze stirred the summer heat. His garments felt sticky against his skin. He hated the itchy feeling.

Other Emotional Elements
While the senses are only one pathway to showing emotional responses, it’s very important to show other emotional responses as well since people are not one-dimensional. Below is a list to other emotional pathways.

~The difference in gender responses
~Physical Emotional Response
~Mental Emotional Response
~Spiritual Emotional Response