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Dig Deep and Push Harder

September 17, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 17, 2013

All writers make mistakes with their writing, but not all writers make the same mistakes. That is, we each have our strengths and weaknesses.

Yet I’ve recently read quite a few manuscripts in which I’ve had to encourage the writer to push, to push the emotion of a moment, to go beyond a single line or two when emotions are running hot or when a scene should be dramatic.

I’ve touched on this topic before with related topics, yet I haven’t zeroed in on this issue, not for a couple of years. So let’s look at it.

Cast Off Restraints
Many of us are quite types, not given to dramatics and scenes in our real lives. We want calm and order. Maybe even quiet (so we can work, of course). But our characters need to be different from us. They need to get excited and carried away. And we need to provide means for them to let loose.

But not only should our characters give in to fits and to dramatics and even histrionics at times, we should also allow ourselves to get carried away. But not without planning and control. Not without purpose.

When you deliver an emotion-laden line or two, sometimes that’s enough and you don’t need to give the reader more. You might be consciously thinking about overkill and not want to overplay the emotion or the drama. And yet sometimes that’s exactly what you should be doing.

In my edits I often add a note—push a bit here, don’t stop too soon, give us more emotion, make the reader feel. This is usually at some climactic or otherwise critical moment when pushing, rather than retreating, is called for.

It’s very easy to stop after that one perfect line, the great phrasing that sums up the moment for the characters. But sometimes you can dig deeper and layer on emotions so that both character and reader feel the impact and are influenced.

You want readers choked up or laughing or angry. You want them experiencing emotion when a dramatic event happens. And sometimes you have to give them more than a one-liner to achieve the strongest results.

I’m not saying that a single line is not effective—sometimes it hits with just the punch you need. A single line of hard-hitting or emotional text can send shudders into characters and readers.

But a single perfect line is not always the only choice. It’s not always the best choice. Sometimes you need to push.

An example . . .

Let’s say we have a fighting couple. They’re friends, have been married a few years, but a disagreement over where to go on vacation has unexpected consequences.

“Baby, we always go where you want to go. I thought maybe we could go out of state this year. Maybe to the mountains.”

“But you love the beach,” she said. “Last year I couldn’t tear you away, remember? We stayed an extra two days. And I lost that sale because of it.” She tossed her purse on the bed. “And that’s why we didn’t get to go on a ski trip for the holidays.”

Grant yanked open a dresser drawer, nearly toppling her collection of perfume bottles.

“Hey, careful,” she said.

“Sorry.” He closed the drawer without pulling anything out. “I’m damned sorry.”

“What? I wasn’t yelling at you. I—”

“I had an affair, Katie. At the beach house. I-I don’t want to go back.”

The line about the affair may be exactly what’s needed to create the emotional impact necessary for the scene. One or both of them could storm out, and the scene would be over, nothing else required. Or you could end your scene here, no need to even have them storm out. Maybe you’d already set up the reveal, and readers knew something big was coming. If that’s the case, this line may be all that’s needed to finish the scene.

Or this could play out and build up to a loud explosion. Or he might storm out and Katie might fall apart and we could be treated to her thoughts. But we don’t need more. Sometimes a single shocking line is more than sufficient. It’s perfect.

But you won’t want to always leave it at that, with a single boom. Sometimes you’ll want to, need to, challenge your characters and stir up your readers. Instead of a single boom that’s over in a moment, you’ll want to deliver a series of percussive booms that resonates for more than a second or two.

An example . . .

Adrianne ran a shaking finger over Cade’s ring. The police had returned it to her with the rest of his belongings. But they hadn’t returned him. They said they’d probably never recover his body. She squeezed the ring and slipped to the floor. And cried for all the years they’d never have.

Is that sufficient for the scene? Maybe. Or maybe it’s time to push. To make Adrianne not only feel but to make her feelings evident in a way that gets the reader feeling as well.

Adrianne ran a shaking finger over Cade’s ring. The police had returned it to her with the rest of his belongings. But they hadn’t returned him, they didn’t give him back. They’d never even found him.

She pressed the ring against her heart, refusing to cry. Trying not to cry. Ignoring the tears blinding her. They said they’d probably never recover his body. Oh God. She squeezed her eyes shut. They talked about his body as if it were separate from him, as if it were a thing. But she’d touched him, stroked his skin. Matched her heart against his so they could beat together. Aligned her lips with his so they could breathe the same breath, so she could be a part of him and take him, his essence, inside her.

Cade, where are you? 

She laid her head against the mattress, listening. But she heard nothing. Nothing at all.

Yet as she lay shivering, one sound eventually broke through—the stuttering beat of her heart. A heart without an echo. A heart that beat alone.

The ring slipped to the floor. And Adrianne followed, falling to her knees, unable to hold herself together. Unable to stand.

Unable to breathe.

Too much? Maybe. But maybe just right for the scene and the moment.

If you find yourself delivering single-line zingers all the time, try pushing a bit. Give the reader more. Give characters more.


Think in terms of layering. Think in terms of pressing in. Think in terms of a boxer going after his opponent.

Don’t be content with one line, with one expression of a sentiment. Hit the reader two or three times.

I’m not necessarily talking about repetition, though that may play a part; sometimes repetition is exactly what you want to create an effect. I am talking about striking the reader more than once.

Sometimes a single punch is felt throughout the body. Other times nothing is felt until after two or three or four hits have been struck. Consider that as you write—consider giving the reader more than one shot. If you want the reader to feel, deliver a series of blows.

Yes, you can knock out the reader with a single spectacular moment. But sometimes it’s the buildup and the repeated blows that do the job. Push yourself and don’t think you have to hold back all the time. Be relentless. If you go too far, you can always pull back when you edit.

Try digging deep and pushing beyond at least a couple of times in your current story. Deliver knockout blows when the opportunity is there, but pound away when doing so will make a difference.

You’ll create a different effect with multiple lines that layer on the hits than you would with only one line. But that’s good. Give yourself the chance to create that different effect. Isn’t it time to make some changes to the way you always approach a scene?

And if you’re one who pushes all the time, who wrings every emotional squeeze out of a scene, consider sharing less. Consider leaving readers with a single powerful line. Sometimes that is the best choice. Try it and see if you can’t make it work.

The How-To
Look at moments of revelation or the ultimate moment of a dramatic scene or confrontation. Examine the final lines of scenes.

Check to see if you treat each the same—do they all end in one-line zingers? If so, consider changing a couple of them. Consider pushing. Consider piling on the hits.

Send the character and reader reeling. Dig deep beyond the simple and find the hidden emotional well. Don’t be afraid to make readers feel something. Make them feel a lot of something.

Writers aren’t trying to spare the reader; writers are trying to touch the reader. Don’t be shy and don’t be hesitant. Try something different. If it doesn’t work, you can always change it.

Run your new scene by your critique partner; he or she will be able to tell you if it’s too much. Keep in mind, however, that a snippet alone might not have all the punch behind it. You might need to have a reader get the feel of the full scene by reading the whole scene and maybe even the one before it.

On the other hand, however, if you always write multiple hits into a scene, go for the knockout line every once in a while instead. The item that’s a change in a pattern is often more deeply felt—whatever your pattern of emotional hits, change it up for key scenes. Or in the scene or two before the key scene. Let those important scene moments stand out away from the surrounding text because they are different. Make them feel different to the reader. Use multiple tools for creating those differences.

Don’t hold back all the time—press into the emotion. And give us a few awesome emotional moments to remember your characters and story by. Give us a heart-tugging story.

Dig deep and push.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

13 Responses to “Dig Deep and Push Harder”

  1. Ian Modjo says:

    Beth, your comments on the need to dig deeper into the emotional mine pit while at the same time keeping aware of the dangers of overkill are to me timely, working as I am on the second draft of my novel.
    To develop an unconscious awareness of knowing when enough’s enough
    in a situation is as important as a knowledge of basic English to an aspiring writer.
    Thanks for pointing this out, Beth. As I spend time reading others’ work – a practice I regard as only just secondary in importance to actually writing-I will keep this lesson in mind and pull myself up from time to time and question a passage and say ” could he/she have gone further there?”, or ” that was a bit drawn out, we were served up a paragraph when a sentence would have sufficed.”
    Talk about food for thought, Beth, you’ve given us a seven course dinner there…..Thanks again.

  2. Ian, a seven-course meal sounds great. I’m glad the articles was both timely and useful.

    Knowing when to push and when to pull back is part of the artistry of creative writing. The good news is that you can always try something, whether it’s pushing or holding back. And if it doesn’t work, you can change it. I love that in writing we can change and change and change again. It’s much more difficult to do that with paint on canvas. With words, it’s not only a possibility but a necessity.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  3. Gee Gee says:

    Beth, your comments are really appreciated. I am trying to write about an illness I had, encephalitis, that left me with major gaps in my memory; for instance I cannot remember dates, names of friends, places I have been, etc. On the other hand I live more in the moment and it is more realized than I ever could have imagined life being. I hear, think and see things more intensely than ever before. In trying to write about it I find it difficult to describe. Any suggestions?

    • Gee Gee, are you trying to tell people that the intensity of the now is greater than it used to be? That is, are you only describing things or are you trying to let readers know that it is different than before? That might make a difference in how you approach your descriptions.

      Ask yourself some questions—do the changes make you feel different? If so, in what ways? Do you feel the blood flowing through your body in a way it never did? Do you feel sensations on your skin in a way you hadn’t before? Are colors more vibrant? If so, how? Do certain colors stand out more so that you notice an object you might not have seen before? Are tastes different? How?

      Are you paying more attention to the present because you want or need to, or are things in the present demanding more of your attention just because they are? That is, are you doing something different or are the differences seemingly coming from the outside?

      See if you can figure out what is different and why and then try to tell your reader about your experiences.

      Do you have a different attitude toward life? Might that be why you see differences?

      Also, do you feel as if you have more than just five senses? If so, could you describe a new sense?

      Or maybe you feel your senses are working together in a way they hadn’t before and that’s why you experience things differently. Try to show that synergy between the senses.

      You might also want to show how not having details of the past make details of the present so dear. And what about plans for the future? Has that changed? Do you look forward to might happen months or years from now or do you truly live in the present?

      If you do only live in the present, what does that mean for your day? Your week? How do you make plans with others? If you can’t project into the future and you can’t remember the past, how does that make you feel when you’re with others who can? Are you bothered because you can’t remember what they’re talking about? Do you get agitated? Do you feel free of worry?

      I think that if you ask yourself questions, maybe as an interviewer would, you’ll probably get some ideas for how to explain what you’re feeling about living in the moment.

      Give readers a contrast—show them not only what you do focus on, but also mention what you don’t. How you don’t have regrets about certain things because you don’t remember them. How you wish you remembered what a first love felt like.

      Does this help any?

  4. Nick LeVar says:

    This post is on point. When I’m trying to decide when to push and when to pull back, I determine whether the events that led up to the end were big and significant to the story. In other words, if a particular scene was simply a small subplot or something, then I will not display as much of the character’s reaction. A one-line zinger may do just fine. On the other hand, if a scene is a culmination of many big, character arc-bending events, then the character’s reaction is going to be huge, emotional. I have to make sure I get into the reader’s head and make him or her feel what the character feels.

  5. Nick, that’s a great way to help decide what the scene needs, determining if the scene deals with a subplot or something a bit more critical for the main plot. An excellent point.

  6. Sondra Kraak says:

    Great encouragement here. Thank you. As a budding novelist, I often fear I am overdoing it with description of emotion or deep pov; yet when I get into the moment and the metaphors and images start to flow in my mind, the sentences flow. Good to hear, though, that a single line can have strong impact in the right situation.

  7. I’m always wary of getting too much emotion into the scene – I guess because I’m not a very emotional person, I’m uncomfortable with writing it. Your article was very helpful for me to figure out where it’s appropriate and where I can be terse. I need to keep remembering to be true to my character and let her decide how to react….

    • Savita, although sometimes too much emotion is a problem, I more often see too little. You can always cut back if you’ve let the character go too far or go on for too long. But do let the character loose every so often. Readers will remember characters who are so moved that they can’t help but react, especially if they typically react in much calmer ways.

      Good luck with your writing.

  8. Shannon says:

    Hi Beth, I love this blog, I’m currently making my way through all of your post because they are that helpful.

    I finished the first chapter of my story the other day, and used one of your post as a check list. It got me thinking though of what to include in a last chapter. There isn’t anything out there, but the last chapter is just as important as the first.

    So I was wondering, if you have the time would you be able to write a post about last chapters and how they should relate to genre?

    • Shannon, thanks for letting me know you’re enjoying the blog. I’m so glad you’re finding the information helpful.

      I’ve got a couple of articles about a novel’s end. Have you read these—A Novel Ending, Deliver the Payoff, Resolution? Something on a last chapter, with an emphasis on genre, is something I could do, but you might find some of what you’re looking for in the articles I listed.

      And you’re right—the last chapter is very important. There’s a lot it has to achieve.