WOO HOO! We have our critique! Thank you everyone who submitted their samples! I’ve kept the sender as confidential just in case – but if this is your story (hint hint – wink wink) and you’d like to ask Angela questions on her critique – please feel free in the comments. Otherwise – if you have questions and want to keep it personal – send me an email and I can forward it on!
I strongly encourage everyone to really read this critique and think about how you can apply this to your writing. I know I learned some stuff! And … at the end, let’s keep the conversation going on – and if you comment, you could win a copy of The Emotional Thesaurus!
Today’s critique comes from Angela – who is awesome BTW and lives in my city! I don’t see her as often as I’d like but each time I do I continue to be amazed at just how AWESOME this woman is!!
Hi everyone! Steena has graciously invited Becca and I to workshop a few emotional scenes and offer some feedback on their impact. I have the honor of running through MATTERS OF THE HEART, a piece that was submitted.
The original text is in black, my comments in blue, and my rewrite in bold:
MATTERS OF THE HEART
Brandi straightened the napkins one more time, put six bottles of Blue Moon beer on ice, and arranged a plate of sliced oranges to add to the beer. Catching the aroma of the marinara sauce cooking on the stove, she tossed a handful of oregano into the pot.
I like the attention to specific detail here–it gives us a window into your character’s feelings as her fussiness conveys that tonight is an important night. The addition of ‘one more time’ is what clues the reader in that insecurity and nervousness are the key emotions, but I do think you could amp it up just slightly by including a thought that could potentially put the evening in jeopardy. Direct thoughts bring readers in closer, help show emotion more intimately and this will also allow you to show the progression to worry, a natural escalation.
Brandi straightened the napkins one more time, put six bottles of Blue Moon beer on ice, and arranged a plate of sliced oranges to add to the beer. An off scent carried from the kitchen and she froze. Oh God, was the marinara burning?
She sprinted into the kitchen and lifted the lid to a rush of steam. The luscious red sauce bubbled ever so slightly, just as it should. Her gaze fell to the freshly chopped oregano, forgotten on the cutting board. Ah, mystery solved. She chuckled and tossed a handful in.
Her mother’s face flashed through her mind. She knew Janis would disapprove of her plan for the evening. She realized her hands were shaking at the thought of her mother. She quickly wondered why she cared what Janis thought.
Here is a place where I feel a bit distanced because of how the emotion is being conveyed. Words like wondered, thought, realized, etc. all create a layer of film between the character and their feelings, which can keep the reader at arm’s length. Strip these and create a direct line to her thoughts and actions, and the emotion becomes much stronger.
Without prior knowledge of what comes before, I’m uncertain as to what Brandi is planning but the fact that her mother might disapprove and the care she takes in preparing dinner just so leads me to believe she is either delivering bad news to someone, or inviting another man over. I’ll go with the having another a man over angle for this example.
Her mother’s face flashed through her mind. Oh, how Janis would disapprove. Brandi was used to being the daughter who could never do anything right, but Kevin? The sun rose and set on him.
Her hands shook and she shoved them beneath her elbows to still their movements. Stupid, letting herself dwell on Janice. She’d long since ceased to care what her mother thought.
The loud knock at the door startled her. She wondered if Kevin had forgotten his keys again. He frequently left his house key on the counter, or his phone plugged into the charger on the kitchen table. Forgetfulness plagued him lately. Probably another escape mechanism she thought, as she dropped the pot cover on the counter.
A second knock at the door made her turn quickly. The dolman sleeve of her new red shirt became tangled with the handle of the pot of marinara. As she reached to grab the pot it slid off the stove and onto her white tile floor.
“Oh shit.” The floor resembled the murder scene from Psycho as the pot landed upside down splattering sauce on the wall, the oven front and the dishwasher.
Here, the lack of direct thoughts are making her emotions a bit diluted. I’m going to tweak this to add them in so she comes across as more judgemental of Kevin, reinforcing that friction between husband and wife. Also, the events and movements need a bit of smoothing so that emotion can shine thought a touch more.
A knock came at the front door. She glanced at the clock, but it was early yet. Great, Kevin must have forgotten his key again. She was forever finding them lying on the counter, or on the back door hook, and once hanging from the lock on his way out. Forgetfulness plagued him lately. Probably another escape mechanism.
She dropped the lid and turned to answer the door, but the dolman sleeve of her new red shirt caught on the pot handle. The pot of marinara tipped, sending a cascade of red down the stove front and across her white tile floor.
“Shit!” She rebalanced the pot, but it was too late. Her kitchen was a murder scene–sauce splattered the wall, the cupboards and fanned the front of her new dishwasher. The only thing missing were the hacked up body parts.
The doorbell rang along with another knock. Damn, she muttered to herself as she quickly crossed the house from the kitchen to the living room. Flinging the door open she saw two men in neatly pressed navy blue suits with a Bible in their hand. They smiled like Cheshire cats.
“Good day. We hope we’re not disturbing you. We’d like to tell you the good news about Jesus Christ.”
The sweetness in her voice belied her anger. “Thank you, but I don’t have time and I’m not interested, so if you’ll..,” Her voice trailed off as she slammed the door in their face. Fuck these people. Why didn’t they leave her alone and tend to their own lives?
Returning to the kitchen she sat on the floor watching as tears of frustration dropped into the bowl of cleaning solution. She felt as wrung out as the rag she was using to wipe the stains from the floor and the walls.
Here, you have some really great pieces of showing and her frustration comes through, but I feel like that we need to see a bigger reaction, something more explosive as her hopes for a special night have just come crashing down. The anger could be shown a bit stronger and direct thoughts will supply it. I see there is a progression of feelings well, something we address in The Emotion Thesaurus. Woot! Whenever there is high emotion, it needs to crash at some point, and you allow her anger to melt into defeat and feeling overwhelmed. With a tweak or two, and an added visceral reaction, we can power up her feelings:
The doorbell rang, along with another forceful knock.
For Christ’s sake! Brandi turned her back on the remains of dinner and aimed for the front door. Kevin or not, whoever was on the other side was about to get their ear blistered.
She yanked open the door. Two men in neatly pressed navy blue suits smiled at her, bibles in hand.
“Good day. I hope we’re not disturbing you. We’d like to tell you the good news about Jesus Christ.”
Are you fucking kidding me? Brandi quaked, wanting to throw the door shut in their faces, but her southern upbringing forced her to snap out an excuse first. “Sorry, but this isn’t a good time. And anyway, I’m not interested.” She slammed the door and then leaned against it. Freaking bible pushers! She closed her eyes and saw the red mess waiting for her. A perfect night, ruined.
Brandi filled a soapy bucket in the laundry room and carried it to the kitchen on wooden legs. The red blobs on the cupboards and walls had begun to run, creating even more of a mess. Her shoulders dragged down. Where to even start?
She knelt in front of the dishwasher and slid the rag across it, smearing the sauce. An ache built up in her throat and her eyelids burned. The water turned a muddied scarlet and it took all her focus to not let the tears fall.
This is just one way of strengthening the emotional qualities of the writing of course, and I apologize if I took incorrect liberties with your plot in my examples!
Authentic emotion is often achieved through a blend of fresh body language, thoughts (which enhance or characterize rather than tell), and a well placed visceral or two. In The Emotion Thesaurus, this triad of emotional options is included in every entry to ensure writers are able to brainstorm description to suit any emotional moment.
Thanks so much for letting us work with your piece, and a big thank you to everyone who sent a sample scene in. This was a lot of fun! Great idea for a workshop, Steena!
Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of Middle Grade and Young Adult.
A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression.
Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion.
This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.
Have a great idea on how to strengthen this scene? Use the comments so we can further help with this story! One lucky commenter who offers suggestions to strengthen or asks questions will win one awesome copy of The Emotional Thesaurus!