‘The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan’: so begins Lady Macbeth’s first great soliloquy or monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The speech comes in Act 1 Scene 5, immediately after Lady Macbeth has received news from a messenger that Duncan, the King, will be arriving […]
Think about your favorite novels and how they made you feel. Something stirred and lingered, right? You felt—and likely still do—the uncertainty, rage, joy, and love that the characters felt. Perhaps your perspective even shifted as a result.
14 Techniques to Write Emotional Truth to Engage Readers
Defining emotional truth
Emotional truth is elusive and difficult to capture. No standard definition exists. Here’s my crack at it: Emotional truth allows readers to feel a certain way about the experiences of people who may live different lives from them. It’s the lens that allows us to see ourselves in a story that results in a heartfelt connection in a fictional narrative. Emotional truth transcends facts.
The lie is the invented narrative. The truth is an emotional experience not rooted in facts, but through a combination of visual details, actions, settings, inner monologue, and dialogue. What I value most is that emotional truth engenders empathy.
Fostering empathy is the main reason I infuse emotional truth in my work. In these increasingly polarized times, it’s clear empathy is in short supply. Several years ago a report found 40 percent of college freshmen lacked empathy. Reading that left me deeply disturbed. Future leaders need empathy to understand the needs of others. Without it, well… take a look around. Empathetic leaders can build a sense of trust, strengthening their relationships, which can lead to greater collaboration. I’ll leave that here.
I learned the techniques to capture emotional truth during my first fellowship through the Education Writers Association more than twenty years ago. Jon Franklin, author of “Writing for Story,” served as an advisor to my narrative nonfiction project examining survival tactics of gifted black students at troubled schools, where being smart carried a stigma. I was intimidated to work with the two-time Pulitzer Winner whose book included storytelling tips for journalistic articles. Imagine my surprise when Franklin read my three-day series and said, “You got it right.”
Techniques to Use
So how do you tap into such truth as a fiction writer? Here are 14 techniques I use to write with emotional truth:
Be vulnerable. My debut novel, Malcolm and Me, follows a reluctant rebel with the heart of a poet as she navigates a school year fraught with adult hypocrisy. While my protagonist is wounded by a traumatic event involving her Catholic school teacher, I knew she couldn’t wallow in pain and self-pity for 272 pages. She doesn’t. She’s funny, often in “good trouble” and a ball of confusion. Whatever Roberta feels so must my readers. Roberta’s vulnerability was rooted in my teen years. Nothing beats authentic angst.
Mine your secrets. Personal truth feeds the character’s truth. There’s nothing fictitious about that.In writing my debut novel, I borrowed the emotional truth about my struggle to forgive, including those I love deeply, and gave it to my protagonist. I could not write that story with authenticity until I dug deep and understood why I had been stuck and what led to a breakthrough. My clarity informed and honed the behavior of my character.
Listen to the “page people.” Just because you created your characters doesn’t mean you know their every move. Sometimes they will surprise you. Let them. Yield to their whims. When they want to be quiet, don’t force them to speak up. Silence can say a lot, too.
Create challenges. Understand what the protagonist and other characters want then remove it or make it a struggle to obtain. We root for characters we believe in, identify with, and want to succeed. In other words, characters we feel. I heard a speaker say that a novel is akin to taking a ride on an amusement park. Readers have purchased tickets and will feel cheated if a ride fails to carry them up and down and make their hearts pound.
Balance action. Life is messy and so are people’s reactions to it. But not everything happens at a level 10. Mix big, dramatic moments and scenes with quieter ones, which can also amplify emotional truth.
Cultivate growth. Know the emotional state of your character on page 1 and be clear about the various emotional stages he or she will experience to make it to the end of the story. This growth may not be linear and could include setbacks, but the person must experience changes that feel authentic.
Use your senses. Do you have a song that transports you to your first dance? A perfume or cologne that reminds you of someone no longer alive? Sound, smell, taste, and touch evoke powerful emotions to inspire you.
Pick from an “emotional garden.” Collect bits of dialogue, favorite lyrics, phrases, discarded scenes, observations, and reactions, anything that provokes strong feelings and may feed your current or future story. Visit often.
Learn from other writers. Read often. Reading expands your vocabulary and imagination, shows you what works and what doesn’t, and exposes you to diverse worlds. Reading other authors may also inspire you to take risks with your own work.
Revise, rinse and repeat. Emotional truth is an indistinct quality that works when the characters stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Weaving it into your work requires patience and practice. Writing is rewriting.
I’m big on takeaways. So, keep this acrostic handy for how to elevate the emotional tenor of your work:
Embrace the fear of vulnerability
Organize narrative arcs. Be clear about all stages.
Tap into your memories with music and smells—often-emotional anchors
Include powerful emotions with ordinary ones
Optimize opportunities for a character to accept or reject growth
Nurture an emotional “garden” of evocative material to inspire you
Avoid “one-note” characters; vary responses.
Listen to the unsaid as much as what’s spoken
Trust yourself to go deep and transfer what you find to the page.
Whether it’s vampires or werewolves or mysterious patterns in wallpaper, writers of Gothic short stories have used all sorts of horrors and frights to chill our blood, ever since the horror short story developed in the early nineteenth century. Below, we pick ten of the very best Gothic horror tales […]
Middle-grade author Donna Gephart gives her top 14 tips for how to invigorate your writing when things are tough.
Having a hard time focusing and feeling productive these daze, er days? Who isn’t? Here are a few things that help me be productive during these challenging, distracting times that I hope will help you …
14 Tips for Nurturing Your Creative Spirit During Challenging Times
1. Start the day with habits that get you ready for work.
I walk our dog, Benji, with hubby, do ten minutes of yoga (Yoga with Adriene and Yoga with Kassandra) and make of mug of hot tea or coffee. Always. When I do these things in that order, my mind knows the next step is creative work. (Notice checking Twitter, FB, and email is not on this list.)
2. Check in with an accountability buddy.
Angela DeGroot and I begin each workday with an email sharing our goals for the day and catching up on each other’s lives. Sometimes we end our workdays with a quick email to say whether we reached our goals on not. During National Poetry Month in April, Angela includes a new poem with each daily check-in.
3. Make your goals super-specific—either in time for each project or in page counts.
Last week’s goals for me were to revise a seven-page synopsis and eleven pages of the beginning of my next MG novel and submit them to my agent. I reached that goal. This week’s goals are to re-imagine an outline for a chapter book series and write a rough draft of the first book. Sometimes I reach my goals. Sometimes I don’t. But the odds are ever in my favor if I break them down and make them as specific and manageable as possible.
4. Because it’s hard to focus and easy to become distracted, I use the Pomodoro Technique.
It helps you use whatever time you have more efficiently. I’ve written eight middle-grade novels, a picture book, scores of essays, and this article using the Pomodoro Technique. Knowing a short break is always coming helps you power through the task at hand.
For those in the back row: BREAKS ARE VITAL, especially now. These days, I allow longer breaks than usual at the end of the workday to take walks in the woods, read, prepare a vegan dinner, chat with a friend, listen to a podcast, sip wine on the patio and watch The Dog House UK on HBOMax with hubby and Benji. (The Dog House UK—a sort of match-making service between dogs and their humans—is a terrific antidote to the news of the day.)
6. Take weekends off, if you can.
Your brain requires more time to rest these days. Besides, if you have steady work habits, when you’re not working your subconscious is working—figuring out knotty plot problems and putting separate pieces together in interesting ways. Trust that your subconscious is doing its job when you’re taking a break from doing yours.
7. If you need extra time off or are unproductive one day or two or more, let go of the guilt.
It doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t serve the work. These days, I clock about 2 ½ days out of 5 that are complete duds. Can’t even complete a shopping list without drifting to something else. Accept that and let it go. Celebrate the 2 ½ days that are productive.
8. Your process during this challenging time is your process.
Don’t compare your process to someone else’s because you’re comparing their shiny outside to your messy inside. Apples to oranges. It’s like comparing your first draft to someone else’s polished, published book. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
9. Try something new!
If novels are too daunting right now, write a funny essay, an article, or a poem. Find joy in these things. Take baby steps. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. You’ve got this, friend. It’s hard. We are sensitive but resilient.
10. Find community.
When I moved away from Florida, I left a monthly SCBWI critique group I loved and had been consistently attending for 18 years. I don’t know how I wrote my novel, Abby, Tried and True without them. During the pandemic, since half of us lived out of state at that point anyway, we reconnected for twice-weekly critique meetings on Zoom.
11. During these twice-weekly critique meetings, we do much more than critique each other’s work.
We check in with each other and offer support when one of us is having a hard time. We show our cats and our dogs. We toast each other’s successes, no matter how small. Any excuse for a glass of wine.
12. I joined a book club for readers and writers of middle-grade novels over Zoom.
I watch free craft webinars from SCBWI. I listen to craft-based podcasts for inspiration, like Book Friends Forever by Grace Lin and Alvina Ling and First Draft by Sarah Ennis. Reach out. Connect. Nurture your soul and your creative spirit.
13. Change your exterior space to ignite your interior space.
Hubby and I splurged on two nights in Princeton, NJ to have a different environment in which to work. While there in the cozy loft space, I rediscovered my love for creating funny essays. Can’t work in your town’s library? Can you work on a bench outside of it and watch people come and go as you scribble ideas? We even went to our niece’s rooftop deck in Philadelphia, PA once just to have a different atmosphere in which to work.
14. Mostly, take care of your precious self.
Fill your well at every opportunity. Your job is to get through this tough time. Any creative output is a bonus to be celebrated. Your work matters. Your voice matters. Your story matters. But your physical and mental well-being matters more.
Prologues and epilogues don’t always get the best raps, and for good reason—they can be tricky to write. And even though you may be convinced that the details in your book’s prologue or epilogue are vital to the story, some readers skip them entirely. At Writer’s Relief, we know that determining whether a book really needs a prologue or epilogue can be one of the harder decisions novelists must make. Here’s some guidance on how to make the best choice for your book!
Should You Have A Prologue Or Epilogue In Your Book?
What You Need To Know About Prologues
A prologue, or short section before your first chapter, often serves to provide background information for the reader. Usually it takes place before the main action of your story begins. Prologues are great tools when necessary, but if you don’t truly need a prologue, consider that it may backfire by making your book seem slow to start.
To determine if you really need a prologue, ask yourself these questions:
Do you have crucial background information to share? Did a major event serve as the catalyst for your story that readers will need to understand? Do you have a character who’s important to your text, but whose role in the story occurred significantly earlier than the start of the novel, and thus can’t be seen or remembered from your eventual protagonist’s perspective? If either of these things is true for you, and this person or event needs to be introduced before your story begins, a prologue can be the best way to handle these situations.
Is your first chapter as strong? Writers often try to create an action-packed, attention-grabbing prologue to make up for the fact that their first chapter is slow-moving. If this is the case, you might want to make the details in your prologue part of your first chapter.
Can the prologue create a sense of mystery? If you have a prologue, it should convince the audience to read more of your book. If a prologue will help you create an intriguing circumstance or introduce suspense in a way you couldn’t do otherwise, consider using one!
How To Write A Prologue That Grabs Attention
Don’t info-dump in your prologue. In a fantasy or science fiction novel with tons of background and world-building details, you may be tempted to use your prologue as a SparkNotes-esque summary of these essentials—but this can be a big turnoff for agents, editors, and readers. If they’re bored or confused, readers may skip the prologue altogether. Only use your prologue to introduce the most vital information!
Create a prologue that stands out from your first chapter. Your prologue and first chapter shouldn’t feel exactly the same. What does your story need that only a prologue can provide? Perhaps your prologue should be written from a different character’s perspective, or take place before the main action of your story—whether that’s a few days, a few months, or even a few years.
Make your prologue emotionally resonant. While one goal of a prologue is to provide readers with the context and background information they need, you also want to make sure they come away fully invested and ready to turn the page and start reading chapter one. Immediately establishing an emotional connection through strong writing will entice your audience to continue reading.
Don’t let your prologue get too long. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve seen prologues that range from a few sentences to a few chapters. Though there’s no hard-and-fast rule, a prologue should generally be no more than the length of a typical chapter—and shorter is definitely better. You want to hook and intrigue readers, not saddle them with an opening that’s too dense.
What You Need To Know About Epilogues
An epilogue is the opposite of a prologue—it comes after your final chapter and serves to provide closure and resolution to your story. The epilogue explains what happens to your characters after the main body of your book.
Just like prologues, epilogues aren’t always necessary—and adding one might spoil a great story that should have ended sooner.
To determine if you really need an epilogue, ask yourself these questions:
Will your book have a sequel? An epilogue can be a great tool to hook readers into the next book in your series. If the main plot of Book One is wrapped up in your final chapter, you can use your epilogue to sow hints about the plot to come in Book Two!
Do you have a lot of loose ends to tie up? Though we usually recommend writers don’t try to juggle too many subplots and secondary characters, some books can do this well—and an epilogue can be used to tie up any loose ends in these relevant threads. In a multi-POV novel, an epilogue may help wrap up the story in a way your final chapter couldn’t.
Will readers want to “follow up” on your characters? Just as a prologue can reveal an event that happened long before your story’s time, an epilogue can show readers where your characters end up. For example, you can let readers know that the lovers’ relationship survives and they later get married, or that a character in peril ultimately lives a long, happy life.
How To Write An Epilogue That Satisfies Your Readers
Don’t make your ending too tidy. While ending a book on a cliffhanger is never a good idea, a perfect, happily-ever-after ending can also be unsatisfying for readers if they’re left with endless questions. Writing a good epilogue is all about striking a balance: answer the major questions, but don’t fill in every detail. Give some overall direction and let your readers’ imaginations fill in the gaps.
Consider a jump forward in time. A commonly used tactic with epilogues is to take readers a few years into the future to give them an idea of how your characters’ lives turn out. Maybe readers would be delighted to find out that your fierce warrior character settles down to raise sheep on a quiet farm, or that the shy, geeky character goes on to run a giant tech company.
Don’t reiterate your book’s themes and messages. While books can be powerful tools for teaching lessons, no one wants to be hit over the head with the story’s moral. If you’ve subtly—but effectively—woven a message into your novel, there’s no need to rehash the same lesson in your epilogue.
Our Most Important Tips For Prologues OR Epilogues
Keep your tone consistent. If your prologue or epilogue doesn’t feel like an organic part of your story, readers will find it jarring and unsatisfactory. Make your narrative voice consistent on every page of your book!
You don’t always need both a prologue and an epilogue. Many writers think that if their book has a prologue, it must be balanced with an epilogue, or vice versa. But that isn’t the case at all! You can have only a prologue or only an epilogue.
Treat your prologue or epilogue like a very short story. Rather than a summary or a report, treat your prologue or epilogue as a totally separate entity with its own plot and characters. While they should tie in to the overall story of your book, the prologue or epilogue shouldn’t read like a synopsis—or like just another chapter. You want readers to be invested in what happens in your prologue or epilogue the same way you want them to be invested in your book as a whole.
Need help? Check out the Writer’s Relief blog! Our blog is chock-full of articles about writing, grammar, making effective submissions, and getting published.
Question: Which do you prefer as a reader, prologues or epilogues?
Dated ‘Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824’, ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ is a poem Lord Byron wrote on his 36th birthday, less than three months before he died. Byron was at Missolonghi, in Greece, fighting with the Greeks in their war for independence. It’s one of Byron’s most […]