Authors choose to write in first-person point-of-view because it is voice-driven. This protagonist-as-narrator approach gives readers a feel for how the main character speaks, views others, and sees themselves. But in early drafts, writers often focus too tightly on what characters are doing, rather than how they are feeling. When I come across this issue in my work as a book editor, and in my own writing, the effect is similar to reading the stage directions for a play. What’s the fix to layer in emotion when we go back and revise our scenes?
Stage Directions vs. Fully Fleshed Out Scenes
First, we have to identify the problem. How do you know if you’ve got stage directions, rather than a fully fleshed out scene? What if you’re too close to the story to realize you’ve focused on the mechanics of movement and action and neglected to layer in emotion and inner reflection from your first-person protagonist?
One clue to look for is this: a series of sentences that all begin with the same structure—noun-verb.
Here is an example of what it looks like:
I kick the ball to Andre, who bobbles it on his knees. I run to the goal. Someone jostles me and I trip. I land face first in the turf. I look up, but whoever fouled me isn’t hanging around.
This scene reads fine on the surface. The action is clear, and the reader can follow what’s happening. However, first-person fiction is something like a see-saw. On one side is straight narration of events, such as this moment on the soccer field. On the other side should be a narrator who is sharing an emotional experience.
The repeated noun-verb structure above is a clue that this little sports scene is tilting toward straight narration. The “I” is observing the action of the story without describing its impact on him or herself.
In order to use first-person voice to its full effect, we authors have to push ourselves beyond stage directions and spend some time in narrator’s head. What if the soccer-scene author revised to add the character’s thoughts and feelings when they are fouled on the soccer field? That would open up a wide range of possibilities, including:
- Does he think the ref is favoring his opponent?
- Does she have a nemesis on the opposing team?
- Have they been goalless all season and this was their big chance to score?
Such inner thoughts would help the reader understand this character’s emotions and motivations through the ups and downs of the game.
Try This: A Trick to Help You Layer in Emotion
Now that we know how to identify the problem, what’s the fix? Is there a way to layer in emotion without ending up with a narrator who overshares?
I picked this up when I was required to take acting for my degree in dramatic writing. I didn’t love the stage, but I did take away this trick, used by actors as they’re analyzing a script for performance.
Take a scene or chapter from your story. On the side margins or in the comments, go paragraph by paragraph and write down your protagonist’s feelings, also known as emotional beats.
When I am doing this exercise, I keep The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becky Puglisi, on hand. This resource lists emotions and their related body language alphabetically, but I also like the way it groups feelings into clusters (such as happiness, elation, gratitude, and satisfaction), because that helps me fine-tune the subtle changes in what my character is feeling moment-to-moment.
Let’s take a look at an example of what emotional beats look like when they are marked on a scene. This is a draft of my children’s novel, A Place at the Table (HMH Books, August, 2020), co-authored with Saadia Faruqi.
In this scene, my eleven-year-old point-of-view character, Elizabeth, realizes that she’s made a mistake of epic proportions. In initial drafts, the focus was on dialogue—what the two main characters say to each other when they realize they are in big trouble. But Elizabeth’s reactions were missing. To layer-in her feelings and observations, first I tracked her emotional range, paragraph by paragraph.
On this page, Elizabeth moves from shock and disbelief, through feelings of anxiety and defensiveness, into the emotion of shame. Once I had the emotional play-by-play of the scene figured out, I could work on Elizabeth’s asides and commentary as she narrates how these feelings show up in her body (lowering her head so her hair covers her face, for example). It also gave me a better handle on what she might notice about other characters’ reactions to what’s happening in this moment.
How Emotional Beats Reveal Character Growth
Writing down emotional beats paragraph by paragraph can help us think through such elements as:
- How the narrator views other characters through their physical appearance, body language, and facial expressions.
- The protagonist’s internal responses to the action and to other characters. (e.g. What is the main character thinking? What are they most worried about?)
- How emotions are manifesting in his or her physical body.
Without the emotional layer of a story, I find myself wondering what the point of view character is thinking and feeling. As a reader, I want to know the flow of their logic before they make a big, plot-defining decision. When all I have to go on is action, I can’t fully understand the cultural forces and personal histories that make the protagonist behave the way they do.
Help readers make a personal connection with your main character by giving them someone whose running commentary deftly balances physical and emotional action. Instead of dry stage directions, your audience will be able to see, hear, and feel the heartbeat of your story when you layer in emotion alongside your action. Tracking the emotions, especially in key scenes, is among your best tools for bringing your protagonist to life and putting their personal growth from Chapter One to “The End” on full, life-like display.
Laura Shovan serves TWA clients in her areas of specialty, which include poetry, novels-in-verse, and fiction for children and teens. Her debut children’s novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, received such honors as the Cybils Award, NCTE Notable Verse Novel, and the ILA-CBC Children’s Choice Reading List. Her follow-up novel Takedown was selected by Junior Library Guild, PJ Our Way, and the Amelia Bloomer List of feminist books for children. A Place at the Table, co-authored with Saadia Faruqi, is forthcoming (HMH Books, 2020). Contact us today to find out if Laura may be the right editor for your project!