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The Third Step to Revision: The Slow Rise of Emotion and Tension

You've made it through the mayhem that was your first draft and now you have a sequence of meaningful cause-and-effect scenes centered around characters who want something despite their horrible wounds. Woohoo! The hardest parts are over!


With this next stage, I hope to be a tad more efficient, but be prepared to still invest some heavy cutting and revising time into your manuscript. (Remember, it takes time for your masterpiece to "rise" to perfection). Here are the main techniques I'll be applying at this stage of revision:


In Donald Maass' phenomenal book The Emotional Craft of Writing Fiction, he shares that in the opening of our novels, we want to try and hook our readers:

  • Find something that your reader would care about and give that passion or interest or experience to your main character. It can be something small like getting a co-worker's strange coffee order after a horrible meeting or showing concern for a child's fear of a bully at school. Make sure you have this for each main character within your opening chapters.

  • In those same opening chapters, find something strange and perplexing that the reader will want to latch on to and keep reading to find out about. Maybe your character has a strange name, or only wears brown, or refuses to leave her house without checking that the window is locked.

  • (For more techniques to increase the emotional plot of your story throughout, check out his book!)


This is a classic piece of advice that I've been building competence around for years now. There are a plethora of amazing resources on the internet and in craft books, on this one technique. A great starting point would be the opening chapter of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's practical guidebook, The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expressions. In this round of revisions, I'll be searching for key moments where I want to describe specific reactions and events rather than glossing over them with a single word or statement.


I recently listened to K.M. Weiland's podcast about Character Voice where she shares 14 separate techniques for making sure each of your characters has a distinct voice and presence in your story. I am printing out this post and using it as a checkpoint with each POV and supporting character in my novel. Why? Because as much as I have already spent time crafting memorable characters, I sometimes forget the more subtle differences, like defensive reflexes, educational background, and the rhythm and vocabulary they use most often.


Another invaluable tool I've picked up from a slew of brilliant authors is the idea of tempering the tension in your scenes. My default is high-intensity emotional scenes with yelling, crying, throwing, and fleeing... you get the idea. Now that I have a better sense of my characters' voices and personalities, I want to show their broad range of reactions to tension. Rather than yelling, what if a character laughed in anger and or spoke with complete rational control?

I also want to show my characters' responses in a way that demonstrates growth. What if rather than fleeing as they might be predicted to do, they decide to pluck a piece of lint off their enemy's sweater while walking away maintaining eye contact? There is a place for all levels of reactions, but I want to offer some surprises for my readers that may in fact provide a stronger and more resonant emotional response from them.


I was introduced to the concept of "thisness" by author friend, Shawn Smucker through the work of James Wood. Wood defines it as "...any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability." I'll be honest friends, that definition is too abstract for me to draw practical meaning, but here is what I've gathered through this literary giant's wisdom: We need to add details across the senses that show our readers we have embodied our character for a period of time long enough to know what they would notice. Each character should see, feel, smell, touch, and hear in a different way. Those details they notice need to be chosen with meaning and purpose and described in a way that makes them stand out and stick with our reader.

After I get through this round, I only have one official step left and then it's going to be all about the sprinkles and cherries. Get ready to make your stories gorgeous next month! Until then, happy revising!

(Be sure to check back to my first post: Revise your Story in Four Essential Steps (The Cupcake Method) for an overview of all the steps I'll be covering. )


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