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What is “Emotional Punch” and Why Do You Need it in Your Romance Novel? Part 1

By LISA WHITEFERN

One of the most common comments from editors rejecting romance manuscripts is “this story needs more emotional punch.” But what does this really mean?

Emotional Punch in a romance is created by the amount of empathy a reader feels for your characters. It is the rapport she feels for your hero and heroine and her emotional involvement in the steadily growing pace of a story. It is this emotional development that gives a romance its page turning quality.

Romance author Barbara Hannay comments that sufficient emotional punch gives your story the “wham” that sets it apart from other stories.

In order to achieve emotional punch a writer must first give us characters we care about. Characters need to grab at the readers emotions and make her care. To do this you need characters who come alive on the page.

Easier said then done right?

How do we create characters like that? Characters who stir a reader’s emotions?

Award winning Australian romance writer Valerie Parv suggests that at every separate stage of your story you ask yourself what the viewpoint character feels about what is happening. Both Valerie Prav in her book Heart and Craft and Stephen King in his book On Writing advise writers not to back off or skim the surface when writing but to dig deep.

Dig deep inside yourself for the deeper emotional truths that might be involved in any situation you are writing about.

In order to make readers care about your characters you must know them as people.

Four ways to make a reader care more about you characters include having each of your characters have a “backstory wound, a deep personal yearning, strengths and weaknesses and having clarity of theme.

A major back-story event that that bears directly upon the psychological story of your protagonist is referred to by professional book editor Elizabeth Lyon as “a back-story wound”
A back-story wound is a traumatic event in the character’s past that leaves its mark on the character.

In my novel Wicked Wonderland contracted by Samhain Publishing the heroine was found as a newborn baby in New York City dumpster so she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder about that.

She also has a relentless anonymous stalker who leaves her a lot of insulting messages referring to the circumstances of her birth.

In traditional fairy-tales Red Riding Hood is stalked by the ultimate predatory male while Cinderella grows up in the ultimate dysfunctional family. Each of these characters go through hard times before they reach their goals and that tugs on our heart strings.

We can compare Cinderella’s miserable home situation with Harry Potter’s. Harry’s miserable downtrodden role in his own muggle family certainly attracted my attention and pulled on my emotions. Like many people I like to root for the underdog and Cinderella and Harry Potter are both timeless stories, because their underdog status coupled with their quiet strength and ultimate determination to make something of themselves attracts our attention and involves our emotions.

My story Wicked Wonderland is in part a retelling of the fairy tale song Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. My heroine’s mother is a gambling addict at risk of losing her home and at the beginning of Wicked Wonderland, my heroine Lillian Rudolph has taken a job as a stripper to help her mother pay the mortgage and keep her home.

However she’s really a classical musician so like Rudolph in the song she stands out like a sore thumb among the other strippers as someone very different. They decide because she is different she must be the unknown thief who has been stealing tips from their locker rooms and beat her up.

She is saved by two fae males who take her for a magical erotic ride in Santa’s sleigh.

So Wicked Wonderland is also an underdog story that pulls at our emotions by keying in to those universal emotions felt by anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or been bullied and dreamed of being suddenly rescued through the approval of someone powerful.

In Harry Potter that someone powerful is Dumbledore, in Cinderella it’s her Fairy God mother, in Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer it’s Santa Claus himself and in my story Wicked Wonderland it’s two extremely sexy half fae/half human men who fall in love with my heroine.

In all these stories the protagonist is an underdog going through very hard times before triumphing and finding their happy endings and this packs a powerful emotional punch.

Many beginning writers choose conflicts that are too light. But to get emotional depth you need to crank up the emotional difficulties your hero and heroine have.

If when the two half fae whisked my heroine away in the sleigh there were no emotional difficulties between them and they lived happily ever after that would not be enough story and would not provide enough emotional punch.

But in fact my heroine knows both of these men from her past when they were posing as full mortals getting an education at the same university she went to. So this is a reunion story with many layered issues between the three protagonists as well as some very dark magical villains who have strong motivations for destroying their happiness.

To intensify emotional punch you must steadily increase the emotional problems of your protagonists in a story.

Think about your current heroine and hero. Are they troubled by internal doubts? Do they face self image problems? Do they have reasons for feeling they don’t deserve unconditional love?

*Look out for part 2 of this Emotional Punch workshop.*


LISA WHITEFERN had her first short story published in the New Zealand Herald at age 10. She has a Masters Degree (hons) in English Literature and is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand. She has had several short stories published and has a novella Waking the Witch available from Freya’s Bower. Her erotic fantasy romance Wicked Wonderland has a release date of December 4th from Samhain Publishing.Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaWhitefern