Using Coloring Emotions to Create Unique Scenes

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

An aspiring author once asked me about describing a character’s emotional responses in a scene (show don’t tell!) and still be original every time. So let’s talk about it. What is a good way for describing emotional responses with originality?

I love this question because it’s all about going deeper with your characterization, and really drawing the reader into the story in a way that connects. I believe there are four levels to portraying emotion.

Level 1: Just the facts.

“He was angry.”

Of course, this is boring, and holds the reader the farthest away.

Level 2: Involving the body.

“Anger filled his throat.”

Not bad, because we can understand how that might choke someone, but again, it keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to relate.

Level 3: The visceral response.

“His throat clogged with emotions that cut off his words.”

Now, we are closer, the emotions remain unnamed, allowing the reader to imagine for himself the array of emotions that might cut off words.

Each level gets further away from telling the reader what to think. But if we really want a reader to engage with a character’s emotions, we need to go to the final level.

Level 4: Put them inside the character’s skin.

How do we do that? 3 STEPS

Step one: Understand the emotions of the scene.

No emotion is pure — every emotion has corresponding “colors.” For example, let’s say the anger above was prompted by someone breaking into your house. That emotion might also contain feelings of helplessness, and revenge. But if the anger is from a spouse cheating, it might also contain the emotions of loss and betrayal. Find out what other emotions are embedded in the main emotion.

Step two: Chose one of the coloring emotions to focus on as you draw out the scene. What metaphor could you use to convey that emotion?

Step three: Create a scene WITHOUT NAMING any of the emotions, or visceral responses.

So how does this work? Before writing a scene, ask yourself what emotions would the character be feeling? Is it love? Could it also be fear of losing that love? And at the same time panic, over losing freedom? Maybe it’s also surprise, that it could happen to them.

Now, what emotion could you pull out of that mix to illuminate the emotion of love? Maybe a woman loves someone who is going to leave for the military, and yet hasn’t admitted it to herself, or him? To illuminate that growing emotion, she could throw out all the newspapers in the house that talk about war. She could refuse to listen to the news.

Finally, what emotion can you then contrast with that first one, to really explore the many sides? Anger, over his patriotism?

Taking a closer look at an emotion and pulling out one of the shades to explore or illuminate makes your character’s emotions not only more real, but sympathetic to the reader as they recognize their own emotions (maybe even for the first time!) in a character’s actions.

Love. Anger. Happiness. These are broad, blanket emotions that can take on many actions and facets. Many “colors.” I want to give you a glimpse of how I did this in my book Taming Rafe.

Rafe’s a tough guy…a bull-rider. And he’s hurt deeply by the actions of the woman he loves. He’s been through a lot, and he’s broken. At his darkest moment, I didn’t want him to punch things, or go on a drinking binge…I wanted the reader to enter into his despair. As I looked at the emotion of GRIEF, I saw: Regret and Hopelessness. I picked those emotions to work with to illuminate the depth of his grief.

Rafe slammed his way upstairs, banged open his bedroom door. The entire house shook. Crossing the room, he ripped his Bobby Russell and Lane Frost posters off the wall and grabbed the box of videotapes he’d dug out for Kitty. He took his trophies, his ribbons, his two championship buckles, and the scrapbook he’d kept for himself over the years and shoved them into his PBR duffel bag. Then he threw them all over his shoulder and stormed back downstairs.

Piper, Stefanie, and Nick stood in the kitchen, holding a powwow of concern.

He ignored them, marched back out to Piper’s truck, threw the bag in the back, and roared out.

He took the back roads to the burial mound, driving as fast as he could without dropping one of the axles. He stopped at the bottom of the hill, lugged out the bag, and muscled himself up the hill.

He threw sticks and twigs together, and taking a lighter he’d found in Piper’s glove compartment, he knelt and lit a blaze.

The flame crackled as it devoured the sticks, then the kindling, and finally the larger pieces of wood he added for fuel. The flame showed no distinction between the fragile and the hearty, biting into the wood with tongues of orange, red, and yellow.

Rafe opened the duffel. Instead of dumping the entire thing on the flames, he pulled the items out one by one. His posters. They burned in a second, curling into tight balls. The ribbons, which sent out an acrid odor. The scrapbook. The fire started on the edges, burning away the accomplishments, the defeats. Then the tapes. The smell of plastic burning made his eyes water and sent black smoke into the now bruised sky. The trophies would take hours to fully burn, but their plastic mounts deformed and caved in on themselves immediately. Finally, the buckles. He dropped both of them into the flames, feeling his throat thicken.

He closed his eyes, smelling a bull’s hide, dirty and sweaty, feeling the adrenaline spike through his body, the jarring as every muscle, every bone screamed in pain. He felt the rush of relief as he let go and rolled off the back hip of the bull, found his feet, and ran to safety. He heard the crowd roar.

The flames crackled, spitting and popping as they devoured his life. The bull rider. The man Kitty claimed she believed in.

Rafe drew up his good knee, crossed his arms atop it, buried his head in them, and for the first time since his mother died—even during Manuel’s funeral, even in the dark months that followed—Rafe let himself cry.

I don’t name the emotions – regret, hopelessness, grief…but hopefully you can feel them.

Now it is your turn. What is your character emotion and how can you bring that on the page with these steps?

A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.

Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her at:

What Sports Photography Taught Me about Point of View (POV)

by Beth K. Vogt @bethvogt

My teen daughter plays volleyball year-round, which means I spend a lot of time at volleyball tournaments. My husband and I are also the photographers for both her high school and club teams. This happened by accident – meaning, when no one else volunteered to take photos, we did. At first, we took lousy photos. Now, we’ve invested in a more expensive camera and lens and after lots of trial and error, we’re getting better and better at this whole unexpected sports photography gig.
When I’m photographing a volleyball game, I spend the entire time watching the action through my camera lens. Everything I see is limited by the very small viewfinder at the top of my camera. There are three front row and three back row players on the court at all time during a volleyball game – on both sides of the net. If I’m focused on my daughter, who is a middle blocker, I have no idea what’s happened anywhere else on the court. If I focus on the three back row players so their parents can download some photos of their daughters, I have no idea what the three front row players are doing.

I can’t tell you how many times during a game I finish photographing a specific player – the setter or the outside hitter, for example – and I turn to my husband and ask, “What happened?” I don’t know who scored the point, much less what the score is, or who’s serving next.

Which brings me to the topic of Point of View (POV).

So often we writers like to use the example of peering through a camera lens to help each other understand the concept of (POV). We hold an imaginary camera up to our eyes for just a moment and say, “Remember, you can only see and experience through the eyes of the POV character.”

Spend a day photographing a sporting event – volleyball, basketball, baseball, football, hockey – and you’ll discover just how limited your character’s POV is. It’s not just a matter of what your POV character can see. You also need to be just as aware of what they can’t see and experience.


Perhaps some writers head-hop because they find one character’s POV too confining and so, after a few paragraphs, they hop over to another character to expand the experience and let their readers see what’s going on from another POV. The challenge? To stay grounded in your original character’s POV and bring the scene alive. How can you you write a strong scene from one POV?

  1. Be willing to rewrite. My husband and I take thousands of photographs during a single day of play – and then we delete, delete, delete. One recent day of competition, we took over 2000 photos. I posted just under 500 of them to the team’s photo site. 
  2. Go deep into your character’s emotion. When I’m photographing a game, sometimes I go wide for a team shot, but often I focus on a particular player. These kinds of pictures show emotion and intense action. You are writing from one POV – don’t waste it. Determine what is your POV character’s main emotion and then show it through their actions and their words. 
  3. Look for symbolism and metaphor. If nothing else, photography has taught me to always be looking – for the next amazing block, for the fun interaction between the girls, for the next unexpected volley. As you write, look for hidden symbols in your scene. A powerful question is “What is this like?” Compare the moment to something else. Doing so can pull up a metaphor or simile or a moment from your character’s past that you can weave into the scene. 

Is staying in one POV a struggle? Pick up your camera and spend some time taking photographs to help bring your writing into focus.


What Sports Photography Taught Me about Point of View (POV) by Beth Vogt (Click to Tweet)

Stay focused and don’t move the camera.~ Beth Vogt (Click to Tweet)

3 Tips to Write A Strong Scene from One POV by Beth Vogt (Click to Tweet)

Beth K. Vogt is a non-fiction author and editor who said she’d never write fiction. She’s the wife of an Air Force family physician (now in solo practice) who said she’d never marry a doctor—or anyone in the military. She’s a mom of four who said she’d never have kids. Now Beth believes God’s best often waits behind the doors marked “Never.” As a contemporary romance novelist, Beth is a 2016 Christy Award winner and 2016 Carol Award winner for her novel Crazy Little Thing Called Love. She was also a 2015 RITA® Finalist for her novel Somebody Like You, which was one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2014. In 2015, Beth introduced her destination wedding series with both an e-novella, Can’t Buy Me Love, and a novel, Crazy Little Thing Called Love. She continued the series in 2016 with the e-novella You Can’t Hurry Love (May) and the novel Almost Like Being in Love (June). Her novella A November Bride was part of the Year of Wedding Series by Zondervan. Beth enjoys writing contemporary romance because she believes there’s more to happily-ever-after than the fairy tales tell us. Find out more about her books at An established magazine writer and former editor of Connections, the leadership magazine for MOPS International, Beth is also part of the leadership team for My Book Therapy, the writing community founded by best-selling author Susan May Warren. She lives in Colorado with her husband Rob, who has adjusted to discussing the lives of imaginary people, and their youngest daughter, Christa, who loves to play volleyball and enjoys writing her own stories.

If You Don’t Know What To Do, Make ‘Em Sad

by Rachel Hauck

Riding my bike the other day, musing over my work-in-progress while also contemplating the book “The Nightingale” which I’d just finished, I realized that there is a certain sadness to the protagonist in books I love. In books the world loves.

Not morbid sadness. Not depressed. But a certain longing if you will.

Save for Elizabeth Bennett who covered her longing for true love with “snark” and piety.

In The Nightingale, the sister protagonists had a sad upbringing. Left with a minder by their father after their mother died.
In A Hundred Summers, the heroine has two points of view. One is a certain sadness and longing, wondering if she can get back the love she lost.

Girl On A Train has a desperate kind of feel, a locked in, unsettling first person narrative that’s both irritating and intriguing.

At MBT, we talk about what the character wants as a motivator when the story opens.

But the want has to come with an innate sadness.

They can’t get what they want. What they want is lost. Or unobtainable. Or perhaps undesirable. Whatever… you get my drift.

Even if the story opens on a happy occasion, we must get the sense of impending doom.

If she’s at her bridal shower, what she wants is happily ever after. She got her man. She is a month away from being married. But…

… she’s afraid happiness will never really be hers.

… an argument with her fiancé has create suspicion about a relationship at work.

… her best friend phoned to say she couldn’t make the wedding.

Naturally suspense, thrillers, novels involving Nazi’s (hello The Nightingale) have an inherent tension and sadness.

We know what the people want: food, warmth, peace, to live their lives without fear.

But digging down to the emotional elements, it’s not enough to want for those things, they must want for more. In The Nightingale, it was healing between the sisters, and each one with their father.

For the cop hero, he “wants” to get the bad guy for fear of a reaming from his boss.

Or he has to want to get the bad guy because the last bad guy who eluded him committed a double homicide.

Or the heroine has to escape the man stalking her for own safety as well as her young daughter.

There’s the big want — the external — but there has to be the internal, emotional want and a sadness surrounding it.

If you feel your story is lacking, asking, “What’s my protagonist sad about?”

Dig into the emotional layers.

My current protagonist is sad over the death of her best friend in Afghanistan.

But as I’m writing, I can’t get to her heart. She’s too external. Being sad over her friend is good, and a component, but what is SHE really dealing with?

She has to have a personal sadness. Over her own want. Over her own desire.

I need to dig deeper. The story is ultimately about her! The death of her friend is a catalyst to find the core of my heroine.

Make sense?

So if your protagonist seems kind of shallow, talking in circles, pause to see if you’ve really discovered their inner sadness. (Note: not depression!)

Don’t worry, the journey of the story is to turn the sadness into happiness. Or at least create satisfying resolution.

Got it?


Go write something brilliant.


New York Times, USA Today ​and Wall Street Journal best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She serves on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers. She is a past ACFW mentor of the year. A worship leader and Buckeye football fan, Rachel lives in Florida with her husband and ornery cat, Hepzibah. Read more about Rachel at

The Emotion Thesaurus–My Favorite Writing Resource

by Pamela S. Meyers

I’m asked what writing resources I keep at my elbow, the
first that I name is The Emotion Thesaurus:
A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression
(ET) by Angela Ackerman and Becca Publisi.
years ago, I was told my main character seemed flat in a particular scene. “What
is she feeling? Show us.” I’d just purchased the Kindle version of ET and I
used the book to help me deepen my character by showing the emotion she was
feeling. By the time I rewrote the scene, I’d gone into a deeper POV than
before and received high praises from my crit partner.
ET takes
75 different emotions and gives you the: Definition, Physical Signals, Internal
Sensations, Mental Responses, Cues of acute or long-term feelings of the
emotion, what other emotions the emotion may escalate to, Cues of Suppressed emotion, and a Writer’s Tip. If nothing gels with you, there are suggested
related emotions at the bottom of the page that you can link to which may better fit the
scene and character.
The book
is available in print and Amazon Kindle, but I highly recommend getting the Kindle
version because it is so easy to jump from one emotion to another similar
emotion, as they are all displayed as links. I know you can do the same with a
print version, but it would be more time consuming to flip the pages back and
Partial List of Information for “Amazement”
feature is called “May Escalate To”, which takes the emotion to the next level. This feature has gotten my muse
going, and I’ve used it very effectively.  
The last
link takes you back to the Table of Contents where you can check out the other
 I haven’t even mentioned the
introductory discussion at the front of the book about bringing emotion into
your fiction writing. At $5.00, the Kindle version of ET is a writer’s treasure
trove of information.

You can
find it at Amazon at

A native
of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago
with her two rescue cats. Her novels include Thyme for Love, which has
recently been rereleased on Amazon and her 1933 historical romance, Love
Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
. Love
is All We Need (the sequel to Thyme for Love)
will release in 2016, and Second Chance Love from Bling!, an imprint of Lighthouse Publishing
of the Carolinas, will release in January 2017. When she isn’t at her laptop
writing her latest novel, she can often be found nosing around Wisconsin and
other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.