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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Writing Scenes that Create an Emotional Body Blow

Note: I was so impressed with this that I asked Christine if I could share it with all of you. Okay, even if you are writing mysteries, you still need to move your readers.

Is your pencil ready to take notes? Should be, because this, my friends, is a master class in the art of writing well. joanna

by Christine Wells

I think all of us writing romance have heard of emotional punch, haven’t we? One of the most important tasks of any romance writer is to evoke emotion in the reader. Today, I’m going to talk about the mother of all techniques for evoking emotion–the emotional body blow.
This is a crucial moment in your story where an event floors your hero or heroine emotionally. There are many ways to set up an emotional body blow.

WARNING some of the examples below might be SPOILERS:

The character longs desperately for something they can’t have and then has to stand by and watch someone else get it.


In WICKED LITTLE GAME, my heroine, Lady Sarah, desperately wants a baby and can’t have one, then finds out her blackguard husband has fathered a child with another woman.

In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Elinor is in love with Edward, then not only does Lucy Steele tell her she is engaged to him but she treats Eleanor as a confidante.

The character has a secret fear about themselves confirmed by someone else.


In Georgette Heyer’s DEVIL’S CUB, Mary, who believes she is not good enough by birth and breeding for the Marquis of Vidal, hears Vidal’s mother say exactly that.

In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s LADY BE GOOD, Kenny Traveler lets everyone thing he is lazy and irresponsible, but when Emma jumps to the wrong conclusion about him abandoning his own child, it cuts him to the core.

Something the character fears and anticipates actually comes to pass.

This often precipitates the ‘black moment’, where it seems that all is lost.


In PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, while Lizzie defends her family against Mr. Darcy, she is secretly afraid he’s right about their vulgarity. Her fear is realized when Lydia runs away with Wickham.

Someone they love sees them as they truly are.

When a love interest zeroes in on the truth of a hero’s character–what Michael Hauge calls their “essence” as opposed to the “identity” they’ve built for themselves, this can come as a severe blow. You would think it would be a good thing, but for a character who has repressed his or her essence for so long out of a need to protect themselves, it can be terrifying.


Dain in Loretta Chase’s LORD OF SCOUNDRELS. When Jessica tells him she loves him despite every effort he makes to push her away, Dain cracks open inside. It’s a very powerful scene because it leaves this big, hard man totally vulnerable.

In Georgette Heyer’s VENETIA, when Damerel tells Venetia the story of his disgrace, she strikes at his heart when she takes his side.

The hero or heroine reverts to their identity when the going gets tough, dealing their love interest a body blow.


In VENETIA, Damerel has shown Venetia in a thousand ways that he’s a rake and not to be trusted but she has seen beneath that exterior and falls in love with him. When the outside world closes in and tells him it would be a disgrace for her to marry him, he pushes her away, resuming the persona of the heartless rake. The devastation Venetia feels is underscored by a sense of unreality. She knows the real Damerel. Why is he behaving like this?

A great technique to use when delivering the body blow to your character is to do it when it seems the character is making progress toward their internal or external goal.

In the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example, the blow comes at the point where Darcy and Lizzie begin to understand one another during her visit to Pemberley. It’s like that technique actors use when they answer a phone on television. If the news on the phone is bad, they are smiling when they answer it, so the viewer can experience that powerful change in emotion when suddenly, the smile slips from the actor’s face.

As an exercise, try writing a scene where your character is dealt an emotional body blow. Ask yourself what they want most and show someone else receiving it. Ask who they want to be inside and have another character confirm to them that they can never be that way. Give them a disaster that strikes at the heart of who they are. This will often be a turning point in the story, the time when your character decides to be brave and take a step toward their goal, or thinks that it has all become too much to deal with, and retreats.

This isn’t an easy technique to do well, but it is enormously satisfying when you do!

Christine Wells is the author of Wicked Little Game. You can learn more about her at

1 comment:

Christine Wells said...

Hi Joanna, thanks so much for the lovely compliment. I'm glad you found the article helpful!