A Punch of Emotion
What do you think about the emotional impact of the following passage?
It was midnight and there was a full moon. Henri and Anne moved quietly through the tall grass toward the Spanish border. The four French guards were on the constant lookout for émigrés and patrolled the station with large guns posed to shot anyone without papers. The search light moved around in circles, alerting the guards to any movement. Henri and Anne had been watching the guards for over a week and they knew they had to run across the border when the guards changed shifts and the search light moved away from them.
They moved carefully and were just short of entering Spain when a guard saw them and shot Henri in the chest. He fell and Anne bent down to cover his wound with her hand. He was bleeding and the guards were coming toward them. Anne wanted to pull him into Spain but the Spanish guards were running back and forth, too. She put her hands under Henri’s armpits, pulled him back into the forest and dragged him until she was certain no one knew where they were. Anne checked Henri but he was dead. She started to cry. She lost her husband but when she was ready, she got up and walked into Spain without anyone seeing her.
If you said there wasn’t any emotional impact in the passage when it should have been searing and smoking, then you’re right. The passage focused on the setting, the movements, the reactions, and the circumstances in a narrative voice that never wavered. It didn’t make the reader feel Henri and Anne’s heart pounding as they made their attempt to cross that forbidden border, or Anne’s panic when Henri was shot, or her victory amid her loss.
So, what can be done to generate emotion and make an impact with the reader? Lots!
As authors we’ve all heard the analogy that pacing is the speed of the novel. We’ve also heard that the author is the driver. The author controls the speed for the desired effect or goal of a particular passage or scene. A slow pace allows authors to describe settings, get into characters’ heads, tell their history, chat about the weather, or in short create and develop. A fast pace focuses on the characters’ immediate goals and the stakes.
The goal of the above passage is not a report of a stroll in the park. It is a life and death situation with freedom as the ultimate prize. Henri and Anne are illegally escaping France. Henri gets shot and dies in his wife’s arms. But the narrative continues at the same even pace to chronologically report the actions. The pacing needs to be terse and cranked up to its highest speed to mirror Henri and Anne’s anxiety, then Anne’s panic, followed by her fear, and ending with her tragic victory. As authors we want to set readers’ hearts pumping, so they feel what the characters do.
Sentence and Paragraph Structure
The sentences are long and sequential and the paragraphs are dense. They don’t reflect the terseness of the moment. The sentences and paragraphs need to be short and sparse while the words need to be hard and sharp. Use phrases but don’t overdo them and avoid the frill of adjectives and adverbs. Stick to the minimum and to verbs and nouns that hit hard.
We need to know where the characters are but the setting should be set before the scene begins. This is not the time to tell the reader about the number of guards, the type of guns, the moon, the grass, the intensity of the search light, etc. Set the scene up, including the stakes, before your action begins so you can move your characters through it without disrupting the flow and the tension. This way the focus is on the characters’ immediate actions and emotions as they work toward their goal.
There is no dialogue in the passage. Dialogue can heighten a scene or detract from it, but it can say in the present tense what a narrative can only say in the past. The effect of dialogue in a terse scene is immediacy and real-time emotion. If dialogue is used, keep it focused and sharp.
Let’s redo the passage now.
It was dark, but the search light was all-seeing. Anne gripped Henri’s hand as they crawled through the tall grass toward the border.
“Now,” Henri whispered.
They sprang forward. An arm’s length from freedom a shot blasted the silence of the night. Henri groaned and pulled Anne to the ground.
Blood was gushing from a hole in his chest. “No, Henri, no.” She flattened her hand on his wound. “Not now, please, mon amore.”
The pound of running and illegible shouts resonated above the pumping of her heart. The guards were racing toward them. All of them. The Spanish and the French.
Anne dragged Henri back into the forest until she didn’t hear anymore shouts or running. She dropped to her knees and pressed a fist onto his wound, but the blood oozed over her hand.
Henri grabbed her arm, his gaze piercing into hers. “Go.”
His hand slackened. Then it fell like a rock.
Anne waited for him to speak. She prayed for him to speak. Then she shook him so he would speak. He had to speak.
“Mon amore?” She lowered her head to his chest. He was still warm but she heard nothing. Not a sound, not a breath, nothing.
She wiped her tears with her sleeve and waited. She didn’t know how long she waited but when the searchlight moved away and the guards were huddled, laughing and talking, she stood up. With her head held high she strode across an undesignated line to another world that would never know Henri.
Better? Give it a shot and rewrite the passage yourself. You’ll come up with your own version that sizzles with emotion and delivers a punch a reader will feel.