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Intensity in Your Writing

Intensity in Your Writing…

In the Point of View online workshop, in the last week of the class, I mention in passing a major area of fiction writing that is never taught. Intensity.

And the reason this area is never taught is because of the advanced nature of it. In fact, most writers never notice it until long into their career. And never really know how to work it for the longest time.

But when realizing there are readers on the other side of every story, one goal of the mind control of readers is to play on their emotions. To even understand that your words will generate emotions.

Emotions are not one-size fits all. All emotions have intensity levels you can play with to hold readers (if you understand what you are doing).

So let me try to explain here as basically as I can what I even mean by intensity in writing. And that you can control intensity in your writing given enough time and practice.

Take the master of fear, Stephen King. Fear has an intensity around the emotion. And there are a bunch of types of fear, from panic to dread to uncertainty and everything in-between.

Take dread, one small area of fear which is just one emotion readers feel.

If it is a common emotion for readers, then you can play on the emotion to hold them in a book.

How? Think of it this way… Give the emotion of dread a scale from one to ten. One being not noticing dread, ten being intense dread. Think of it as a toggle switch you can dial up or down from one to ten. (Again if you know what you are doing and have the control in your writing.)

King can bring a reader into a character, introduce a situation where the reader is invested in the character (depth) and then King slowly toggles up the dread factor over a period of time in the book until the reader can feel it with almost every paragraph.

That is control. King has it. (Those King readers out there know exactly what I am talking about.)

All major, long-term stage-four writers have this control, better is some areas than others. King is the best with dread and fear, but also a master in many other areas of human emotions.

Dialing up and down intensity in your writing is a technique that can be learned. But before you can even start learning how to do this purposefully in a story, you have to understand this intensity factor even exists in writing.

Another example: Romance. The emotions of lust or attraction or love, just to name a few inside the romance area. Each area can be, with control, toggled up or down in a story. Top romance writers are masters of using intensity in their stories to control the readers.

For romance readers, just the fear of loss is a major intensity tool to hold readers in a story. Toggling that fear of loss up as a story goes on can be amazingly powerful and very useful to learn.

Toggling up the intensity of the attraction emotion as a romance book goes on is another tool.

Intensity in fiction is sometimes subtle, sometimes right in a reader’s face. But intensity in everything is critical in holding readers into stories. When there is no intensity, readers put books down. They say “It was flat.” Or “The story didn’t hold me.”

Those kind of responses come not because you plotted something wrong, but because you didn’t dial up or down the required intensity levels at the right time in a story or novel.

Readers expect intensity and are always disappointed when they don’t get it at the expected levels. As readers, you know I am right.

And most writers early on don’t even know intensity exists in story. It’s usually just something we all do early on by accident.

But this area is learnable and teachable. We haven’t tried to put anything together on it yet, but have it on a list for a possible future workshop, mostly because it would be fun for me to put together. (Got to keep myself entertained you know.)

So just wanted to do a passing glance at a major area of writing, an awareness blog if you will.

Have fun.

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  • Vera Soroka

    I agree on this totally. Yes romance writers are great at this. There is lots to learn from them. I try to learn from them but it takes practice and confidence to pull it off.

  • Chrissy Wissler

    Wow, thanks for this Dean. Every day it feels like I’m gaining new awareness on just how *much* I have to learn with craft. Just wow. And I loved that you added feedback comments and interpreted what it meant.

  • Becca

    I’ve heard writers talk about this as pacing, but I think intensity describes it better. Pacing might be how we see it when it’s deconstructed, but intensity is how it was made.

  • Cynthia Lee

    When I started thinking of writers with great intensity, I immediately thought of Lawrence Block. His books have always scared me more than Stephen’s – although I love Stephen’s work.

    Hmm. Now I’m going to try and maybe pin down exactly why that intensity exists in his Matt Scudder books (those are the ones I’ve read). I think (not having the books in front of me at the moment) that he somehow provides just enough detail to give you an idea of what’s going on and why and as the story progresses those details (of character or circumstance or whatever) lead you along, giving the whole story an inexorability until everything crescendos into a big bloody mess (in the Scudder books, at least). I think it also helps that his style is so spare, economical and direct that it leaves a lot unsaid, in a way, so that the reader fills in the blanks a little.

    I’m kinda rambling but this is an interesting thing to think about. Thanks, Dean!

    • dwsmith

      Block is far from spare in style. He has stunning depth in the Scudder books, which is why the readers feel the intensity, he is directing them how to feel, right down to the feeling of starkness. intensity in starkness is a ton different than letting a reader make up stuff. In fact, it is one of the most difficult of intensities to do.

      For example, those of you who too the depth workshop saw an example of Spillane. Everyone thinks Spillane is thin and stark, yet he is better at richness and depth than anyone. It is the intensity of starkness that he ramps up to give that sensation. One of the masters at it. Lee Childs with Reacher also does it in a different way at times. Early writers think that feeling comes from leaving out stuff, but actually it is exactly the opposite. Readers don’t read if stuff is left out, only if the writer controls them.

  • Linda Jordan

    Clearly another workshop that I need. I feel like I’m lacking in this area. It’s either nonexistent or over the top. Nothing in between. I’m going to need to ponder this for a while.

  • Prasenjeet

    I have noticed that Nicholas Sparks is great when it comes to emotional intensity. I’m a great fan of Nicholas Sparks and his books can make a deep emotional impact on you whether it is love for your wife suffering from Alzheimer’s or your 17 year old girlfriend dying of cancer. I think one way to understand intensity is to read a lot, read for pleasure (as you say) and let the words affect you emotionally. 🙂