How to pack an emotional punch in your writing - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
April 3, 2024

In a recent First Draft Friday, I was joined by USA Today bestselling author Sierra Simone, an accomplished writer known for her emotionally resonant erotic romance novels. Sierra shared her techniques to pack an emotional punch in your writing.

Here are Sierra’s top tips on writing a story with feeling:

  1. Start with an emotional premise: Sierra emphasized the importance of beginning with a premise that offers an emotional promise to readers. Whether it’s the promise of a happily ever after in romance or a sense of justice in mystery or thriller, setting up emotional stakes from the outset is crucial for engaging readers.
  2. Allow characters to earn their endings: Characters should undergo a journey with stakes and consequences, earning their transformations or resolutions throughout the story. By putting characters through emotional challenges, writers create opportunities for deep, resonant storytelling.
  3. Create nuanced characters: Sierra recommends crafting characters with complexity and depth, allowing them to behave inconsistently at times. While consistency is important, characters should also surprise readers with unexpected emotions and actions, adding layers to their personalities.
  4. Show, don’t tell: When conveying emotion, balance explicitness with subtlety. Use external actions and internal monologues strategically to reveal characters’ feelings, ensuring that every emotional moment serves a purpose in advancing the story.
  5. Use emotional “eye patches”: Similar to Sierra’s concept of an “eye patch” for characters, focus on highlighting memorable emotional moments in each scene. Identify the emotional core of each scene and ensure that it resonates with readers, leaving a lasting impression as they progress through the story.
  6. Layer emotional resonance: Delve into characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings, exploring the emotions behind their actions. This engages readers as they try to figure out the underlying emotion, too.
  7. Strategically use inference: Know when to let readers infer emotions and motivations, adding an element of mystery and intrigue to the narrative. By withholding certain details, writers engage readers’ curiosity and encourage them to invest emotionally in unraveling the story.
  8. Balance complexity with compelling storytelling: While characters may exhibit morally ambiguous or negative traits, ensure that their actions remain compelling and justified within the context of the story. Strive to create characters that readers can empathize with, even in the face of questionable decisions or behaviors.

It was a great discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

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Alessandra: Welcome everyone to First Draft Friday. I am your host Alessandra Torre. I am joined today by Sierra Simone, and we are going to be talking all about how to pack an emotional punch in your writing. And this is not an easy thing to do, and I’m really excited because this is a topic we have not covered before. And Sierra does a fantastic job. If you have not read her writing, you should, and we’ll talk about a book to start with. Welcome to the show. It’s great to have you here.

Sierra: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Alessandra: You want to give everybody just like a minute-long introduction to you and your writing?

Sierra: Oh boy, I’m always so bad at this. I am Sierra Simone. I write primarily erotic romance. It’s primarily taboo and forbidden romance, typically queer or polyamorous. One of the reasons that I’m drawn to sort of more forbidden or taboo edges in romance is because it allows for such rich possibilities with feelings. And I didn’t actually know I was an emotional writer until I started publishing, and then people would be like, “Oh, your book, it’s so angsty.” And I was like, “Isn’t this just how everyone feels all the time?” Like, that is the level of emotion I experience all the time. But I’m told that, you know, I write emotionally. And so, it kind of got me thinking about like, well, why? What lens am I bringing to writing that results in an emotional resonance that readers can pick up on? Because very emotional people who are very emotional in real life can write books that the emotion is not explicit in the text, and a lot of times that’s because extremely emotional or extremely empathetic people are very adept at reading a lot of emotion into a small amount of information.

So, very emotional and empathetic people might read a sentence like, he pinched the bridge of his nose, and immediately read into it an entire backstory of frustration and exhaustion and all this stuff because they themselves are really adapted to doing that in real life. But the trick is to convey that explicitly in a text in a way that people who don’t bring a whole reservoir of reading emotional back stories into small things to the table. And so, that is one of the things that got me thinking like, okay, so even being personally a very emotional and angsty and broody person, isn’t the only skill set that is required for writing an emotional book. Part of it is finding ways to make that emotional resonance explicit inside the text, so that it’s very easy for a reader to see, okay, this is what they’re feeling. But it’s a little bit more nuanced, I think, than just sort of giving a Wikipedia summary of a character’s emotions at each stage, right?

So I think that really emotional texts start out with an emotional premise, with a premise that gives you an emotional promise. And I write romance, so that’s obviously very easy, right? Like, I am making a promise with every book I write that there’s going to be a happily ever after, but that happily ever after is going to have to be earned. But I actually think that feeling of earned, it crosses all genres. So I think that your sense of justice and world recorrection at the end of a mystery or a thriller, that’s something that characters have to earn, right? And that even if you have a recurring character in a mystery or thriller series who is, you know, moving through maybe sort of separate standalone mysteries, like that character, they are being changed by what they experience. And they are earning sort of a new part of their character arc every time they undergo that.

And so, setting up a premise that will allow your character to earn their ending, I think already sets your book up for emotional success, because just knowing that they’re going to have to earn some sort of change and worldview or transformation and who they are, already means that you as a writer are going to have to kind of put them through some paces. Like, you’re going to have to do some bad things to them maybe, and you’re going to have to give them stakes. Like, you’re going to have to make it painful for them not to get what they need through this story. And what is great about all readers, all people – what we bring to the table is that reading fiction sort of hijacks our neural empathy centers.

They did a famous study a few years ago where they put people in MRI machines when they were reading books. And they found that when they would read a sentence about a main character kicking their leg; the part of the brain that controls kicking your leg would light up as if the person had actually done it and not just had read about it. And so, as we read fiction, our brains are not super great at discerning like this is real life, and this is just a story I’m being told. You’re sort of like your brain is experiencing it along with the characters. And so knowing that as a writer, I think it makes it a little bit easier to say, “Okay, like now I’m really going to put this reader through a journey by putting a character through a journey.” And so starting with that premise of like, we’re going to earn this, there’s going to be a journey with some stakes and some consequences in order for this character to change or transform, or get their happily ever after, I think really sets you up for success at the beginning.

Alessandra: So first we’re getting a lot of comments, especially from YouTube. So, anyone watching live, we encourage questions, so if this is your first or 50th First Draft Friday, please ask questions, we’re happy to answer them as we go. But if I understand correctly – so you start thinking kind of about the emotional journey or about the emotions that your characters are going to be experiencing early on. And are you a plotter or a pantser or what?

Sierra: OK, so I’m a pantser, but I’m going to tell you my favorite joke. I’m a pantser, but I do a loose outline in the sense that I know the destination and I know a few points that I really want to hit along the way, but I don’t get very prescriptive on how I’m going to reach those different destination points. And so, I’m kind of a pantser, kind of an outliner, and so I tell people that I’m a pantyliner.

Alessandra: I’ve been a proud pantyliner for a long time. One male author friend of mine said, I like planter better, like plotter. So I said, okay, the guys can be planters if you don’t like pantyliner.

Sierra: Unless they’re around me, and then I’m like, no.

Alessandra: Yeah, Mike said pantsers of the world unite. When you know a few of the key points, so those – the struggles and tribulations that your characters are going to face in order to earn their happy ending?

Sierra: Yeah. So I usually know sort of very loosely inside a story, you know, kind of what’s going to be necessary to happen. But the problem is, I don’t know my characters until I actually start writing them. And so, it isn’t until I am maybe 15 to 20,000 words in that I have a sense of these characters and their nuances. And so one of my favorite things to do as kind of a shortcut – let me see if I have a pen and do a little like art doodle for you guys. One of my favorite things to do when I’m starting out with a character is to have one thing that you know about this character. [Sierra draws a small circle on the left side of a piece of paper.] This is just a circle. One thing that I know for sure. For example, in my book Sinner, I know that character, because he had been in a previous book called Priest, he is the main character’s brother. I knew that he liked strippers, so that’s my, like one data point about this guy going into this book.

So I decided to give myself a data point that was super, far away from liking strippers. [Sierra draws a second small circle in the middle of the paper.] This is another circle, it kind of looks like boobs now. Sorry, but this other circle for me was he likes to read books aloud to his mom while she’s getting her chemotherapy infusion. And so, when I put these two circles and conversation together, I start to get this sort of really interesting valley, right? Where like, how can both of these things be true about one character? How can one person have both of these things be behaviors that they do? And that really starts giving me a lens into that character and really gives me some interesting questions to ask. Like how do you get to both places?

And so, one of the things that I think is really important when you’re creating characters that are capable of deep emotions, is that you allow yourself to sort of plant a flag in the fact that characters are not consistent, which is kind of like the opposite of advice that you might get from like a writing a, how to write a book, is that characters need to behave consistently. And overarchingly that’s true, like if you have a character who’s overarchingly logical, most of the time the choices they’re going to make are going to be logical. If you have someone who has been hurt extremely badly in the past, of course, they’re going to have trouble trusting someone now. So overarchingly, yes, we should have consistent characters so that they’re not just like random chickens running all over the story.

But people are not androids, right? Like, people do unexpected things. People do unwise things for themselves sometimes. People can be capable of surprising goodness when we think that they are bad. And so allowing that level of sort of nuance and complexity inside of a character, I think allows you to then have really surprising emotional arcs for this character. So this billionaire that seems like super cynical, super Playboy, like we start to have a lens into how he might actually be like a squishy marshmallow inside who’s capable of having a happily ever after. A grizzled detective who’s seen way too many murders, right? Like if we find out that he always feeds the stray cat, even though the stray cat is definitely going to be lost at some point, like we really get this lens into how this character operates. And that kind of nuance and specificity really allows for a really rich emotional experience that readers can kind of read empathy into.

Alessandra: So that makes perfect sense. Someone wasn’t sure what pantsing was, and I apologize for using jargon. So pantsing is writing by the seat of your pants. It is writing without an outline – just to clarify that. There are so many — I’m trying to think of the best way to move through the next 16 minutes because there’s so much to unpack here. So, one thing you’ve talked about is creating characters with deep emotion and complex emotions and varied and intricate personalities, but also early on, you were talking about showing emotion, the emotion of your characters when writing. So, can you dive into that a little bit of how if you have a character, do you sprinkle in their emotions as you go? Do you write in first person or third person? And then, how does that affect that?

Sierra: So I typically write in first person and one of the things I am naturally a little bit – I’m a pretty indulgent person. And an indulgent, I mean in like a writing way, so I do probably put a lot of emotion on the page naturally. But one of the things that I try to ask myself while I’m writing, because I would really love for my books to just basically turn into a My Chemical Romance song, is that I have to ask myself, is this necessary to the moment and to the story? Because I can give my character a monologue about a piece of lint on their sweater and how it reminds them of their grandma’s old linty sweaters. And they miss their grandma and they miss their grandma’s dog. I could do that, but I have to pull back.

And so one of the things that my creative writing professor told me when I was a baby creative writing student going to poetry readings and smoking clove cigarettes was that each character should have what they called an eye patch. An eye patch was a metaphor for this like one memorable thing about that character, so that every time they walked onto a page, you weren’t yet again, describing a six-foot-tall blue-eyed man with dark hair and a chiseled jaw. You were bringing attention to one thing that was really memorable. Like maybe he has a scar, maybe he always has a pair of sunglasses in his hand, even though it’s cloudy outside. And so, I kind of took that and translated it to many things about writing. So when I’m inside of a scene, I’m kind of like, what’s the eye patch of the scene? Like, what’s the one thing that I want a reader to remember from this scene as they move through the rest of the book. And it’s probably not the lint on the sweater. It’s probably something that’s going to be a little bit more important to the arc.

And so asking myself that sort of like, what is the emotional eye patch of this scene? What’s the moment I need this character to move through in order to move through the rest of their moments? And I think when you kind of use that funnel that like this scene needs to be necessary emotionally to the ones that follow it, it makes it a little bit easier to filter out, like, okay, so I don’t need him to be frustrated about traffic today. I need him to be frustrated that the local news broke the story about the murder before they were able to interview the suspect. You know, like I need this one thing to be what they’re focusing on, and that really helps.

Alessandra: So with that example, thank you. I was about to ask if you could give an example; so with that example, he’s frustrated that the local news broke the story. So, how do we show that emotion in that scene? Is it a mix of inner narrative and actions?

Sierra: Yeah, I’m not prescriptive about this by any means, and so I do think that there are writers like you had Tiffany Reisz on not too long ago and she is a very action-oriented writer. Her prose is very clean and it’s deeply internal, but always through the lens of external feelings. Like her main character, Soren, we actually never get an internal POV on him. Like, it is always characters around him that are noticing him. And so yes, I do think that you need to… books that are anchored with that external action really allows it to be a narrative and not just a one man play of some, you know, a character stepping onto a stage and just riffing on whatever they feel. Those external actions really anchor it. But I will say that I think books that pack an emotional punch really also marry those external actions with internal feelings.

And I think it’s important to know that people are not their own therapists for the most part. Most of us will have feelings and then those feelings might come with other feelings. And so, one of the things that I’m asking myself a lot when I’m writing an internal monologue, what’s behind the feeling? So, if our detective is frustrated that the local news broke the story, like, what is he feeling about that frustration? Is he feeling ashamed that he wasn’t able to do his job quick enough, you know, to go interview that suspect? Is he feeling angry because he’s had a rivalry with this local news station for years? So there’s another feeling that’s behind that first feeling, and delving into that a little bit, I really think adds just so much complexity to a character.

Another thing that I also say is that you can even sort of hang a lampshade on the fact that people don’t always understand their own feelings and have a character say, I don’t know why I feel this way. We do this in romance a lot where we’re like, I don’t know why this clumsy girl who tripped in my office has captured my attention, but she has. And so, that question of why am I affected? Why am I daydreaming about this person? Why am I angry about this? That question actually allows the readers to sort of start trying to figure it out too, right? Like, why are you so frustrated at this local news station; it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. There must be something I don’t know yet. And so, that kind of layers in a little bit of mystery. One of the things that I really recommend for any writer is from the RWA website; you can download Dr. Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ talks on the psychology of writing fiction. She is a psychology professor who has spent her career studying, not only the psychology of fiction, but the psychology of fandom. And so, she studies what books create readers who are rabidly obsessed with that series or that author.

In her talk about the psychology of fiction, one of the things she talks about is that there is an academic theory that fiction has arisen on an evolutionary level, like storytelling. The reason it’s part of all human cultures is because storytelling gives us social practice in knowing what other people are thinking, which is essential for social survival. Like, we all live in social groups and we all have to know what other people are thinking about us or about certain situations in order to navigate them. And storytelling gives us practice because we have to guess what these characters are thinking and why. And so, sometimes shrouding a character’s feelings in a little bit of mystery, not a ton, but just a little bit in that sense of, I don’t know why I feel this way. I don’t even know what I’m feeling right now. It gives a reader a little puzzle to solve that creates this sort of urgency of, I should figure this out. I feel compelled to figure this out. And that can kind of lure readers in as well.

Alessandra: We do have a few questions, so I just want to jump quickly. Mike said, and this talks a little bit about what you just said. Do you allow readers to infer things about their characters by what you leave unsaid?

Sierra: Yes. I mean, this is something that actually, I think Tiffany Reisz is brilliant at, but I would not use it all the time. So I use that strategically, because I’ve imagined layering emotional resonance explicitly in a text. I kind of see it as like a switchboard that I have in front of me, you know, with different toggles and switches. And so, depending on what the scene and the characters need, there are times when I spell things out, you know, when I’m like, this is what this person is feeling, and this is what they think the other person in the room is feeling. They might be wrong, but this is what they think the other person in the room is feeling. And then there are other times where I do prefer to let readers infer. Sometimes it’s for a very cheap reason like I would like this information to remain nebulous until later on because it’s going to be important later on. But other times it’s because I want certain characters to retain a sense of mystery.

And so if you have a character, typically it’s heroes in romance fiction, but I also think that thriller and mystery protagonists benefit from this as well, where characters like Edward Cullen or Christian Grey, where you’re really wanting to know how they feel and what they think. And all you get are these little doses, right? Just these little doses. And then when they finally do say, I love you, or I’m obsessed with you, or I watch you sleep every night, then it feels huge. Those moments after you’ve been waiting and waiting, and then you finally get it, it’s like the sun coming out behind the clouds. Those are the passages that people highlight and underlying and get tattoos of. And so, strategically using that kind of inference, especially for characters that you really want to remain just so compelling to readers, you give them these crumbs, and then you wait until the right moment to really deploy how they feel about things.

Alessandra: Yeah. And the readers also don’t have to know everything about every character. It can be exhausting, like mentally to keep track of.

Sierra: You know, like what’s the eye patch of that character, and so I think that is really crucial, too.

Alessandra: Another question from T Papa is how do you know how far you can go with the BAD in bad boy or bad girl before you turn readers off to them?

Sierra: I mean, if it’s me, this is pretty far you – you too. I think this is a question that’s a little bit more specific to every author’s brand, but what I will say is that in Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s talk about the psychology of fiction, one thing she talks about is the limits of empathy. So there are actual limits to human empathy, and this is something that has been studied. This is not her speculating. This is something that has been clinically studied. We have trouble empathizing with Nazis, for example, like that is, it seems to be a limit when they do clinical studies. And so, there is a cliff, which I would say is pretty universal, but how close you get to that cliff of empathy, it might be a little bit different for every author.

I will say that I have found that I can personally almost always justify a lot of bad things with emotional nuance. And so, if you have a very bad character, then you’re racking up a higher bill later on. I think in what that character needs to reveal and how that character needs to change. So it’s not that you don’t it, it’s just that you know that eventually, if it’s a romance, you’re going to need to have a lot of groveling. And if you’re going to have groveling, then it follows that before the grovel comes the change of heart. And so if it’s going to be a very big change of heart, then it follows that it probably must have a very big stimulus to trigger that change of heart. And so, you can kind of work your way backward from the end of this book. I think at the end of almost any fiction book, we need to have a sense of justice that’s been accomplished.

So whether it’s romance where the sense of justice is that these two characters are now on equal footing and that everything was wrong before has now been healed through the power of love. If it’s mystery or thriller, that’s a little bit more obvious, I think, that we’re returning to a status quo of good has won, you know, evil has not prevailed. And even literary fiction usually ends at a point of transformation for a character. So, that character has undergone some sort of interior journey, and now they are different. And with the difference, there’s always hope that we’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.

So if we are going to end at a Justice Ever After, let’s say, then it follows that we’re going to have to have certain things happen in a certain order before that. And so a lot of times I’ll work my way backward and say, okay, if I’m going to have a priest break his vows, then I need to say, okay, now here he’s going to change his mind about something. Here he’s going to apologize to the people he’s hurt. Here he’s going to understand that vows don’t have to mean he thought. You know, that he can serve God in a different way. And so, that allows me in a way to sort of plot backwards. And I do that very loosely, but yeah, I do usually try to work backwards to make sure that each stage has an emotional necessity for moving forward.

Alessandra: And Ellen said, is this kind of related to every villain needing one redeeming quality or are there different, you know?

Sierra: This is hard for me because I think villains are sexy, and so I have to remind myself that there’s a difference between like Loki and then Thanos, right? Like, those are two different kinds of villains. I would say that I wouldn’t personally be preoccupied with redeeming so much as compelling or explanatory, you know. Like I think why Thanos was a flat villain for me is that his reasoning doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m like, well, if you can snap half the people out of existence, why not just snap double the resource into being? But in the comic books, Thanos is trying to destroy half the universe because he’s in love with Lady Death, and Lady Death is this entity that craves death and violence and destruction, and he just wants her to notice him.

Alessandra: He’s showing off her.

Sierra: Yeah, he’s going off Lady Death. He’s obsessed with her. He’s desperately in love with her. And to me, even though that doesn’t justify universal genocide, it is interesting enough that I can follow.

Alessandra: A relatable motive.

Sierra: Yeah, I can follow his actions. Yeah, I don’t know that I would always use the word redeeming unless I need that person to be a hero later on, but for a villain, I think it needs to be interesting.

Alessandra: And my first traditional editor that I ever had taught me, and it can really be applied to any genre, but making sure that your main character or one of your main characters, doesn’t have – she called it TSTL syndrome, which is too stupid to live. My heroine was at the time like about to be kidnapped, and she was just doing stupid things. Like, of course she’s going to get kidnapped. Like, she knows that the mob is after her and she’s just doing stupid things. And she said, at some point, your reader will just stop caring about that character or will just emotionally write them off because they’ve made so many dumb decisions. They are saying, ”Just go ahead and kill them because they’re too stupid to live.” But it could be applied in a relationship, you know, like when your heroine or hero just does so many dumb things that they’re just not worth caring about anymore. The same if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, which is what I was doing—a romantic suspense at the time. At some point, if your characters do enough bad or dumb things then they’ll just emotionally write them off and stop caring about them, and you definitely don’t want that.

Sierra: Yeah. And I would say that I really feel like readers don’t always have to agree with the character’s decisions. Because sometimes you have to let your characters make bad choices, like it has to happen but they understand why. Like, if it’s like the mob is after me, but I am still going to charge right into the lion’s den because they have my seven-year-old sister, then that’s like a choice that it’s like, well, I understand, like this is a bad idea and it’s very obviously a bad idea, but if you’re backed into a corner and this is the only choice – you feel like this is the only choice you have, then I’ll keep reading.

Alessandra: Your house is on fire, but your dog’s inside. Like I’m going to go in, you know, I mean, I just got to. You know what I mean?

Sierra: Yes. And I think this is where having that really like emotionally variegated kind of character helps out because then you can have those unexpected moments of behaving irrationally or behaving altruistically to the detriment of their own benefit. You know, like you can have these things that are a little bit surprising about a character come out because they are a complicated layered person.

Alessandra: I love that. And we are already at the end of our time. So if anyone has any final urgent questions, please now is your time to shout them out. In the meantime, if they’ve never read your books before and you’re interested in reading one of Sierra’s books, where would you suggest they start?

Sierra: I would say depending on how adventurous you are, Priests and Sinner are both stand-alones. They don’t have to be read in order. They are pretty taboo but they’re very contained stories and some of my most popular ones. And then my other very popular series starts with a book called American Queen.

Alessandra: It is a trilogy and I don’t like trilogies or series, but it’s so well done. That’s the book I always recommend even though it is, yeah.

Sierra: It is a trilogy, but it is very emotional, and that series is one of the ones that I get the most emails that are like, “I cried. Why did you make me cry?” So if you’re interested in reading an emotional text, I would say that series, starting with American Queen is one of them.

Alessandra: And you can find Sierra’s books at as well as on We will be back in two weeks with another First Draft Friday. Thank you so much and our fantastic guest. And thank you to everyone with your great questions and comments. You guys were fantastic. We’ll see you in two weeks. Bye guys.

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