Editing for Impact: Unleashing Emotional Resonance in Your Writing

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What makes a memorable story? Is it a banging plot? Is it dazzling dialogue full of quips and snappy sarcasm? Is it lush and poetic prose?

Or is it something else? Is there something else that makes it linger beyond The End, haunting you long after you’ve finished? What can you say about the last story that gave you chills—not just horror chills, but frissons of feeling deep in your heart and your gut and your soul? Did it resonate in your emotions? 

That, my dear friend, is emotional resonance. 

Many ingredients make up a clever, coherent story, but if it lacks depth, lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that takes it from flat to fulfilling, those other juicy ingredients like plot and characters and prose won’t matter one whit. You’ll have a tasty story, maybe, but not a memorable one. 

Emotional resonance is that certain je ne sais quoi that takes it from flat to fulfilling. It is the key ingredient that makes your writing more memorable and impactful. Why?

Because it makes your reader feel.

If the writing lacks this resonance, this soul and spirit, your reader might have a good time, but they will feel nothing, and your story won’t linger in their imaginations for long. Evoking strong feelings in readers leaves a lasting impression on their hearts and minds, making them remember the roller coaster you took them on and haunting them for years to come. 

To maximize your chances of achieving emotional resonance, you must edit, and edit well. Emotional resonance is the key to impactful fiction, and editing is the key to emotional resonance. Through editing, you will be able to see the whole picture, then zero in on the areas that need more oomph. Editing enables you to identify the elements of your story that need improvement and provides techniques to enhance them. 

If you’d like to know what makes up emotional resonance and how to leave your readers haunted by your story, read on, friends. 

Understanding Emotional Resonance

What Does Emotional Resonance Mean?

Emotional resonance is the ability of a story to evoke strong emotional responses or connections from the audience. It is crucial for a narrative that is deeply impactful, relatable, and memorable. When a narrative elicits strong emotions and connections, it reverberates in the readers’ hearts and minds, strengthening the connection between reader and story even more. 

When a story has emotional resonance, it is filled with authenticity, relatability, and depth. With its powerful themes and emotions, it creates strong emotional bonds with its readers, leaving them more satisfied with the story.

Why Does Emotional Resonance Matter to Readers?

Humans are emotional creatures. We feel. Joy, sadness, rage, empathy, terror—we experience all of them. And if a story elicits none of them, or only elicits them weakly, it is less satisfying. It becomes less immersive, less believable, less cathartic.

Since the earliest days of humanity, humans have been telling stories. Stories are a vital part of who we are. Fiction lets us explore and experience a wide range of feelings from a safe distance. It lets us live vicariously through different emotional journeys, allowing us to confront our own feelings, explore the complexities of emotion, and gain insight into what makes us so deeply, painfully human.

“Does it make you laugh? Does it make you weep?”

“Yes?”

“What’s more human?”

— Person of Interest, episode 3×12, “Aletheia”

A story about AI telling us how to be human. 🥲

We need stories. We need them to have an impact on us. We need them to stay with us long after we’ve finished them. Which means that we need them to have emotional resonance.

Types of Emotions and Their Impact on Readers

Empathy, happiness, grief, fear, and more—there is no limit to the types of emotions fiction can evoke in a reader. If you can feel it, words can fuel it.

  • Empathy: Empathy is, in my opinion, the most powerful and important emotion fiction can evoke. If you are not cultivating some level of empathy in your reader, you are not achieving emotional resonance. Readers should be sucked into the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the characters, connecting with them so deeply that they can feel it all themselves. This grants readers a greater capacity for compassion and tolerance in their daily lives and broadens their worldview beyond the story’s world. You want readers to be sucked in so deeply that they feel the story so keenly that it changes them, even just a little. No matter the emotion, you want the readers’ empathy to awaken.

  • Anger: The fires of anger can smolder beneath the words of a narrative. Oppression, injustice, hurtful behavior—all can leave readers gritting their teeth and clenching their fists and aching to right the wrongs that are tormenting the characters in this fictional world. This can spill over to the readers’ own lives, serving as a catalyst for them to strive for a better, fairer, kinder world.

  • Happiness: Happiness is great for giving readers a vacation from the grim or monotonous grind of daily life. Sometimes, we all need to be reminded that that the world can be beautiful and kind and delightful. Stories that warm readers’ hearts and lift their spirits help them realize the great power of hope and joy in their own complicated lives. This can come in the form of humor, gentle joy, triumphant growth, or nostalgia. Sometimes, readers need stories that leave them feeling as though they are wrapped up tight in a cozy blanket and sipping a nice hot beverage, even when they’re not. The escape happiness in a story gives lifts and inspires the readers, often when they need it most.

  • Fear and Suspense: Thrillers, horror stories, and mysteries grab readers by the throat and drag them deep into the story’s shocking world. Fear and suspense awaken our primal instincts. They spike adrenaline, building and building our interest and excitement in bursts of shock and surprise as they get closer and closer to their explosive conclusion. A good mystery, thriller, or horror tale is a roller coaster. Write it right, and the twists and turns will keep your readers on the edges of their seats and give them a captivating ride they won’t soon forget.

  • Sadness and Grief: There is a catharsis in fictional pain. When we suffer from them, grief and sadness weigh heavy on our souls. Stories full of these painful emotions help readers explore them from a safe distance. They confront readers with the inherent fragility of our brief lives, encouraging introspection on the complexities of this often-agonizing existence, and offer greater understanding of disappointment and loss. They remind people to cherish joy. They remind readers that others are fighting their own battles and carrying their own losses and pain, too, helping those readers feel empathy as they find their own release.

The emotional journey of fiction enriches readers’ lives, reshaping their perspectives and expanding their mental horizons. It deepens their connection with your story, too, leaving them satisfied—and eager for your next engrossing tale.

Create Emotional Resonance in Your Writing

“How do you create emotional resonance in writing?” you ask. “It sounds important. Now, how do I get it on the page, M?”

I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips for creating emotional resonance in writing:

Know What You Want Your Readers to Feel and be Willing to Feel It

To target your readers’ emotions, you need to know what you want to target. How do you want the reader to feel? Do you want them to feel happy and warm? Do you want to grab them by the heart and twist until it hurts? Do you want a subtle ache, suspense, or something else? Figure out what emotion you’re aiming for, then tap into it. 

Knowing the emotion that you’re going for isn’t enough—you need to feel it yourself. 

Writing emotionally resonant fiction is messy. It’s ugly. It is the art of cutting out pieces of yourself and pasting them on the pages strangers are going to read. If you want your story to linger in their heads, if you want it to haunt them, then it needs to haunt you first. 

What makes you angry? How do you feel when you’re angry? How does your body feel? Does your heart race? Does your face grow hot? Do your fists clench so hard that they hurt? Feel it. Feel that anger. Feel it in your head, in your chest, in your gut. Then write it down. How do you feel when you’re aroused? How do you feel when you’re in love? How do you feel when the whole world has gone wrong, and you can barely hang on without sobbing until your face is raw and burning from your tears? Who are you, really? What’s ugly about you? What’s beautiful? 

Feel your feelings, then write them down. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard, and trying to teach someone to do it is like trying to teach a brick to read. I could try to tell you how, but my mind is mine, and yours is yours. I’m sorry, but only you can find the right way for you to do this as you write. When you do, though? I promise, you will know, and the way you write will be changed forever. 

Know the emotions you want to target. Feel them. Then dive into the messy, weeping, stinking guts of your own brain until you’ve tapped them like a needle in a vein and write what comes out. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. 

Know Your Theme

On a similar note, know your story’s theme. I’m not talking about the kind of theme like you learned in school, “man vs. nature,” “man vs. man,” and the like. I’m talking about something deeper: I’m talking about the truth that lies at the very heart of your story. In order for your story to resonate, it needs to revolve around a truth buried at the center of its core. 

What is something you believe? Do you believe that love conquers all? Do you believe that blood family is more important than anything, or that found family is even more important than blood? Or is there some other truth that you can see buried deep within your story that seems to imbue every single page with its message? That’s your theme. And your story needs to reinforce your theme throughout it.

Now, don’t be too heavy-handed! Readers don’t want to be repeatedly thonked over the head with Life after loss is possible or The world is terrible, actually, or some other message ad nauseam, no matter how much they agree. Theme is a subtle pulse running through your story’s veins. Readers notice when it’s missing, though they might not be able to put their finger on what is lacking. You don’t want them to notice immediately that it’s there. The theme should give your story depth. It’s important, and it’s necessary. 

Develop Relatable and Compelling Characters

Building relatable and compelling characters is crucial for emotional resonance. Readers bond with characters. In order to build that bond, you need to create characters they can relate to, that they can understand. But what makes a character relatable? What makes them compelling? What makes them—human or not—human?

Think of the people you know. What do they have in common, deep under the surface of quirks and traits and the like? They all want something. They all fear something. They all have vulnerabilities, flaws, strengths, pasts, and more. They all change. These traits, these layers, are all part of being sentient beings on this particular space rock. In order for readers to relate to your characters and care about your characters, in order for them to find them compelling, they must have these layers. 

  • Motivations and Desires: Your characters need to want something. Why? Because motivations and desires shape them. Their goals and aspirations reflect our own need for purpose and fulfillment, helping readers connect with them and their journeys. No matter what drives them or what they want, characters having motivations and desires resonates with our own needs and makes them much more captivating.

    What does your character want? What are they willing to do to get it? How are they standing in their own way? What else is standing in their way? Readers don’t want characters who want nothing and do nothing, unless something is standing in the way of the character’s blissful, blissful Nothing. Readers want characters who find themselves staring down a buttload of obstacles standing between them and their desire, then start tackling those obstacles, either voluntarily or kicking and screaming and grumping the whole way through.

  • Fears: Everybody has fears. That means your characters should have fears as well. Fears tap into our vulnerabilities and reflect our own anxieties and insecurities. Their journey toward facing and conquering their fears is universal and inspiring. Their courage can help fuel our own, leading us to make real changes in our own lives just as they did in theirs.

    What is your character afraid of? What haunts them? What gave them those fears? Are they rational or irrational? How do they impact their life? How do they confront those fears in the story? By ensuring that your characters have fears, you are offering another way for readers to relate to them, either because they share the character’s fears or they understand fear in general. (Plus, having characters confront their fears is great for that juicy, juicy conflict that keeps your story’s engine purring like a cat.)

  • Flaws: Everybody also has flaws. When people talk about flaws in fiction, they’re not talking about minor flaws like, say, clumsiness. They’re talking about the kinds of flaws that run deep and have a serious impact on the characters’ lives. Flaws and weaknesses humanize characters. We’ve all made mistakes. Seeing characters make these same mistakes, or others, and grappling with the consequences fuels our own empathy toward them. This makes them feel more authentic and complex, and watching them overcome these challenges and grow satisfies our need for positive change and maybe inspires us to make some positive changes ourselves.

    What are your character’s flaws? What is their greatest weakness? Where do these flaws come from? How do they impact their lives? How do their personality traits become weaknesses? How do their strengths become weaknesses? How do they progress past these flaws, if they ever do? Readers want characters who confront a multitude of obstacles rooted in their own imperfections. They don’t want flawless characters living in perfect contentment; they want characters who stumble, grumble, and struggle against their flaws in pursuit of their goals.

  • Vulnerabilities: Vulnerabilities expose your characters’ humanity. All of us have insecurities and weaknesses. Characters can mirror these struggles. Whether they experience the same weak points as the rest of us doesn’t matter—what matters is that they experience them. This gives them authenticity, and it adds depth and complexity, and opportunities for growth. The more layers you add like this, the better.

    We’ve covered flaws and fears: what about other weaknesses? What internal conflicts do they struggle with? Self-doubts? What sort of emotional wounds do they carry? How have past struggles or traumas shaped them? How do their vulnerabilities hinder their pursuit of their goals? Readers love characters who yearn for something but face a daunting array of barriers, characters who are incomplete somehow, characters who have to fight to achieve their goals—and the battle between a character and themself is incredibly compelling.

  • Strengths: Just as we all have fears and flaws and desires and vulnerabilities, we all have strengths. Characters’ strengths ignite our admiration. They drive the plot forward and create captivating conflicts. They tap into our need for growth and transformation. Their grueling journeys to overcome challenges using their individual strengths fuel us. They excite us. They leave us in suspense, eager to see what happens next, hoping that these characters will win (or, in the case of some characters, that they’ll fail; hey, I never said we were only working with heroes here).

    What strengths does your character possess? How do they drive your character’s actions and shape their identity? Are their strengths tested and challenged? How do their strengths inspire others or make a difference in their world? How do they conflict with their fears, flaws, and vulnerabilities? Are any of them as much of a weakness as a strength? Put as much effort into developing your characters’ strengths as you do their weaknesses, and mine them all for that sweet, sweet conflict.

  • Pasts: All of us are shaped by our pasts. Your characters should be no different. It’s unrealistic for their history not to shape them—for their experiences, triumphs, and traumas to have no impact on their desires, flaws, and fears. Their histories are windows into the roots of who they are and how they became themself. They reflect the rich, intricate tapestry of an individual and their existence. We are not formed in a vacuum. Our characters shouldn’t be, either (unless it’s sci-fi, but, hey, even that will have an impact!)

    What events or experiences shaped your character’s past? How do these events contribute to their current weaknesses and strengths? How does their upbringing influence their vulnerabilities? Their family dynamics? Their past relationships? Traumas? How has their past affected their self-perception and behavior? How do their past achievements or successes contribute to their current strengths and weaknesses? Do they ever confront or address their past flaws and weaknesses? How does their present intersect with their past?

  • Change: There are two types of characters—dynamic and static. Dynamic characters change throughout the story, and static characters stay the same. These can both fuel emotional resonance and make the characters relatable. Dynamic characters make for a good journey as they conquer their fears and their flaws as they go for what they want. We love to watch characters evolve and grow—or devolve—as they make their way through a story’s plot. It’s fun.

    Most writing advice advises against static characters, but they can be just as compelling. They make for good tragedies as the world passes them by until they meet their end, or good anchors in the chaos of a story’s world. Sometimes you want to see a brick wall stare down a hurricane and watch the hurricane blink first. Sometimes you want a moral compass to stay true to themself to the end, despite the turbulence around them.

    For Dynamic Characters: What pivotal moments or experiences lead your character to seek personal growth and change? How do their flaws and weaknesses hinder their progress? What conflicts and challenges arise as they confront their shortcomings? How do their relationships with others impact their journey of transformation? What sacrifices or choices do they make in pursuit of change?

    For Static Characters: What core values and beliefs drive your character’s unwavering nature? How do their steadfast qualities impact their relationships and interactions with others? How do they navigate conflicts and challenges without compromising their principles? What external factors or events test their commitment to remaining unchanged? How do other characters perceive and respond to their resistance to change?

Build Conflict and Tension

Conflict is the electricity that crackles through a story’s pages. It is the spark that keeps your story moving and alive, much like the impulses from your brain to your nerves. Without conflict, your story is a lifeless lump. It might twitch with little whispers of life here and there, but it lacks the critical struggle between opposing forces that makes a story go. If that’s the case, then you’d better call Miracle Max ASAP because the poor thing’s mostly dead and probably owes you either money or true love.

(Since we’re talking about conflict here, I’m guessing your story owes you a few bucks, doesn’t it?)

“Okay, but what is conflict?” you ask. “Is it fighting?”

Not exactly. Fighting is a type of conflict, yes, but it’s not all that we mean when we say that conflict is important in a story.

Conflict in fiction is a push and pull between forces. One of those forces is your character. The other is some form of resistance. That resistance can be the character themself, another character or characters, a group, nature, a deity, you name it. Your character wants something. They want it a lot. It’s not just important to them, it’s Important. There is something standing in the way of them getting it, or a bunch of somethings. The character butting against those somethings is conflict.

Tension is born from this push and pull. The character struggles. Their opposition pushes back. The stakes get higher. Will the character get what they want, or will their opposition win? With each scene, with each incident, the answer to that question grows more unclear. You want to know. You need to know. You don’t know. The opposition is as determined as the protagonist. The urgency builds. The character hurts. You feel it. You’re connected. You read. You wait. Wait. Wait. 

Conflict and tension drive the narrative forward. They provoke visceral reactions and evoke empathy as we follow the characters on their journey. As we travel with them, we watch them struggle. We feel it.

When you’re coming up with your conflicts, they need to be personal. They need to revolve around what your character wants most, and they need to butt hard against your character’s flaws, fears, vulnerabilities, and values. Their strengths will help them some, but they need to grow past their internal obstacles to defeat the external ones.

For added tension, dangle their objective just out of reach. Hinder them. Make it time-sensitive: just think of how much momentum a close deadline gives you. Drizzle in some foreshadowing throughout the conflict, hinting at the struggles to come and at what might be the ending.

Give them moments to breathe, too. Moments of relief amid the chaos are powerful. Use these to develop the characters and their relationships. Have them let down their hair, and maybe let down their guard a little, too. For a moment, everything’s okay. They’re having fun. The reader is having fun. It’s nice.

Then be evil: Yank the rug out from under them.

Don’t look at me like that. Tormenting the poor bastards in your story is fun.

Utilize Sensory Language and Vivid Imagery

Without life, your story cannot have emotional resonance. Sensory language and imagery bring your story to life even more. They immerse your readers in a vivid experience, fueling their imaginations and their memories, breathing reality into your characters and your world.

Every added layer, be it emotion or character or conflict, provides greater depth for your story to resonate through. When you give your readers concrete sensory details for them to picture in their minds, you involve them in your story even more, deepening your connection with them. Pretty cool, huh?

All of the senses provide powerful layers for your story to resonate through. They are as important as every other element, and if they are lacking, there should be a dang good reason.

  • Sight: Through descriptions of sights, readers are transported to the world you have created and can walk through its vivid landscape. They can see the story’s events unfolding—the chaos of the bustling market, the shining tears on the lover’s face, the burgeoning clouds roiling on the horizon. But sight is not only good for setting the scene: it is also a valuable tool for foreshadowing or symbolism, thus heightening the story’s emotional resonance.

    What emotion does the sight of a collapsing house evoke within you? What about endless halls of crisp and sterile glaring white? Does the rich glow of a sunset after a storm fill you with relief, or does the encroaching night and the blood red sun fill your gut with icy dread? Is the messy room a source of disgust, or does it look like home? Does the child standing in the hall tear at your heart or seize your chest with fear? Are these perceptions accurate, or do you intend to subvert their implied meaning? How can you incorporate more sights into your writing? How can you use them more effectively?

    Or is your character blind? How does that affect them? What impact does that have on their perception of the world?

  • Smell: Smell is a powerful sense to utilize in writing. Scientific studies have linked smell closely to memory. Thanks to certain pathways in the brain, smell and memory are interwoven. That means that, in fiction, you can use smell to evoke certain emotions connected to memory, but there are, of course, many, many ways to link smell and emotion, and any scent can evoke emotion. It all depends on the person smelling the smell.

    What smells make you think of your childhood? What about your character? Does the yeasty smell of baking bread, its subtle sweetness and warmth, make you think of golden days with beloved family, or does it have no connection to your memories? What about the smell of a dryer on a cold morning? Does it fill you with beautiful or painful nostalgia? Or is there another smell that connects closely to your childhood memories? Think of that, and gift it to your character.

    Smell is equally powerful in other areas, too. What smells? Do you know the acrid smell of death? What about the salty tang of an ocean? Do either of them spark feelings within you? Within your characters? Is the stink of sweat positive or negative to them? What about perfume or cologne?

    Anosmia became more well-known after Covid-19 came along. Does your character deal with that?

  • Sound: Most of us live in a world of sound. Tonight, for example, I am listening to the hum of an air conditioner and the gentle lapping of an elderly dog drinking her water, then the clicks of her tiny claws on the linoleum. What emotion does that scene fuel within you? Does it sound like a peaceful evening, or one filled with irritation or boredom? Sound is a powerful force in our lives, so, naturally, it must have great power in our characters lives as well, shouldn’t it? The term resonance is already closely linked to sound. Google defines it as the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating. So just as sound reverberates in reality, it builds emotional resonance within a story.

What does the slow, percussive rhythm of footsteps on creaking wooden floors make you think of? What does it make your characters think of? What about the whine of a hinge squeaking open? Or the melodic tweets of birds in the trees and the whisper of wind through leaves? Is the sound of laughter joyful in this moment or terrifying? Does the song playing on the radio or being played by the band bring back painful memories or fuel happy new ones?

What about the absence of sound? Is it a source of dread, or is it the character’s version of normal—is the character deaf? How does that change their life?

  • Taste: In the brain, taste is linked closely with smell. This means that taste has as much power of smell in fiction. It can have a great impact on the characters and their emotions—and, therefore, on the readers. A pleasant taste brings comfort and fuels the release of happy chemicals in our brains. A foul taste brings discontent and a sense of dread or disgust. The vivid, sour tang of lemon can evoke unhappiness, or it can remind us of the bright color of the yellow peel and its resemblance to the sun, of summer days soothed by sweet lemonade and the simplicity of childhood and the past.

What flavors are the most evocative for your character? What do these flavors make them feel? What emotions do they spark? What about a new, unfamiliar flavor? What does it taste like? What does it make them think of? How do they feel about it?

  • Touch and Sensation: Physical sensation is a vast, vast category. Our skin is our largest organ and registers all kinds of sensations. The rest of our bodies experience even more. Pleasure. Pain. Wet. Dry. Hot. Cold. Motion. Stillness. Each of these physical feelings can be used to deepen the connection with a character and their world.

What is the greatest physical pain they have ever felt? What is the most pleasant touch they have ever experienced? How do they feel when they are soaked in sweat—accomplished and proud or smelly and disgusting? Is there a sensation that grates on them like nails on a chalkboard? Are they energetic or exhausted?

Think hard on all of these questions, and consider how you can weave and layer the senses into your story. Go over your scenes as you edit and ask yourself if they are vivid enough, if they are powerful enough, if they will drag your readers in deep and resonate around them.

If your answer about any of your scenes is no, incorporate the senses. Work with them to achieve the greatest reader immersion and emotional impact. Build the world in rich detail until it breathes on every page, and let your characters loose within it.

Your readers will love it.

Showing vs. Telling

Show, don’t tell is one of the most frequently repeated writing “rules” that I’ve seen since I first started writing. It’s also one I often see people trip up over in writing circles.

A disclaimer before I go any further: Telling is not universally bad.

I repeat: Telling is not universally bad!

Showing and telling both have a place in the writing world. Show, don’t tell should really be, show, don’t always tell. Like most writing “thou shalt nots,” you should be aiming for balance, not absolutes. To hell with absolutes. In writing, sometimes the punch is more important than the rule it breaks.

What Is the Difference between Showing and Telling?

To remember, think of this: Has a friend ever relayed a story to you? Perhaps they’re recounting an incident, full of “she looked so pissed,” and “he said, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and she said, ‘Yadda yadda yadda,’” and all that kind of stuff. Or have you ever read a story along these lines:

“I should like to know how the weavers are getting on with my cloth,” said the Emperor to himself, after some little time had elapsed; he was, however, rather embarrassed, when he remembered that a simpleton, or one unfit for his office, would be unable to see the manufacture. To be sure, he thought he had nothing to risk in his own person; but yet, he would prefer sending somebody else, to bring him intelligence about the weavers, and their work, before he troubled himself in the affair. All the people throughout the city had heard of the wonderful property the cloth was to possess; and all were anxious to learn how wise, or how ignorant, their neighbors might prove to be.

— The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen

That is what telling looks like. It’s where the narrator relates the story plainly, without immersing you in the tale. There is no subtlety in telling. It simply states the story’s happenings, where the characters are, and how the characters are feeling. It is a surface-level explanation, nothing more.

Showing delves into the physical and behavioral manifestations of emotions. It dives into the senses to give you the impression of how or what a character is feeling without plain exposition. Instead of having the beautiful trees pointed out, instead of, “The trees were so beautiful,” you see their vibrant green leaves fluttering on the wind, or the sweet pink flowers bursting to fragrant life on the fingertips of their limbs, or the bright flame of autumn painted across the countryside. You taste the crisp air around you, the perfume of spring, the pleasant dustiness of fall. You feel the warmth of the brilliant sun on your face.

You are immersed in the story. You are shown rather than told what you are meant to experience. 

Both telling and showing can be quite useful. Here, I will tell you more about how to use both for achieving emotional resonance.

The Benefits of Showing

Showing lets the reader experience the characters’ emotions firsthand. It lets them explore those emotions and underlying imaginations. It takes readers deeper into the narrative, letting them into the emotions resonating around them. The raw rasp of vulnerability in the character’s chest. The burn of embarrassment in their face. The oppressive stench of death filling their lungs and compressing their chest. Or maybe the sweet flutter of joy in their heart.

Subtlety and evocative language capture readers’ imagination. They let the reader fill in the blanks. When you are telling, the blanks are filled in for them. When you are showing, your readers’ brains are eagerly weaving the details together, immersing them in your world.

The Benefits of Telling

While showing is immersive and powerful, telling has its own place in the reverberation of emotional resonance. The brevity of telling can cut through the noise like the slice of a sword, distilling complex feelings into potent statements that hit on a visceral level. It can portray a sense of numbness or disconnect, or boredom, effectively and efficiently. You can use that distance, that monotony, to great effect! It can convey the progression of time and the cumulative impact of emotions.

Through summarization, you can condense your characters’ emotional or literal journey into concise, evocative descriptions. You can also contrast the lushness of showing with the starkness of a few well-chosen tells.

And sometimes, too much showing bogs the story down just as too much telling can make it droning and monotonous. Choosing one or the other is a balancing act, but when showing and telling are working in tandem, they can complement each other for a deeper, more emotionally resonant experience.

The Power of Editing in Enhancing Emotional Resonance

Readers want stories they can feel. They want stories that are deep. They want stories that they can escape into, that drag them into a new world from the first word until the last. They want stories that grab them by the heart and squeeze.

Emotional resonance is the key to turning readers’ hearts into fresh-squeezed juice (ew). So let’s talk a bit about what to look for while editing to crank up the emotional resonance.

Identify and Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

I’m sure you know this story: you’re reading along, enjoying a nice book, and then you hit something that is so jarring or distracting that it throws you out of the story. You’re like, “WTF? What dingdong would ever think that fits in here right there???”

Then, you remember the author’s name, and you throw up your hands in defeat, because that dingdong? Is you. Ah, jeez.

Yeah, you’ve been there, too, haven’t you? But that’s okay! We’re editing right now. You can fix it! Writing is malleable!

But maybe you don’t recognize these distractions. What are some things to look out for?

  • Lengthy Descriptions: Does this mean all of your descriptions need to be brief? God, no! Some lush and beautiful prose is a wonderful thing. But sometimes, the descriptions go on and on and on and on…that’s what we don’t want. Look for descriptions that go on for too long, or focus on irrelevant or tangential details that divert the reader’s attention from the purpose of the scene, and trim them down.

  • Purple Prose: Purple prose is a cousin to the lengthy descriptions, and it’s even more distracting. What is it? It’s prose that is so florid and poetic and meandering that it’s like an explosion at a perfumery. This should be trimmed more ruthlessly than the regular ol’ lengthy descriptions. A little poetry is a good thing. I love me some poetic prose! But stick to a nice, gentle pale lilac at the most, not royal purple.

  • Side Stories, Irrelevant Dialogue, and Tangents: Side plots, irrelevant dialogue, and tangents can all be fantastic for character and relationship development and can provide much-needed relief after pages and pages of heavy angst or intense action. As with anything, though, you don’t want too much of a good thing usually. Consider whether these scenes or elements are essential and if they support the emotional impact of the story. Remove them if not.

  • Overcomplication: Less is often more when it comes to evoking powerful emotions. Overcomplicating scenes with unnecessary plot twists, convoluted language, or excessive emotional cues can dilute the impact or even breed melodrama. Simplify and streamline the narrative, and allow the emotional essence to shine through without unnecessary clutter.

Without these distractions in the way, you can cut through the murk and the muck and give your readers the emotional resonance they are looking for.

Strengthen Emotional Scenes through Revision

When you are revising, be sure to give your most important and emotional scenes extra care. The more pivotal the scene, the more you want to be sure it has the right amount of punch. With plenty of attention to the following, you can be sure to offer your reader the emotional resonance they crave.

  • Dialogue: What your characters say—and what they don’t say—can have a great amount of impact on your emotional tone. Ensure that their dialogue is genuine and impactful. Adjust it to give it more emotional weight.

  • Body Language and Nonverbal Cues: As I said about dialogue, sometimes what your characters aren’t saying has an incredible impact on the emotional resonance of your scene. Gestures, expressions, and internal sensations speak volumes, especially when they contrast with how a character is trying to sound. That contrast is, much like a picture, worth a thousand words.

    If you’re not sure how to handle body language, like I once was, The Emotion Thesaurus (Kindle link) (non-Amazon link) by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi was an absolute game changer for me. I do not use the words “game changer” here lightly. This book is exactly what the title promises—a reference book showing body language associated with emotions. I’ve bought the first and second edition, and if they come out with a third, I’ll probably buy it, too. SO HELPFUL.

  • Pacing: Fine-tuning your pacing can go a long way in adjusting the tone of your scene. Speed up or slow down your tempo as needed, until your scene carries the emotional weight it should.

Give each of these elements close attention as you edit. It will go a long way.

Harness the Power of Words and Language

I rail often against this messy hodgepodge of a language, but when you wield it well, its power is incredible. We like power, don’t we? We wouldn’t be weaving whole worlds out of words if we didn’t, because that is hard. Writing is hard.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter,” said a rather smart man called Mark Twain. “‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” When striving for emotional resonance, the principle is the same: you’re looking for the right word. Sometimes, you want the lightning bolt. Sometimes, you want the firefly.

Ensure that the words you are using are the right words. Go for precision, for strong verbs, juicy adjectives, and sensory language that will immerse your reader deep within your scene. Pay attention to the connotations of your words and pick the ones that carry the right emotional weight.

Rhythm, flow, and literary techniques like metaphors and similes are also important for emotional resonance. Short and punchy sentences for impact. Longer, flowing sentences that linger in the melancholy or contemplative vibe of a moment. Vivid imagery that brings the scenery to life. Be a poet, but don’t go too far.

With careful, deliberate editing, you will take your story’s emotional resonance to the next level and will have your readers by the heartstrings until the last words.

Practical Editing Tips for Unleashing Emotional Resonance

The strategy to edit for emotional resonance is similar to the process for any other kind of editing. You want to take your time and dive deep into the meat of your story. You want to be merciless…but also save anything you cut for later, in case you need it again. You want to be critical and methodical. Unlike proofreading, the editing process is for in-depth improvements. Analyze your story with care and give it the attention it deserves.

Take a Break Before Editing

Before you begin, it’s best to step away from your story for a while. This helps you gain a fresh perspective. I know how much you want to dive right in and start tweaking the crap out of it—believe me, I know—but it’s best to set it aside for a bit so you can see it with fresh eyes.

Take a break. There’s a whole world out there that you’ve probably been missing while your story was eating you alive. Go explore it for a bit. Take a walk, watch some TV, read a nice book—hell, jump into your next story if your fingers are itchy enough. Tuck that tale you just finished away for a bit, then come back to it when you’re ready to be more objective.

Revisit and Revise Iteratively

Returning to your emotional scenes repeatedly lets you continue to deepen their resonance. Don’t settle for “good enough” here. Come back to each scene, especially the most important ones, and make it better. Squeeze it. Hit it harder. Pull its strings and weave them throughout the rest of the story. Make sure the most powerful moments reverberate from impact to the final page.

How long will this take? As long as it takes. But it’s worth it.

Seek Feedback from Beta Readers or Writing Communities

I’ve gone into the benefits of recruiting beta readers before, but it bears repeating: Find some willing victims readers to help. Once you’ve given your story some editing love, reach out and find people who can help you make it even better. They can give you valuable insight on what needs improvement and help you achieve the emotional resonance you want.

Final Thoughts

Resonant writing is powerful writing. Readers love stories that carry them away to different worlds and immerse them in someone else’s adventures. I hope you now know where to aim your editing eyes and what to target as you go.

Stories with emotional resonance require skill, intention, and understanding of the human experience. When you know this and what to target, you can create stories that leave permanent marks on your readers’ hearts.


What do you think, readers? How much do your stories resonate? How much attention do you put on emotional resonance while you are editing? What books, shows, or movies have resonated with you the most? Tell me in the comments below!

While you’re here, would you like to know more about wrangling plot holes? Or would you like an experienced professional proofreader to take a look at your stuff? I’ll proofread up to 400 words of your writing for FREE!

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