“Make Your Big Moments Sing!” by Barbara Ashford

barbara ashfordAward-winning novelist and librettist Barbara Ashford will be teaching the Odyssey Online class “The Heart of the Matter: Bringing Emotional Resonance to Your Storytelling” this winter (application deadline: December 7, 2019). Barbara has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for her compelling characters and her “emotional, heartfelt” storytelling. Her background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her delve deeply into character and explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd has been optioned for Broadway.

Barbara’s first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster’s Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.

She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second novel series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.

A graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught seven previous online courses for Odyssey and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than a decade. You can visit her dual selves at barbara-campbell.com and barbara-ashford.com.


Before I began writing fiction, I worked as an actress in musical theatre. Those years not only gave me the inspiration for my novel Spellcast, but taught me a lot about creating memorable moments in fiction.

One of the most important things I learned was the importance of “being in the moment.” Not just saying the lines you’d memorized or moving where the director tells you to go but truly listening and responding to what is happening onstage. That helps audiences enter the world of the play and experience the characters and their struggles as real.

I think a similar relationship develops between writer and reader. Readers can only truly care about your characters if they feel those characters are “in the moment”—not marionettes dancing on the strings their creator pulls, but living, breathing individuals facing real challenges, making difficult choices, and scrambling to get out of tough situations.

It’s especially important to be “in the moment” when writing pivotal scenes in fiction—moments when you need your prose to resonate most fully with readers. My musical theatre background led me to think of emotional resonance as making such moments sing. Here are some techniques that can help you achieve that:

1) Understand exactly what the character is feeling in the moment.

Recognize that a character may be feeling more than one emotion simultaneously. Go deep to identify not only the character’s emotions, but the scene’s beats—the moments where emotions shift.

If a character loses someone dear to her, the obvious emotion to portray is grief. But there are many other colors to explore that will deepen the complexity of the character and the impact of this moment on the reader. Does she feel anger? Bitterness? Resentment? Does she blame herself for doing too little to save her loved one? Blame the loved one for “leaving?” Blame the world for being unfair? Is she frightened about the future? Determined to go on?

Analyze every line and identify the emotions you think you’re showing readers. If you find that you’re ping-ponging between two emotions (like grief and bitterness), see what other colors you can bring in to offer more shading.

Here’s a beat breakdown I did of the beginning of a scene from George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings:

Come to the godswood tonight, if you want to go home. [Beat—mixed emotions of anxiety, puzzlement, hope, excitement. We have to “backfill” this beat as we continue reading and learn more about the situation.]

The words were the same on the hundredth reading as they’d been on the first, when Sansa had discovered the folded sheet of parchment beneath her pillow. She did not know how it had gotten there or who had sent it. The note was unsigned, unsealed, and the hand unfa­miliar. [Beat—puzzlement] She crushed the parchment to her chest [Beat—hope] and whispered the words to herself. “Come to the godswood tonight, if you want to go home,” she breathed, ever so faintly.

What could it mean? [Beat—puzzlement] Should she take it to the queen to prove that she was being good? [Beat—uncertainty] Nervously, [Beat—nervousness] she rubbed her stomach. The angry purple bruise Ser Meryn had given her had faded to an ugly yellow, but still hurt. His fist had been mailed when he hit her. It was her own fault. [Beat—blame]

2) Determine the best way to capture each emotion.

Showing emotions is always more powerful than telling a reader what a character is feeling, as Martin does when he tells us Sansa “nervously” rubbed her stomach. For the most part, though, he uses exposition, inner monologue, dialogue, and action to suggest (rather than explicitly tell us) what Sansa is feeling. That not only brings readers closer to Sansa, but makes them active participants in discovering her emotions.

3) Use your own experiences to help you create emotional resonance on the page.

This is another acting technique that can help you get closer to a character. If you’re writing a scene of grief, go back to a moment where you lost someone or when you first learned of this person’s passing. Write down as many specific details as you can recall.

* Your physiological responses (e.g., shaking, goose bumps, pulse racing, face/skin flushing);

* Your physical responses (e.g., recoiling, fleeing, turning your face away);

* Your emotional reactions (which could be conveyed via action, dialogue or inner monologue);

* The small details that intruded on the moment, like the laughter of children playing a game or the scent of your mother’s gardenia bush outside her bedroom window. Choose details that will show readers what the POV character is feeling. Does the laughter make the character angry because it reminds her of her loss? Or comfort her because she realizes life goes on?

4) Fine-tune tempo.

Stretch physical tension by slowing down the action. Stretch emotional tension by showing the POV character’s conflicts, doubts, fears, anxieties. In “real time,” it may take only seconds for a character to react, but on the page, you’ll want to draw out the action to heighten the moment and allow the reader to share it completely with the character. Consider, too, where you might need a mini-release of tension before ratcheting it up again. Whether you’ve written past the climax, which will undercut a scene’s emotional impact.

5) Get down to the nitty-gritty.

Read the scene aloud. How do rhythm and sentence length impact the emotions you’re trying to convey? Could you punctuate an emotional shift better simply by following a long sentence with a short, punchy one? Heighten the emotional impact through the repetition of certain words or phrases? Through alliteration or assonance? Choose visceral verbs that capture the raw emotion that the character is feeling and look for fresh imagery instead of settling for clichés like the pounding heart and the clenched fist.

If you struggle with capturing emotions on the page, try using some of these techniques to analyze a scene from your story. Not only can they help you increase the complexity of the character’s reactions, but make your big moments truly sing for the reader.

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