Crafting Emotional Resonance – Example Critique

In my series on crafting your stories to resonate with your readers’ emotions, I asked for excerpt submissions that I could take and apply those concepts to in order to provide an example of what I’ve been talking about. So today I’ll be showing you a piece of Grace A. Johnson‘s writing which she submitted, along with my commentary!

In case you missed it:

Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 1 – Character-Driven Description

Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 2 – Character Reactions

Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 3 – Repressed Emotion

Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 4 – Precise Prose

Critique Structure

I’ve never done a critique for a blog post before, so you’ll have to bear with me as I develop a layout for it.

First, I want to lay out the excerpt as-received so that you can read the “before” version. If you’d like, you can make your own assessment of it based on what I’ve discussed in this series and practice your own editing skill before reading what I had to say on it.

Then, I want to give some general comments on its strengths and weaknesses in each category I’ve discussed to this point: character-driven description, character reactions, repressed emotion, and precise prose.

Lastly, I’ll link to a view-only document featuring my in-line comments on the excerpt so that you can see what specific places I would change and develop and what my editing process generally looks like on a line edit.

Sound good? Let’s dive in!

The Excerpt

From Daylight by Grace A. Johnson

Used with permission from the author; context included by author

For context: August and Sylvie, who have been friends and neighbors since childhood (and maybe something more), just experienced the events of 9/11. Sylvie’s dad died that day, even though August tried to save him, which landed him in the hospital. Sylvie has come to visit him for the first time since he was admitted the day before.

“Hey, Sly.”

I straighten, sliding my hand off of August’s forehead as I lift my chin and blink my tears away. My body still quivers, but I hide it beneath a small smile and the squeeze of his hand. “Hey, Gus.”

Just as I hoped, August moans and gives me his best glare from behind all the bandages. “How many times…do I gotta tell ya to stop—stop callin’ me Gus? For Pete’s sake, Sly, show a man…some respect when he’s laid up like this.”

His response elicits a laugh, one that’s moist and rueful, but still a laugh. I’ll take it. “Y’know you love it, Gussie. Just like you know you’re enjoyin’ three squares a day and round-the-clock room service from all these pretty nurses.”

“Pfft, pretty nurses?” He coughs out his next words. “Them harpies…ain’t doin’ nothin’ but shoving crap up my mouth and nose and all in my veins. Nothin’ pretty ’bout dat, gurl. Now—” he manages to lift his index finger and wiggle it around “—ya know what would be nice? Pizza, my couch, and the TV remote.”

“You’re becomin’ more of a bum every day, August Moreno, and I doubt your recent injuries will do anything to help that.”

“Don’t you call me a bum, woman,” he growls, those eyes of his narrowed into dark, smoldering slits.

Gosh, I love it when he looks at me like that. Part teasing, part angry, part…almost hungry, really. As if he wants me as bad as I want him.

But we’re just friends. Best friends. And the only people we have left in Manhattan, now that his mama moved back to the Bronx in the spring and Dad died.

Even if I wish we could be more. Even if I pray we could be more, need us to be more…because when I thought he was gone, I’d never felt so empty. Like a piece of my heart was ripped out of me and I was left with nothing but a gaping hole in its place.

Maybe this is it, our beginning…our new beginning. Maybe something better, something stronger could come out of the ashes and the debris.

My gaze snags on the monitors beside me, beeping just a tiny bit faster now that August is awake and chattering. As steady as he seems right now, his blood pressure is still too low and his heart rate a couple of beats off. And you can tell by looking at him and his sallow skin, sunken chest, and bloodshot eyes.

Or maybe we would just continue to deteriorate.

God, everything’s got to be all right. It’s just got to. I…I want to marry this man and have his babies and grow old with him…and I can’t do that if he gives up on me. You got to give him strength, Lord, please.


What a simple word. Sometimes it holds the power to change a heart.

And sometimes it’s absolutely worthless.

Right now, after all this, I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t worthless after all.


I lift my bleary eyes to August’s, holding my gaze firm even though I want to lay my head on him again and cry some more. I have to be strong. For him.

“Hey, we made it. We…we made it out. So many others back there…they weren’t as lucky.”

Really? That was the most encouraging thing he could come up with?

I sniffle, swiping at my wet eyes and running nose with the back of my hand. “That s’posed to make me feel betta? ‘Cause it ain’t helpin’ none.”

He just looks at me. You know those looks—you probably get them from your mama—the ones where they kind of cock their head and edge one eyebrow up and slant their mouth and just…look at you.

I hate those looks. Makes me squirm, which, come to think of it, is probably the point.

“I know…I know I shoulda got your old man out in time, but there ain’t no goin’ back. What matters…what matters is that you’re still here, Sylvie. Right now…” He sighs, clenching his teeth as though barring whatever else he wants to say from leaving his lips. “I did it for you, ya know. I wanted, I wanted him out of there for you. I guess because I thought th-that maybe this would change things. Maybe this’d fix ’em.”

My heart, as if there’s anything still left of it, breaks a little more. “Don’t. Don’t go there. You could’ve died because of me. Because you, you thought that rescuing my pops would somehow make him—what? Stop drinkin’? Quit hittin’ me? You can’t just fix people, and you can’t just expect somethin’ like this to make things better. I mean, really? Have you seen the world? Thousands of people are dead. More are dyin’. Like you.”

Blinking several times, he seems to deflate as his body sinks farther into the bed, the pillow almost swallowing his head. “I ain’t dyin’, Sly. I can’t. Not now. Just…not now,” he breathes out on a yawn, his eyes shuttering closed and releasing a drop of moisture to trail down his cheek.

Broad Critique

This is a good scene in which to practice emotion: it’s post-tragedy, the characters feel strongly about each other, the characters feel strongly about what’s happened to them, and August’s health provides additional tension.

But the scene, as-written, doesn’t make me feel much of that emotion. Fortunately, that’s what this sort of editing is for, whether you’re self-editing or have the help of an editor.

Character-Driven Description

There isn’t a lot of description here to critique; this is a very dialogue-heavy scene. What is there is largely focused on August and his health, which makes sense for Sylvie’s POV.

Because the two know each other so well and Sylvie is attracted to August, I would love to see more description of August’s appearance and maybe even his voice. The fact that he’s injured provides an excellent opportunity to compare his weakened self with what he normally looks like, comparing his sallow skin to its usual ruddy tan or his weakened grip to his usually steady touch (etc.).

Description like this early in the scene would especially help to set up their romantic affection before Sylvie’s thoughts of being in love with August pop up in the middle of the scene.

Character Reactions

Most of the reactions in this scene feel natural. The easy banter between Sylvie and August feels like that of friends who’ve known each other for years, and most of their physical reactions make sense.

To really amp up the emotion in this scene, I would have liked to see more by way of physical reactions. Tension in Sylvie’s shoulders releasing when she laughed, or easier breathing; August attempting to return Sylvie’s squeezing of his hand; etc.

Two places didn’t seem as smooth. One was Sylvie’s thought of her dad dying. Even with her relationship with her dad being what it was, there should have been much more shock and pain involved in the thought that he’d died, especially with his death being so recent. The fact that it nearly disappears amidst Sylvie’s romantic musings kills the potential emotion there—and the emotional conflict that could be explored.

Second was Sylvie’s outburst when August explained his motivation toward the end. It seemed inconsistent with her prior thoughts about their relationship, and I would have liked to see more done with that dissonance. Again, conflicting emotions have so much potential.

I did like Sylvie’s reaction to August’s smoldering look. A bit more could have been done with a physical response (accelerating heartbeat, having to catch her breath, a smile creeping onto her face unbidden, etc.), but overall her description of the look and what she thought of it were believable.

Repressed Emotion

This is one highly under-utilized tool in this scene. We know there is repressed emotion, both explicitly communicated where Sylvie says, “I lift my bleary eyes to August’s, holding my gaze firm even though I want to lay my head on him again and cry some more. I have to be strong. For him” or where she muses on their relationship, as well as implied by her outburst toward the end which is excessively intense for the prior dialogue. But we don’t get to see that do much in the scene.

When Sylvie would rather be crying, there’s no tremble in her lip for August to see and respond to, no blinking for him to notice and ask about. He doesn’t pick up on her mood like a long-time friend or a love interest would. Even if Sylvie doesn’t notice those subconscious responses in herself, August ought to.

Her outburst, too, has no communicated emotion underlying it. We don’t see her fear (whether in her acknowledgement or an accelerated heartbeat or a frantic grab for August’s hand…), we don’t see how she feels about her father (is she angry or resigned to the way he treated her?), and we don’t really see why she thinks people can’t be changed. When she’s criticizing August’s idea that this event could change things for them, she doesn’t give any indication that she even subconsciously realizes she’s criticizing the same thing she’s already been thinking (“Maybe something better, something stronger could come out of the ashes and the debris”); there’s no uneasiness, no snagging of her mind on the dissonance, forcing her to either acknowledge it or reason around it. This is a prime opportunity to show more of her character and the way she works through inconsistencies in her thinking, and I would love to see that utilized.

Precise Prose

This particular character perspective doesn’t demand as much precision in wording as some others might—the character’s dialect isn’t especially precise, and to make the bits of prose too clean when the dialogue is not would simply clash. In fact, Sylvie’s description of August’s sickly appearance might be a little too perfect, with words like “sallow.” That’s a great word; the only question is whether Sylvie would use it. So, by and large, I don’t have much to say on the precision of the wording in this scene.

However, there was one spot that really arrested my attention on this point, and it’s this line:

“Don’t you call me a bum, woman,” he growls, those eyes of his narrowed into dark, smoldering slits.

Between describing his voice as a “growl” and his eyes as “slits,” this sounds aggressive and hostile. Not like something attractive, as Sylvie describes it in the following paragraph. The simple change of saying that “those eyes of his narrow into a dark smolder” shifts the focus to a noun that implies more attraction and less of a sinister anger. With just that small change, the “growl” is contextually less hostile as well.

The Line Edit

The line edit document carries a lot of overlapping comments to those I went over here, but it places them into more precise context of the scene so that you can better see how the scene would change when edited straight down. Plus, I made a few technical edits as I went and I formatted my comments as I would ordinarily put them on a manuscript for a client. So if you’d like to see my comments in that format, check out the document.

I hope this example was helpful to illustrate the concepts I’ve laid out in this series! Feel free to post any lingering questions in the comments, or send me a message; I’d love to talk with you!

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9 thoughts on “Crafting Emotional Resonance – Example Critique

  1. WHOA. Girl, you are nothing if not thorough! It’s so interesting to see your thoughts and critiques on this scene! Funnily enough, I chose one of the later scenes in the short story because it was more dialogue heavy, so some of the things you mention (like Sylvie’s thoughts on her dad and description of August’s appearance) are actually in the scene before! XD (Now I’m curious what your critique would be of the whole story or perhaps some of my other works…)

        1. It might depend on the overarching story, but I’m not automatically opposed, lol. I can edit non-spec fic, I’m just more selective with projects outside of the fantasy and sci-fi genres since I tend to enjoy them less and thus have a harder time putting my best work into them. That said, I have been known to enjoy books in almost any genre, so I never say never and I’m fully willing to consider a non-fantasy romance, but my priority is always for an author to have the right editor to strengthen their story. :)

          1. I totally understand, girl! I do know I wanna work with you eventually – it just may end up being when I write a project that’s more up your alley! ;)

          2. Whatever the project ends up being, I do look forward to working with you! It’s always a pleasure to collaborate with you. :)

  2. Wow, so interesting how you analyzed this scene and went into such detail! It’s helpful to see this in action so I can know exactly how to apply these concepts to my own writing! XD

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