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By emphasizing key phrases, you can make your prose more interesting and impactful. But watch out – overusing any form of emphasis is tempting, and it will make your narration look silly or melodramatic. Let’s go over how emphasis is created and what to think about when using it.

For examples, I’ve chosen two excerpts from the manuscripts of editing clients, used with permission. They are merely drafts and haven’t gone through copy editing.

SAMPLE ONE

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the family business, but they all involve other people’s magic. They need planning and commitment. But usually everyone just sticks to their areas, the things they’ve always done. I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future, sees the problems coming with the way we do things, and prays someone will listen to me and do something about it.

I hoped that once I earned my oracle degree, people would take my ideas more seriously. Then we could use my ideas to make more money. There was so much potential, but it would have to wait.

Sample Two

She slammed the bedroom door shut and the lock fell into place with a heavy thud. My fingers trembled as I stared into the windowless nothing. Knowing where everything was in the darkness didn’t silence the fear.

Energy shook through me, trying to find a way out. They were never going to let me go. My contract of indentured servitude would never expire. Their promises of freedom were lies, and I should’ve known better.

It was three paces from the door to my small bed tucked against the far wall. Screaming into the pillow released some energy, but it didn’t make me feel better. I reached under the mattress. Wedged between the cotton bedroll and the wood bed frame was my salvation; the candle stub, and the stolen pine stick dipped in sulfur.

We won’t be covering emphasis in dialogue this time, as it has different considerations. For that, I recommend Shaping the Sound of Your Dialogue.

Ways to Create Emphasis

Let’s look at some common methods for calling attention to words and phrases, and test them out on a sentence from each sample.

Shortening Sentences and Paragraphs

The first thing we can do is shorten a sentence. This makes every word in the sentence come across stronger and causes the sentence itself to stand out a little.

Sample One With Shorter Sentence

The sentence below describes something that must be frustrating for the narrator, but with the current length and repetition, it doesn’t have much impact. Tightening it will give it more power.

  • Before: But usually everyone just sticks to their areas, the things they’ve always done.
  • After: But everyone sticks to what they’ve always done.

Sample Two With Shorter Sentence

Slamming a door is an abrupt movement that would fit a short, punchy sentence well. So I would break up the sentence with that to get it shorter.

  • Before: She slammed the bedroom door shut and the lock fell into place with a heavy thud.
  • After: She slammed the door shut.

For stronger emphasis yet, you can give a sentence its own paragraph. This is particularly powerful when paired with a short sentence. Like other forms of strong emphasis, it can also change the meaning a bit. I’ve chosen a sentence from each sample that might go on its own line.

One-Sentence Paragraph From Sample One

I hoped that once I earned my oracle degree, people would take my ideas more seriously.

On its own line, this tells readers that the narrator has gone through significant disappointment. With the sentence’s current placement at the beginning of the paragraph, the narrator might still have a little hope left.

One-Sentence Paragraph From Sample Two

My fingers trembled as I stared into the windowless nothing.

Moving the above sentence to its own paragraph would really bring the fear of being locked in a small room in pitch blackness to the forefront.

For more on sentence length and paragraph breaks, see Breaking Your Prose in the Right Places.

Placement

Phrases have more emphasis when they are first or last in a passage or paragraph. Whatever goes last has the most emphasis of all. Let’s look at a paragraph from each sample with the sentence order changed. I’ve removed sentences and clauses where necessary to keep the paragraph flowing.

Sample One Reorder

  • Before: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the family business, but they all involve other people’s magic. They need planning and commitment. But usually everyone just sticks to their areas, the things they’ve always done. I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future, sees the problems coming with the way we do things, and prays someone will listen to me and do something about it.
  • After: Usually everyone just sticks to their areas, the things they’ve always done. I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future and sees the problems coming with the way we do things. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the farm, but they all involve other people’s magic.

Above, the original paragraph is more focused on the logistics of bringing the narrator’s ideas to fruition and the difficulties therein. With different sentences in first and last position, the paragraph now focuses on the differences between the narrator and the rest of the family.

Sample Two Reorder

  • Before: Energy shook through me, trying to find a way out. They were never going to let me go. My contract of indentured servitude would never expire. Their promises of freedom were lies, and I should’ve known better.
  • After: They were never going to let me go. My contract of indentured servitude would never expire. Their promises of freedom were lies, and I should’ve known better. Energy shook through me, trying to find a way out.

With “They were never going to let me go.” moved to a more prominent placement, it comes off more like a realization the narrator is having at that moment. Then that realization builds up until the narrator shakes with energy. This is a good way to set up the outburst that comes in the next paragraph.

Punctuation

You might think an exclamation point would be the obvious choice for punctuation that creates emphasis. But outside of dialogue or thoughts that mimic dialogue, exclamation points look silly and hysterical. There are very few cases in which a period doesn’t work better, particularly since periods convey a sense of gravity.

Instead, let’s try some punctuation that creates dramatic pauses. First, the dash. In American English, an em dash is typically used, though in other dialects it might be an en dash with a space on either side.

Use a dash instead of a comma or semicolon to add a dramatic pause.

Sample One With Dash

The last clause of the last line is already placed well for emphasis, so I’ve chosen to bring that out more with a dash.

  • Before: There was so much potential, but it would have to wait.
  • After: There was so much potential—but it would have to wait.

Extra emphasis on having to wait would make a great segue into whatever plot events are causing the delay or what the narrator will be doing instead.

Sample Two With Dash

This time, let’s drop the conjunction to tighten the sentence a little.

  • Before: Their promises of freedom were lies, and I should’ve known better.
  • After: Their promises of freedom were lies—I should’ve known better.

The extra emphasis on knowing better brings out the narrator’s shame or guilt at falling for these lies, adding more emotional weight to the passage.

Similar to the dash, a colon can be used. A colon emphasizes the clause that comes after it. It can go after an independent clause (a phrase that could stand alone as a sentence) and before a dependent clause (a fragment), which puts emphasis on the dependent clause. It can follow a dependent clause to emphasize an independent clause. And it can also be used between independent clauses as long as it’s appropriate to give the second clause extra emphasis.

Colons have the advantage of adding emphasis without looking quite as dramatic as a dash. The less dramatic your emphasis comes off, the more you can get away with.

Sample One With Colon

The narrator hasn’t been able to make changes in the family business because they don’t have the magic that’s required. Let’s emphasize that with a colon.

  • Before: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the family business, but they all involve other people’s magic.
  • After: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the farm: ideas involving other people’s magic.

Notice this change has the side effect of making using other people’s magic feel a little menacing.

Sample Two With Colon

The narrator calls a makeshift candle “my salvation.” We can bring out the significance of that further with a colon.

  • Before: Wedged between the cotton bedroll and the wood bed frame was my salvation; the candle stub, and the stolen pine stick dipped in sulfur.
  • After: Wedged between the cotton bedroll and the wood bed frame was a candle stub and a stolen pine stick dipped in sulfur: my salvation.

While the ellipsis (…) is sometimes used for dramatic pauses between words, it usually looks too melodramatic. Instead, the ellipsis should simply indicate a speaker that trails off, which isn’t common in narration.

Italics

Italics work better in dialogue, but they can still be used sparingly in regular narration if the narration is on the conversational side. Of the samples, the first covers exposition and feels fairly conversational while the second is focused on action and feels less conversational.

In sample one, this sentence has a lot of options for italics:

I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future, sees the problems coming with the way we do things, and prays someone will listen to me and do something about it.

The best place for italics is in that last clause, since the emphasis of the sentence is already placed there. But that still leaves many good options: pray, someone, listen, do, something. Each choice gives the narrator’s grievance its own flavor.

Italics works best when it indicates vocal emphasis on a single word or two words in a row. If you use it too much, it quickly becomes meaningless or melodramatic. For instance, if both “listen” and “do” were italicized in the sentence above, they would just cancel each other out. When you feel the impulse to italicize a whole clause or sentence, consider using a different method of emphasis instead. And if the line is already in its own paragraph, that’s emphasis enough.

For sample two, some writers might be tempted to italicize “fear” in the first paragraph, but that would be a mistake. We can’t make readers feel fear by emphasizing the word fear, so it would feel melodramatic. The best match I could find is this line:

Their promises of freedom were lies, and I should’ve known better.

Emphasizing “lies” calls more attention to the narrator’s shifting beliefs. They believed the promises before; now they don’t.

Balancing Emphasis in a Passage

Now that we’ve reviewed common ways to create emphasis in narration, let’s look at them together in the whole sample.

For each sample, I first did a reasonable edit. I focused on bringing out the current meaning of the passage and avoided emphasis that changes it. I also avoided doing too much, though I can get away with more in an isolated passage than if every passage in the manuscript was like this.

Then I put in TOO MUCH EMPHASIS. Instead of going to town, my aim was to put in just enough to show you where the line is between an appropriate amount and going too far.

SAMPLE ONE With Reasonable Emphasis

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the family business—but they all involve other people’s magic. They need planning and commitment. I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future, sees the problems coming with the way we do things, and prays someone will listen to me and do something about it. But everyone sticks to what they’ve always done.

I hoped that once I earned my oracle degree, people would take my ideas more seriously. Then we could use my ideas to make more money. There was so much potential.

It would have to wait.

Above, I brought out the obstacle the narrator faces. I used a dash for “other people’s magic,” kept the short version of “But usually everyone just sticks to their areas, the things they’ve always done,” and moved the latter to the end of the paragraph for additional emphasis.

Then I italicized “hoped” to turn up the angst a little and put the clause about waiting in its own paragraph to make a dramatic segue.

SAMPLE ONE With TOO MUCH Emphasis

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ideas for the family business—but they all involve other people’s magic. They need planning. Commitment. I’m the one who thinks of the possibilities for the future, sees the problems coming with the way we do things, and prays someone will listen to me and do something about it.

But everyone sticks to what they’ve always done.

I hoped that once I earned my oracle degree, people would take my ideas more seriously. Then we could use my ideas to make more money. There was so much potential.

It would have to wait.

Above, I added several more italicized words and put “commitment” in its own sentence. Between that and the dash I put in, the first several sentences are now a choppy, tedious read, because the reader has to slow down as each point of emphasis comes up. Then making two out of four paragraphs have only a single line is too much.

Let’s look at sample two, starting with a reasonable edit.

Sample Two With Reasonable Emphasis

She slammed the bedroom door shut. A moment later, the lock fell into place with a heavy thud. Knowing where everything was in the darkness didn’t silence the fear. My fingers trembled as I stared into the windowless nothing.

They were never going to let me go. My contract of indentured servitude would never expire. Their promises of freedom were lies.

And I should’ve known better.

Energy shook through me, trying to find a way out. It was three paces from the door to my small bed tucked against the far wall. Screaming into the pillow released some energy—but it didn’t make me feel better.

I reached under the mattress. Wedged between the cotton bedroll and the wood bed frame was the candle stub and the stolen pine stick dipped in sulfur: my salvation.

Above, I’ve kept the shorter “She slammed the bedroom door shut.” To keep the rhythm from getting choppy for the following sentences, I added “a moment later.” Then, I moved the sentence with the “windowless nothing” to the end of the paragraph, because it’s an evocative phrase that deserves a more prominent placement.

The sentence “They were never going to let me go.” could be its own paragraph, but this passage has two more sentences that say pretty much the same thing. It doesn’t make sense to isolate just one. So instead, I moved the first sentence of that paragraph to the next one and then put “I should’ve known better” in its own paragraph. Now the energy buildup and outburst are nicely paired together in a little paragraph arc.

Finally, I used the colon and put “my salvation” in a place of honor at the end of the passage.

Now let’s see it with too much emphasis!

Sample Two With Too Much Emphasis

She slammed the bedroom door shut. A moment later, the lock fell into place with a heavy thud. Knowing where everything was in the darkness didn’t silence the fear. My fingers trembled as I stared into the windowless nothing.

They were never going to let me go.

My contract of indentured servitude would never expire.

Their promises of freedom were lies.

And I should’ve known better.

Energy shook through me, trying to find a way out. It was three paces from the door to my small bed tucked against the far wall. Screaming into the pillow released some energy—but it didn’t make me feel better.

I reached under the mattress. Wedged between the cotton bedroll and the wood bed frame was the candle stub and the stolen pine stick dipped in sulfur: my salvation.

Okay, maybe I had a little too much fun with that one, but I’ve found both the italicized “fear” and the series of dramatic single sentence paragraphs in my critiques. With those added, the passage feels a touch forced and melodramatic, like the writer is taking their work too seriously.

Remember that emphasis is relative. A single-sentence paragraph sticks out because the other paragraphs are longer. An italicized word sticks out because the other words aren’t in italics. Piling all the emphasis on a key phrase really makes it pop, whereas emphasizing lots of things only dilutes the effect. You can’t emphasize everything; you have to prioritize.

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