Emotions: Sharks in the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

To write characters with emotional depth, you must dive into the waters where the sharks of show-don’t-tell lurk, waiting to bite your… backside.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. They would never stoop to merely saying  “He was happy” – no! Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of happiness, anger, and spite. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble; lips turn up and dimples pop; lips curve down and eyes spark—and so on and so on. When done sparingly and combined with other clues, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more aggravating than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

We must be as concerned with what is happening inside these poor emotional basket cases as we are about the melodramatic outward display.

Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Most times, you can get away without slo-o-o-owly dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought. Then the emotion becomes one the reader can feel too.

This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles. When you are happy, how do you feel? Energized, confident.

So now you need to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

A short list of simple, commonly used, easy to describe, surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anticipation
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Denial
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Interest
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise

Other emotions are tricky, difficult to show, and even more difficult to properly express internally. They are complicated and deeply personal, but these are the gut-wrenching emotions that make our work speak to the reader.

So, here is an even shorter list of rarely well-described, difficult to articulate, complex emotions:

  • Anguish
  • Anxiety
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Indecision
  • Jealousy
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Inadequacy
  • Powerlessness
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions that are best shown by (maybe) an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the basic emotions of your characters, a good handbook that offers a jumping off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters, which makes the story deeper as a whole.

Just don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions. But do your readers a favor: only choose one physical indicator per emotion, per scene.


Double Please. With cherries on top.

Going overboard in showing emotions makes a mockery of your characters. Subtle physical hints, along with some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons too, inspired by a flash of memory or a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

  • Formerly a soldier, experienced guerrilla warfare.

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

  • Impoverished childhood, baby sister died of starvation.

Why does the sight of daisies make an old man smile?

  • The memory of the best day of his life, sixty years gone past.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. I’ve mentioned this before, but motivation is key. WHY does the character react with that emotion? Emotions that are  undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential. When the emotion hits and the character is processing it—that is the moment to mention the memory in passing. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

Use powerful words that carry emotional impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.

To swim in the word-pond at the emotional level is to swim with the sharks of mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for characters you currently have no use for. I say this because just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

Practice really does make the imperfections in our writing less noticeable, and you may find a later use for these practice characters.

(edit) P.S. I forgot to mention that this subject is so large it will be continued on Monday. I will include examples of what I consider good and bad emotional scenes, and explain why I feel the way I do about them.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=80715597 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg&oldid=289210320 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Judith Leyster The Proposition.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Judith_Leyster_The_Proposition.jpg&oldid=354595803 (accessed July 10, 2019).


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11 responses to “Emotions: Sharks in the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

  1. I would really like to see some examples to illustrate the points you make. Writers are told to show emotions, hence all those twitches and jerks (not to mention disembodied eyes all over the place). We’re told not to use “felt” or to name an emotion. We’re told not to info-dump backstory. Your advice is to use internal dialogue to give depth and credibility to emotions. I can’t argue with that, but surely this technique would vary depending on what point of view the writer is using. I would appreciate a paragraph or two of what you consider well-written deep emotions. That would give writers something to aspire toward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Audrey! This is such a big concept, I’ve had to divide the piece into several parts. So, on Monday. my post will have examples of scenes I liked and those I don’t. And just so you know, you can use the word “felt” if it needs to be used. Anyone who says differently is mistaken. Good prose requires a balanced mix of showing and telling. Otherwise, the physical action takes over and the story fails to grab the reader. Have faith in yourself and stay strong in what you know is right for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Connie! I have to admit I almost always question rules that forbid use of certain words, so I’m happy to see that “felt” isn’t an illegal word in good writing. I’m looking forward to your further posts on this subject.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I drive my poor writers group to distraction. They see my earliest drafts, and I’ve found it really helpful to go overboard on physical and internal descriptors in my first draft. I then go back when I edit and prune out the ones that don’t work so well, plus the over-the-top excess.
    I find it fascinating how that first draft looks fine to me initially, but by the time I’ve edited it, I’m left wondering if I had the faintest idea what I was doing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have the same problem with my own work–what falls out of my head in the first draft is often rough and not ready for other eyes. Still, I like it and can never see it until it’s pointed out!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d like it not to be so rough when I put it in front of my fellows, but I rather rely on them to spot when I’ve gone ‘off piste’ with either the plot or continuity from previous books.
        Poor them!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A brilliant post. You’ve hit it all on the head. We are so often told to ‘show, don’t tell that we can easily go overboard with showing.
    I’m in an online critique group, and some of them are, in my opinion, too much rooted in showing.
    It can be confusing, too, when one person says something is an info dump, but someone else says they love it because it helps set the scene. That’s happened to me. (I left it in.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, and thank you. I get crazy when people are so married to a good rule of writing to the point that it becomes bad advice. One thing I appreciate about my writing group is their willingness to look at a person’s work with a eye for balance. I always come away feeling as if I know what needs to be done next.


  4. Alex Page

    Great post, constant facial/bodily gestures is definitely too far the other way. As usual, to the man with a hammer…

    Liked by 1 person

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