Authors are regularly admonished to “show-don’t-tell.” Let’s ignore the know-it-all bludgeoning you with that rule for the moment, because nothing is worse than an unbalanced narrative.
If you have no idea how to begin showing the underlying emotions of your characters, a useful 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. They will offer nine or ten suggestions that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions.
Do your readers a favor. Choose only one physical indicator per emotion per scene.
Showing must be balanced with some telling, or it becomes all about eye-rolling and forehead creasing. Showing mixed with telling makes for a smoother narrative.
Some telling can be done in conversations, through internal thoughts, and the observations of others in a scene.
Writing emotions is a balancing act. Most times, you can get away without dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought.
If you only show the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion, you only wrote half the story.
When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral (physical) level. In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds.
Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions. However, facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.
Visceral reactions are involuntary.
We can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding.
We might be able to hide our reactions from others, but we can’t stop how these emotions feel.
This internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on. You must tell the reader the character’s face went hot, or their stomach knotted up.
One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3 trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.
- Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
- Follow up with a ‘thought’ response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
- Third, finish up with body language.
Severe emotional shock strikes us physically with a three-way punch:
- disbelief—the OMG moment
- knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!”
- disassociation—a coping or defense mechanism meant to minimize or help a person tolerate stress.
When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because ‘mild’ is boring. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance—small gestures show the attitude and normal condition of the character.
However, strong emotions are compelling. Highly charged situations are strengthened by the way we write the emotional experience.
If you want to emphasize a particular chemistry between two characters, good or bad, employing their visceral reactions is the way to do so.
Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level.
They don’t merely write, “He smiled.” Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of lips curving up or pulling down beneath twinkling, hard-eyed glares. Eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, shoulders slump and hands tremble, dimples pop, eyes spark—and so on and so on.
Taken individually and combined with other clues, some description is necessary.
However, nothing is more aggravating than trying to enjoy a narrative where facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.
This is why I feel as concerned with what is happening to my characters internally as I do about describing the outward display.
Combining the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal) requires thought. We struggle to balance showing the external with telling the internal so that the reader isn’t baldly told what to experience.
We write it, and sweat over it, searching for the right words to show what we intend. Many times, we come back later and rewrite it.
By using this twofold approach of mixing showing with telling, we hope the reader will become immersed in the lives of our characters.
Some emotions are complicated and deeply personal, difficult to show, and even more challenging to express internally. These are the gut-wrenching moments that make our work speak to the reader.
Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our protagonist.
Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is critical.
WHY does the character react in that way? Emotions without cause have no basis 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.
The emotion hits and the character is processing it.
That is the moment to slip in a brief mention of the backstory. That way, you avoid an info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the information needed to make the emotion real.
Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants are powerful.
Use forceful words, 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 an intense scene.
A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for people you currently have no story for. Just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.
The key is to practice writing emotions, and you may find a later use for these practice characters. The more we practice this aspect of the craft, the better we get at it.
And the more we write, the more individual and recognizable our writing-voice becomes.
Credits and Attributions:
Sir Galahad, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1881 via 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=363278568 (accessed June 23, 2020).