Tag Archives: conveying emotion in writing

Character Building: Writing Subtly Positive Emotions #amwriting

Most writers find it easy to connect with the flamboyant emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and adoration. However, emotions have “volume” ranging from soft to loud. Today we are looking at generally positive emotions, but at low volume.

The volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of your story. “Loud” deafens us and loses it’s power when it’s the only sound. However, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the entire range of volume can be effectively used to create a masterpiece.

These subtle emotions convey the mood of the piece.

As we said in the previous post, Writing Subtly  Negative Emotions, low-key shades of emotion can go almost unnoticed, but they lend solidity to the world. Under the surface, vibes, positive or negative, give us a rounded view of a character, making them less of a cardboard-Barbie and more of a real person.

We’re all aware of one positive emotion that can go bad—love. When love is reciprocated, it’s a positive feeling, and we all enjoy a good love story.

However, when love starts out with promise and then goes terribly wrong, you have the makings of a deep, dark story filled with possibilities.

But none of that—we’re focusing on the less intense, but still good, vibes today.

Another positive emotion with many nuances is Joy. The way we feel joy ranges from mild to overwhelming, from a slight smile to an experience so profound that tears spring to one’s eyes.

Subtle emotions don’t stand out and grab the reader.

They are there under the surface, tinting the reader’s opinions about the story and the characters. Small, quiet emotions linger, and if they are positive, they leave an impression we can’t describe, but we are happier for having experienced them.

These feelings are difficult for a writer to articulate. However, if you want to forge a connection between your reader and the characters in your narrative, you must include small indicators that individuals in the cast sometimes experience a sense of:

  • Competence
  • Confidence in their friends
  • Cooperation
  • Courage
  • Decisiveness
  • Discovery
  • Group ethics
  • Happiness
  • Individual moral courage
  • Purposefulness
  • Revelation
  • Satisfaction
  • Self-confidence
  • Serenity
  • Strength
  • Success
  • Sufficiency
  • Trust

These are good vibes that are rarely articulated, but they suffuse the scene and color the way in which the characters interact with each other.

Some positive emotions can be more intense, yet still not overpowering. Those moments can be shown by an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations. We  use the same 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing a mild experience as we do with louder emotions.

  1. Start with the visceral response. There will be an instant reaction. Good emotions are felt first in the chest, in varying degrees, from a feeling of warmth to the stronger, heart-pounding sensation. But we’re keeping it subdued, here.
  2. Follow up with a thought response. If it is a mild reaction, give it a moderate thought response. “Ah hah!” Whatever your style and word choices are, showing small moments of relatable happiness or pleasure makes our protagonist more sympathetic.
  3. Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where one of the antagonists will eventually become part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small positive thoughts early on in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may turn out to be the ally that turns the tide.

I’ve pointed out many times that conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Large emotions are easy to write. But frequently, in real life, our smaller joys have a longer-lasting impact, and the memory of these can be the impetus that keeps the soldier fighting during the darkest hours.

Allowing ourselves and our characters to feel joy over small things, to experience a sense of accomplishment is a gift to the reader. The reader will experience those emotions as if they are theirs, and the book will be that much more meaningful to them.

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Character Building: Writing Subtly Negative Emotions #amwriting

Most writers find it easy to connect with the “loud” emotions, such as anger and hate. However, negative emotions have nuances the same way that positive emotions do.

Subtle shades of emotion give us a rounded view of a character, making them less of a cardboard-Barbie and more of a real person.

One negative aspect of our human character is a tendency for us to experience an uncharitable emotion known as schadenfreude. We are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level every now and then. Some people take great joy in this, gaining a sense of superiority.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an unkind emotion, and we don’t like it in others. Like theft and lying, it is a fundamental aspect of our survival mechanisms that was hardwired into us before we came down from the trees. Primates in the wild have been observed exhibiting our most negative behaviors. 10 Facts About Chimpanzees That Hold A Dark Mirror To Humanity

For most of human history, popular humor has had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

We don’t like admitting it, and we try to rise above it. This is one easily relatable emotion you can use to show that your protagonist or others in the cast are real.

Another negative emotion with many nuances is envy. Envy can take the form of wishing one had that lovely thing. Allowed to rage out of control, jealousy becomes the propellant fueling a violent takeover.

Subtle emotions are the kind that prey on you. These feelings are difficult for a writer to articulate. However, if you want to keep raising the tension in your narrative, you must include small indicators of:

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

These are emotions that can be shown by an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

As with louder emotions, we want to create a sympathetic response in the reader. So, we use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut-punch, butterflies…how do you respond to internal surprises?
  2. Follow up with a thought response. If it is a mild reaction, it might be on the order of “Heck!” or “Oh dear….” Whatever your style and word choices are, showing their dismay makes them human.
  3. Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where the antagonist begins as part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small negatives like envy and schadenfreude in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may turn out to be the skunk in the laundry hamper.

Conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Large conflicts and emotions are easy to write. But frequently, in real life, our smaller, more internal conflicts create greater roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

These tiny inner voices of self-destruction that hold us back are crucial to creating relatable characters.

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Emotion: it’s complicated, part 2 #amwriting

 

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.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

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