Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Every idea for a novel comes to me with an idea for the overall mood. That mood will underscore and emphasize the characters’ personal mood and changing emotions.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative. Beneath and behind the emotions that our characters experience is the atmosphere of the story, going unnoticed on the surface.
Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys. It is only an ambiance, but it is a powerful tool for helping us show our characters’ emotional state.
When creating our characters, we find it easy to connect with vivid emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and passion. These are loud emotions.
Volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of our story. “Loud” deafens us and loses its power when it’s the only sound. So, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, we must contrast loud against quiet to create the texture of our story.
When we first begin as writers, we find it difficult to convey our characters’ emotions without telling the reader what to feel. After receiving our share of abuse from other writers, we swing toward showing their every mood in minuscule detail.
Truthfully, I find detailed descriptions of facial expressions to be boring and sometimes off-putting. Every author armed with a little knowledge writes characters with curving lips, stretching lips, and lips doing many things over, and over, and over … with little variation.
A happy medium between telling and showing can be achieved, but it takes work. We must choose words that show what we mean and use the environment to convey subtle feelings wherever possible. I say wherever possible because it is not practicable to always employ the setting in a narrative. We need to get inside the characters’ heads.
Severe emotional shock strikes us, and we have an immediate physical reaction.
Visceral reactions are involuntary—out of our control. We can’t stop our faces from flushing or our hearts from pounding. Visceral feelings are emotions we feel deeply. We find it difficult to control or ignore them because they are instinctive and not the result of thought.
We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. An internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.
There will be an instant reaction. How does a “gut reaction” feel? We might experience nausea, gut punch, or a feeling of butterflies in our stomach. Think about how you respond to internal surprises, and write those feelings down.
I experience severe shocks this way:
- disbelief—the OMG moment
- a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, freezing in place, or a shout of “No!”
- Years ago, on witnessing a horrific accident, I experienced disassociation or a feeling of viewing the scene from outside myself. This involuntary coping or defense mechanism is meant to minimize or help a person tolerate stress.
When we write mild reactions, offering a lot of emotional descriptions is unnecessary because mild is boring. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance—small gestures show the attitude and mood of the character.
But good pacing requires balance. Quiet scenes enable us (and our characters) to process the events detailed in the louder scenes.
However, strong emotions are compelling. Highly charged situations are strengthened by the way we write the emotional experience. The way we show the setting reinforces each physical response.
The following is an excerpt from a work in progress:
Knowledge lay in Ivan’s belly, a cold ball of disaster. He had already failed as a shaman, and he wasn’t even a true seeker. But he couldn’t let Cai down, had to prove he could resolve it. He forced a smile, projecting confidence. “Look at that view. I’d heard the lake is so large one can’t see the southern shore from Neville, but I didn’t realize its truth. It seems as vast as the sky.”
As you can see, I struggle with these concepts as much as any other writer does. This scene is set on an early spring morning with cold winds shuttling heavy clouds across a blue sky. Rain moves in later in the day, underscoring Ivan’s dark mood. Sometimes I do well at conveying atmosphere and emotion; other times, I don’t. But I keep trying because it takes effort to succeed in anything.
When I write a scene, I ask myself why this character is reacting this way. Emotions without cause have no basis for existence, no foundation. They’re a lot of noise about nothing.
The emotion hits, and the character processes it. From a different work in progress:
It would have been the first battle spell John had cast in years, but no. His battle abilities were still gone, as if the inferno he’d unleashed in the culvert had burned them away.
Timing is crucial, and this is the moment to slip in a brief mention of the backstory. That way, we avoid an info dump, but the reader has the information needed to make the emotion tangible.
On the heels of that thought, John was overcome by the remembered sounds, the roar of flames, the shrieks of the enemy …. he sagged to the curb, gagging and gasping, unable to breathe properly, panicking under the weight of it.
Simplicity has an impact, but I struggle to achieve balance. 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.
If you are between projects and don’t know what to write, a good exercise is to create an intense and dramatic scene for characters you currently have no story for. Give them a setting, and use it to emphasize how they feel.
The key to writing a good scene is to practice. You may find a later use for these characters, and that scene could be the seed of a longer story. 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.