Conveying emotion in your writing can sometimes be a difficult task without being melodramatic or cliché. So, how do you go about accomplishing the goal of writing emotion into your story? Well, practice, practice, and more practice will go a long way in helping you but below are some tips on getting you headed down the right path.
The two articles explain what to do and not do to get that all critical emotion inserted into your story. The video below also helps you sidestep some big mistakes that most writers make when trying to evoke emotion and shows you how to correctly convey it. I’ve also linked a book, which is part of a whole series on emotion and writing, that has been of great help to me concerning emotion in my writing. Who knows, maybe it will help you out as well. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
Tips on Effectively Conveying Character Emotion
By Karen Lotter
All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion, writes Bella Puglisi one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read. Why? Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. They read to connect with characters who provide entertainment and whose trials may add meaning to their own life journeys.
It is easy to see the power of emotion and how it connects a reader to the story and characters. The difficulty comes in writing it well. Each scene must achieve a balance between showing too little feeling and showing too much. Above all, the emotional description needs to be fresh and engaging. This is a tall order for writers who tend to reuse the same emotional indicators over and over.
This is why Angela and I wrote The Emotion Thesaurus. We were tired of our characters always shifting their feet to show nervousness and narrowing their eyes when angry. And when we started talking with other writers, it became clear that many of them also struggled in this area.
Because clichéd and overused emotional descriptions seem to be a near-universal problem in the writing community, I’d like to address it by sharing an excerpt from The Emotion Thesaurus and giving some ideas on how it can be used to clarify your character’s feelings and freshen up your descriptive writing.
Let’s say you’re working on a scene about sibling rivalry, and you need to express Sam’s frustration over his younger brother’s insistence on paying for lunch. The first draft might go something like this.
I gestured for the bill, felt my face getting hot. “Absolutely not.”
“Too late.” David didn’t even look up. He was already reaching for his money clip.
My hands clenched into fists. He always did this—it’s why I’d made him promise on the phone to let me pay for once. Why did he always have to throw his money in my face? It was so frustrating.
While this passage clearly conveys Sam’s frustration, it’s a clunky read. First off, there’s a lot of telling, which is hardly ever a good idea. Another sign of trouble is when the emotion is named (It was so frustrating) because readers don’t want to be told how Sam feels; they want to feel the frustration along with him. The best way to do this is by giving emotional cues that the reader can relate to.
Unfortunately, the cues used here are fairly weak. The flushed face, the clenching fists—we’ve seen them a million times. To show Sam’s frustration in a way that will really connect with the reader, we need some cues that are fresh and unique to Sam’s character. Enter the The Emotion Thesaurus. Here’s an excerpt from the Frustration entry:
FRUSTRATION – DEFINITION: vexation caused by unresolved problems or unmet needs; the feeling of being hindered
- Pacing in short spans
- Stiff posture, rigid muscles, a corded neck
- Clenching the jaw
- Speaking through the teeth with forced restraint
- Scratching or rubbing the back of the neck
- An impatient snort or sneer
- Pounding a fist against the tabletop
- Drawing breath and releasing it before speaking
- Splaying hands out wide to stretch, then relaxing them
- Throwing hands up in an “I give up” gesture
- Stalking away from someone, leaving in a huff
- A strained voice
- Throat closing up
- Hardening of the stomach
- Tightness in the chest
- Self-talking to calm down, to think straight
- A need to ask questions and rehash information
- Reining in one’s emotions before damaging relationships
CUES OF ACUTE OR LONG-TERM FRUSTRATION:
- Using more force than necessary (stomping feet, throwing instead of handing off)
- A display of violence (kicking, grabbing, shaking, or destroying something in release)
- A tantrum (screaming, body flung down on the floor, crying)
MAY ESCALATE TO: Contempt, Anger, Impatience
CUES OF SUPPRESSED FRUSTRATION:
- Gritted teeth
- Swiping at tears, trying to hide them
- Silence or minimal responses
- Briefly closing one’s eyes
Looking at this list, I see some cues that could work, but I want to make them specific to my character. I can imagine Sam rubbing the back of his neck, but that gesture is kind of overused, too. Instead, I’ll have him rub his jaw—a stubbly one, to further emphasize the difference between the two brothers. The fact that Sam tried to arrange all of this beforehand also shows that he’s a thinker and a planner. Under Mental Responses, I see a need to rehash information; it seems fitting that he would argue his point, try to remind his brother of their conversation in an effort to change his mind.
I’m going to replace the weak cues from my first draft with some stronger ones from above—cues that are a little more unique to Sam.
I wiped my mouth and gestured for the bill.“Absolutely not.”
“Too late.” David didn’t even look up. He was already reaching for his money clip.
“Hey, we talked about this. You paid the last three times.” My voice sounded pinched, like it was squeezing through a straw. I cleared my throat. “I know I don’t make as much money as you, but I can cover lunch.”
David slipped a gold card into the envelope and waved the server over. “Not a problem. Don’t make a thing out of it.”
I stared at him. “A thing?”
He nodded—him in his pressed suit with every hair shellacked into place. Like he was the reasonable one and I was overreacting.
Sucking in breath, I scrubbed knuckles over my scratchy, unshaved jaw, then dropped them to the table hard enough to rattle the dishes. This whole thing was a set up. Knowing David, he’d picked the time for lunch on purpose, knowing I’d have to come between shifts. Everything was intentional with him, and he always knew how to put me off my game.
It needs more revision, but this scene’s already a big improvement over the original. Sam’s emotional state is clear, most of the telling has been replaced with showing, and the cues are stronger and say something about both Sam’s and David’s character. The added characterization also serves to increase reader empathy and strengthen the reader-character bond, which is always a good idea.
So the next time your scene needs a little more emotional oomph, remember these tips:
1. Whenever possible, show the emotion instead of naming it outright.
2. To show emotion, choose physical, internal, and mental responses for your character that are fresh and not overused.
3. Choose cues that are specific to your character and make sense for him or her.
Keep It Fresh: 10 Ways To Show Your Character’s Emotions
by ANGELA ACKERMAN
Years ago, Becca and I grumbled about how our characters always expressed emotion the same way. My big thing? Frowning. Did my characters EVER know how to frown. They were savage at it. Becca’s characters? Smilers, all of them. SO HAPPY.
Unfortunately, our inability to express emotion in a fresh way was dragging down the quality of our writing. So, in 2012 we published The Emotion Thesaurus, hoping it would help writers get out of this boring rut when it came to expression.
Then we decided to make this thesaurus even bigger—and create 12 more description thesauruses while we were at it. That’s when One Stop For Writers was born. The online Emotion Thesaurus located there has 98 entries and nearly 20 “emotion amplifiers” that are often mistaken for emotions. So, lots of help there in the emotions department!
That was a pretty ambitious project, but was it enough? Apparently not, because in 2019, we decided to expand the original Emotion Thesaurus into a second edition, adding 55 new entries and way more instructional front matter.
Book or site, our mission is the same: offer brainstorming tools that will trigger an avalanche of fresh description. We provide the ideas and you weave your magic to turn them into story gold.
But here’s the thing about a tool…it works better when we know how to use it.
Conveying character emotion is a struggle for many. Today let’s look at 10 different ways to SHOW what a character is feeling.
Clearly, no surprise–a huge part of showing emotion is describing how the body reacts to feelings roiling around inside a character. Grief looks different than gratitude, excitement displays differently than dread. Often we focus a bit too much on facial features (eyes narrowing, lips pinching) when we should use the body more as there’s so much more to work with.
A hand splayed across the chest, shoulders bowing momentarily before stiffening, shaky fingers reaching up to rub the lip…showing this as a character receives a hard-won accolade as his peers look on will clearly show gratitude. Put yourself in the character’s shoes and imagine the scene. Let yourself feel what they do, then set out to describe it.
Thoughts are an excellent way to show emotion, as long as they adhere to the rules of POV. When swept up by emotion, our thoughts follow certain patterns. Worry has us jumping to conclusions and imagining the worst case scenario. Skepticism has us poking holes, looking for proof that our intuition is right and something’s rotten in the litter box. Scorn goes further, revealing those ugly, judgey-judge thoughts we have about someone else. Flavor your character’s thoughts with emotions and not only will a character’s voice shine, readers will also be drawn right in.
Internal sensations are those immediate and uncontrollable reactions we have to emotion and the fight, flight, and freeze instincts. That tight heat of arousal at just the right touch (desire), the spike in heart rate when a streetlight suddenly goes out (fear), a rock that manifests in the gut after noticing a ambulance in the driveway (dread)…these sensations are immediate and forceful. Use them with care when you’re in the character’s POV but do use them. Readers recognize these sensations and have felt them all before. Remember less is more because while powerful, too much sends description into melodrama land.
Individual expression can shown through posture as well. Not only does it paint a better image of the character for readers, it can show what they are feeling. Are they a wall of tenseness, or more fluid, relaxed, easy? Is the chest thrust out (confident) caved (struggling or upset) shielded by crossed arms (closed off, impatient, irritated) or openly (welcoming, caring)? Does the character lean in, or away? Do their feet point toward someone (engaged) or away (escape)? The body is a road map that we can use to show readers exactly what they are feeling.
Introvert, extrovert, or in between, all characters have a bubble of personal space that allows them to feel safe. This area may widen or narrow, depending on how the character feels. Does he let people into his space or keep them at a distance? Does he enter the space of others? We can see indicators of how he feels by his willingness to engage and be vulnerable (or not).
Dialogue is a great way to show emotion as long as it mimics the real world. People rarely state their feelings directly—they beat around the bush. They don’t say “I’m angry,” instead they rant or vent about the thing pissing them off. What a character says (and what they avoid talking about!) show their inner emotional landscape to readers and other characters.
Along with what a character says is how they say it. Are they speaking fast (nerves, rushing, impatience) or slow (careful, thoughtful, tentative)? Does their voice rise in pitch, showing they can’t quite keep a lid on what they are feeling, or go lower, revealing they are in control, or trying to rein themselves in? Do they hesitate, emphasize certain words, fumble around and go on tangents to show their discomfort about a topic, or interrupt themselves to change the direction because they are revealing too much?
Decision-Making & Actions
Okay, my psychology geekiness is showing, but one of the BEST PARTS of emotion is that it constantly messes up a character. Emotions (and their amplifiers) are great at destabilizing decision-making skills. When people act out of fear, or anxiety, defensiveness, or even out of love or desire, they do things differently than they would if they were feeling centered and rational.
Every action has a consequence, and emotion-driven actions can create conflict fallout, which is great for storytelling…and shows what emotions are pushing a character’s buttons.
Every character has empty spaces they carefully maneuver around if we look hard enough. These are danger zones where they might come face to face with an emotion they are uncomfortable experiencing, usually because it is tied to an emotional wound that leaves them jaded and questioning their on self-worth.
Voids can be used to indicate these painful emotions simply by showing things that are out of character, like them ignoring something right in front of them because it makes them feel uncomfortable, or how they steer conversations away from something that nudges painful feelings. This void can be resistance, like showing them do something the hard way because he’s avoiding the logical choice as it’s chained in negative emotions. Imagine wanting to ask a older brother for help because he’s the expert, but refusing to because he slept with the character’s ex the day after the two separated. Because voids hint at deep emotions and complicated situations they should be treated like the proverbial “smoking gun.” In other words, if you show friction between brothers to the extent that one will go to great lengths to not seek out the other’s help, that emotional sore spot eventually must come to light so the void makes sense.
We’ve all said to a relative, “Of course you can stay with us this weekend!” when they ask. But sometimes, inside, we are a hodge-podge of emotion: we’re swamped at work, the house is a mess, and we have no time to host big dinners and provide the entertainment which goes with family visits. Yet we smile and nod as we speak….except our shoulders sag a little, or we swallow and hesitate before forcefully flooding our voice with enthusiasm. Basically, with contradictions, a character may try to fake it but body language doesn’t lie.
Tip of the iceberg!
There are more ways to show emotion–so many more. I mean, don’t get me started on all the things you can do with emotion and the setting. Good grief, you could write a book on just that. Er, two books, technically.
Anyway, the big takeaway?
With emotional expression, go beyond what is obvious. Use a variety of techniques, drawing from different description wells.
If you only show emotion through body language, or dialogue, or rely too heavily on the internal thoughts of your POV character, your writing will seem one-dimensional and readers won’t have as memorable of an experience.
Stretch yourself! In each scene, think how some of these might work. Experiment. You might just see your writing jump from good…to great!