Some writers seem to have no trouble conveying the emotions of their characters. But it’s hard to do. We’re tempted to just out-and-out tell our reader what the character is feeling. “Fear strangled her.” “Love poured through her.” And so on.
What’s wrong with that? Here’s what’s wrong: The reader feels held at a distance. This is telling, not showing.
In fact, many apprentice writers shortchange emotions nearly completely. The scene may be mostly dialogue with few clues about how the characters may be feeling. The result is very difficult for the reader to follow on an emotional level, and hard to visualize.
Readers like immediate, gripping experiences that let them feel like they’re experiencing the emotion too (as when watching a good movie).
In fact, this is why readers read books. To go through this emotional journey with the main character. If you’re not conveying the emotional landscape, your reader may get bored. This, despite the fact that YOU know the emotions of your characters. You may not be showing them adequately.
Character actions that express emotions
So how to do this better? Invite the reader to see your character expressing emotions. There are physical things a person does: clenching fists. Stomping feet. Rapid breathing. Work these action beats into your dialogue, enabling the reader to see the scene unfold. Name emotions only rarely.
It’s too easy to report on just what the face is doing. The reader might soon tire of your character who is first smiling, then frowning, then grimacing, then lifting eyebrows. It’s a richer experience for the reader if reactions from the whole body come into play. Punching the air, high fives, dancing around. Or slumping to the floor.
For a point-of-view character, you can also report the things we feel that go with particular emotions. Rapid heartbeat. Warm cheeks. Churning stomach.
What physical signs go with which emotion?
- Like a method actor, think of a time when you intensely experienced the emotion in question. Recall what your body was doing at the time and the gestures you made. Use these in your scene.
- Or, use The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
In this book, emotions are listed in alphabetical order. For example, contempt. In the contempt listing, there are two pages listing the following: physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of acute or long-term contempt, and cues of suppressed contempt. One cue of suppressed contempt is leaning back with arms crossed. Another is pressing the lips together to keep from speaking. And so on.
I find this book enriches my writing. You may find it helpful too.
Conveying emotions through description clues
If your book is written in deep point-of-view, which is fashionable at the moment, you have another chance here to convey emotions by showing us what the character picks out in a scene. Your character will report rosy things if she has those proverbial rose-colored glasses on. And mud-colored things if she has mud-colored glasses on. A clue: use all five senses as much as possible, but keep the amount of description within the limits of your genre. I’ve noticed that sensory clues using smell and taste are particularly effective. You can work these clues in throughout your scene, but first set the scene at the beginning with some sensory details.
Let’s look at a short example of actions conveying emotions from my latest manuscript. Three teenage friends are camping and have just discovered a raccoon ate nearly all their food.
With only minimal action beats:
“I’m hungry,” Tom moaned.
“Hey guys, relax. We’ve still got six jerky sticks,” said Hank.
And the more polished version:
Tom moaned and flung himself down on a stump. “I’m hungry.”
Hank knelt and riffled through the remaining pack. “Hey guys, relax. We’ve still got six jerky sticks.”
Here’s a short example of conveying character emotions through description, also from my latest manuscript. The protagonist, Pete, doesn’t want to leave the woods.
I wasn’t in any hurry. Golden leaves shimmered in the October sun, trembling in the faint breeze like a million dollars.
You can cause the weather to echo turmoil inside your character, for convenient emphasis.
There are lots of tools at your disposal! Use them for showing, not telling.