By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
One of the least effective ways to convey character emotions is to tell the reader what the character was feeling: fear, love, jealousy, anger. Before I go on to look at how we can create a rich emotional life for our characters that will touch our readers’ emotions, I think we need to break down why telling an emotion doesn’t work.
When we’re in the middle of an emotion, we don’t stop to think about what emotion we’re experiencing and to name it—we just experience it. The nature of emotions is that they tend to inhibit our ability to think logically and rationally. So when we label an emotion at the time our character is experiencing it, it feels like someone else is talking about that character or like our character is unrealistically self-aware.
Labeling an emotion also strips out everything that makes that emotion individual and fresh. It takes the personality out of it so that it lays flat on the page. We don’t learn anything about the character.
Despite this, many of us are tempted to label the character’s emotions in our writing because we don’t want to risk confusing the reader about what our character is feeling. We want to be sure they know.
Context should help alleviate confusion. (After all, if our character is grabbed from behind while walking down a dark alley, her racing heart probably isn’t due to love.)
But the real key to clear emotion that’s also going to resonate with the reader is adding in layers.
Layer #1 – The Physical Symptoms of the Emotion
Emotions affect us physically in visceral ways we can’t control. Our palms sweat. Our hands tremble. We gasp or yelp or screech.
When we put these reactions on the page, we’re not only reminding the reader of times they’ve felt those same physical symptoms. We’re also bringing them in close to our character so they’re experiencing the emotion from the inside rather than simply watching it from the outside.
(If you want to know more about visceral reactions, check out my guest post over at Jami Gold’s blog.)
Layer #2 – Character Thoughts and Dialogue
What a character thinks and what they say can give away what they’re feeling as well. Even more interesting at times is when what they think doesn’t match up with what they say. In those cases, we’re showing their true emotions and how those emotions contrast with how they feel they need to portray themselves to the people around them.
Layer #3 – Actions Your Character Would Do When Experiencing That Emotion
Our bodies speak to our emotions in big and small ways. An impatient character might bob the foot of their crossed leg. A character who received shocking news might sink into a chair. A character who is desperate might stretch their hands out toward the person they’re pleading with.
Allowing our characters to transmit their emotions in this way helps the reader understand what they’re feeling and it also adds depth.
Let’s look at a quick example. To add some context, our viewpoint character Becky has been waiting by the window for her husband to come home. He’s late.
The Telling Version:
A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out. Fear shot through her.
The Showing Version With All Three Layers:
A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out.
Trembling started in her fingers and worked its way up her arm like some kind of a localized seizure. She dropped the curtain into place, and took one step, two, back away from the window.
Craig wasn’t that late. He was flat tire late. Or traffic jam late. Or the-meeting-ran-long late. He wasn’t uniforms-notify-the-next-of-kin late.
Not every emotion needs this much emphasis. Not every moment in your story will be important enough to warrant it. But if your characters feel flat or if your emotions are coming across muddy, especially at times when their emotions are essential, then try adding in more layers.
I’m excited to introduce my first box set—How to Write Fiction: Busy Writer’s Guides Set 1.
Showing and telling, deep point of view, and internal dialogue are foundational skills you need to master to create vivid fiction that engages the reader emotionally.
The books in this set put writing craft techniques into plain language alongside examples so you can see how that technique looks in practice. In addition, you’ll receive tips and how-to exercises to help you apply what you learn to the pages of your own story. Most importantly, every book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series cuts the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.
In this box set you’ll find…
SHOWING AND TELLING IN FICTION
Showing and Telling in Fiction will help you clearly understand the difference between showing and telling, provide you with guidelines for when to show and when to tell, and give you practical editing tools for spotting and fixing telling in your writing.
DEEP POINT OF VIEW
Do you want readers to be so caught up in your book that they forget they’re reading? Then you need deep POV. Deep POV places the reader inside of our characters—hearing their thoughts, feeling their emotions, and living the story through them. In Deep Point of View, you’ll learn specific, practical things you can do to take your fiction to the next level with deep POV.
Internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal. It’s also one of the least understood and most often mismanaged elements. In Internal Dialogue, you’ll learn the difference between internal dialogue and narration, how to format internal dialogue, how to balance it with external action, how to use it to advance your story, and much more.
The box set is priced at $9.99, a 10% savings over buying the books individually.
You can grab your copy from…