Friday, February 17, 2012

Describing Emotions

Sad, happy, jealous, excited, sympathetic, regretful, grateful, angry, alarmed... human beings experience a wide range of emotions. When you include many various feelings in your writing, it will strengthen the characters and the reader's interest. Here's the problem:

How do you describe emotions?

The obvious answer is to just say, "He was irritated," or "She was proud." That's well and good for the main character (albeit a bit bland), but what about the other characters? You MC doesn't know whether her sister is really irritated; she has to either guess, or the writer has to head-hop (switch to another point of view in the middle of a scene).

We've all heard "show not tell," but it's easier said than done. Here's some advice:
For practice, look over a chapter you've written and cut out every single "emotion" word. All of them. You can no longer say a person was bored, or disgusted, or annoyed. 

Now think back on your experiences with people. Let's say your husband came home from work stressed. How do you know he's stressed? Are you psychic? No; you're human, and you understand our signals.

Perhaps you cut the word "confused" out of your chapter. Now you have to say how the narrator knows the person is confused. Example:
  • She scrunched her eyebrows together and tipped her head to the side.
  • He looked from one person to another, back and forth, with a blank look on his face.
  • Her eyes were wide and she made several attempts to speak, but no words came out of her twitching lips. She shook her head.
These are different types of confusion. We can actually understand the emotion better if we read how the character expresses it. Readers are also drawn into the scene more if they can visualize what's happening. And, since your narrator isn't usually isn't a mind reader, it makes more sense.

Many writers tend to describe an emotion, then wimp out and say what it was they just described. Example: "She bit her lip and tapped her finger against her jaw, thinking." Or, "His face turned red and he clenched his fists, clearly upset." 

If you feel yourself doing this, it's either because 1. You're new at this and still unsure of yourself, or 2. The description wasn't strong enough to convey the emotion.

Still need help? The Bookshelf Muse is an amazing resource. It provides a list of actions to express every emotion. Sometimes when I write, I keep the site open and scroll through the pages whenever I need to. Check it out!

20 comments:

  1. Great revision tip! Revising at this page-by-page level really does count.

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  2. Good advice. I always get lazy when it comes to describing emotions, relying on cliches. I need to work on this.

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  3. Great suggestion! I once made myself remove every instance of the word "felt" from my manuscript.
    I would add that, often, it isn't facial expressions that convey the character's emotion. Actions can do it, and sometimes it can be infused into descriptive passages in wonderfully powerful ways, especially when you're trying to get at your protagonist's emotions without being dull and obvious. And thank you for the link. Sometimes I fall into ruts of the same collection of expressions to convey emotion. It would be nice to expand the repertoire.

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  4. i hate it when i do that!
    good advice!

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  5. Ah, the strength of emotions is always so hard to convey and bring across through writing. This is some great advice - I think word choice is the key here. Like you demonstrated in the post, different ways of conveying a certain emotion can suggest different meanings and it's important to craft your work in a way that accurately portrays how each character is feeling.

    ~TRA

    The Red Angel Blog

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  6. I heartily recommend Margie Lawson's course on describing body language. I took it and it was amazing:

    http://www.margielawson.com/lecture-packets/writing-body-language-and-dialogue-cues-like-a-psychologist

    It takes you beyond the usual.

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  7. Great post! I particularly like how you pointed out that new writers or those of us that wimp out, will post the actual emotion at the end. I will definitely look out for this in the future. Thanks!

    I actually posted on character development today if you're interested!

    JP xx

    www.fishandfrivolity.blogspot.com

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  8. Your post made me wonder how I'd dealt with emotion in my novel. I think I tend to not write emotion - instead, I lean toward action. Here's a quick example of one spot I did that:


    “Aww, c’mon, babe.” I sounded lame even to me. “You know I had to--”
    “--work! Yeah. I know.” The door closed firmly behind her, but at least it didn’t slam shut, not quite.

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  9. Bookmarked!

    Who says (my sweet husband) that blogging is wasting precious writing time? I learn something amazing at every turn!

    Thanks so much, Teralyn for the links, and the advice!

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  10. Scarlett: Aw, thank you! I'm flattered (and I'm glad I didn't waste your time!).

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  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  12. Thanks for the advice. I would prefer if you sent messages like this to my email, teralynpilgrim at yahoo dot com, but I appreciate your help.

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  13. I know this is a bit late, but since I think this is a very interesting topic, I'll answer anyway...

    I have to disagree. I see this advice a lot, but I don't understand the idea behind it. OK, you want to go by the 'show not tell' principle as much as possible. That's fine. And you want to write from limited third, show everything as how one person only sees/interpretes it. Fine again, I'm with you. But this is where I disagree:

    >>> You MC doesn't know whether her sister is really irritated; she has to either guess, or the writer has to head-hope (switch to another point of view in the middle of a scene).

    We don't guess each other's emotions. We pick them up from body language yes - but that happens to a large degree on an unconscious level. And what's more, lots of psychological experiments have shown that we're actually very good at this! So - we're NOT guessing other people's emotions, we're OBSERVING them.

    Of course, sometimes someone's body language is very prominent - they shift in their chair, raise their voice, pale - and we may consciously notice that. But sometimes, their shifts in posture, tension, breath, slightly narrowing of pupils etc., may be very subtle and not something we notice on a conscious level. We don't look at them and think, wow, her breath changed when I said that, I guess she must be nervous about it. The unconscious observation that her breath changed slightly (combined with other subtle cues perhaps) might manifest conscioulsy as: she's nervous. That judgment may actually be your first conscious clue about her emotions. Once that thought has entered your mind, you may also start to consciously notice aspects of her body language that confirms this observation.

    Also - experiments show that in a dialogue with someone, you may actually have a weaker physiological response yourself that mirrors the emotion of the other. If she's nervous, you may feel a shadow of nervousness yourself. If she's angry, your own anger may rise in response. This happens so quickly that it can't be a reaction to a conscious decision in your brain: she's shifty, she's holding her breath, there's a slight tremor in her voice - guess she's nervous. Ok, that makes me nervous, too! It has to be unconscious. And this unconscious 'shadow' response in ourselves may be one of our chief sources to understanding/reading the emotional response of the other.

    So - what I'm saying is, having our MC observe that someone else is agnry, upset, nervous, curious or whatever is not a violation of show not tell that must be avoided at all costs. I don't mean to say that describing body language is always wrong or unnecessary. Of course not! Sometimes it will be the best choice, absolutely - make the text more vivid and interesting, anchor the reader better in the situation etc.

    I just wanted to point out: sometimes using the 'emotion' word may be the best. You don't want to always report every detail of what happens in a scene. Always describing body language may become tiresome - like anything else in writing if overused. Sometimes you may want to focus on other things in the scene.

    In my opinon, every word or class of words in the language have evolved for a reason. They all have their function as tools for us writers. None of them should be banned from our work because of some rule/ideology or other, be it show,not tell or something else.

    Torill (@torillg@gmail.com

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    1. Excellent advice - I've been looking for this actually as the weight of facial expression / body language description can become far too much in a scene of high emotion. Easy to get bogged down in clenched fits, red faces, scowls and creased brows.

      I'd also like to note that I've seen passages with hardly any narrative direction at all, just dialogue, that convey emotion and the physical expression of those emotions superbly; the actions accompanying that anger or frustration or whatever emotion - all inferred by the reader, because if someone shouts "Get the h**l outta my room!" you can pretty well guess how it's said, whether it comes from a child or an adult. You don't need to slow things down with narration about raised fists, stamped feet, harsh tones... the words have it.

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  14. I know that this is late, but I wanted to say that I agree with Torill. 'Cut out all emotion words' is BAD advice.

    The best writing COMBINES showing and telling, depending on what works best for the story. Showing every single emotion can lead to cluttered rambling, unrealistic and weak.

    Sometimes it's better to simply name the emotion, because describing it would shift the reader's attention to a minor character or scene, that is not so important. And that would be much bigger mistake then say the minor character was angry, or even use *gasp* the evil, evil adverb and write that he said something angrily.

    I often hear the argument that people don't know/can't imagine the emotion when it's just named, that 'he said angrily' means nothing to them. They need to see the description!
    It makes me wonder if and how they live in a normal society. Let's say the wife finds out something bad about her husband. If she calls him in his office - and he won't need to SEE her to know something's wrong. He'll HEAR IT in her voice, from her tone, the words she chooses, etc.
    Or if she doesn't call, and he'll come back home - he'll know something's wrong and she's angry with him the moment she says 'hello darling' - even if she doesn't punch walls, cross her arms, furrows her brows or any other of those terrible cliche's things I see so often in pathetic novels where authors followed the same bad advice. It will be very subtle - like Torill said, it would be on the unconscious level. Trying to show it at all cost will just prove the author's incompemetence.

    If you want to write emotions, think what works best for each and every situation in your story. Show and tell as needed.

    Viola (viola.sigalit@gmail.com)

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    1. Yes! True!

      I like to think of emotional description in layers.

      Sometimes it *is* the basic "she was angry" that we need, and maybe shift the focus to the character responding to the anger. Layer one “she was angry”.

      For another layer put anger in the environment; let the character respond to her surroundings. Familiar objects seen through angry eyes can help with scene setting as well as characterisation and mood. A character who has previously been shown picking up stray litter in her neighbourhood might walk home and kick and trample every can or crisp packet she encounters.

      Use contrast for another layer. Give them a contrasting scene or character. Your description of one character's anger is given in relation to a happy scene - a wedding - or a happy character - a child home from school with a certificate - so that you use one to push off the other; does that make sense? If you can pull that off you get to describe the anger without getting boring - the contrast makes it interesting: Instead of just grinding teeth and shouting, red faces and fists, you might show your character struggling to conceal those obvious emotions.

      Or use contrast differently; take the expected emotional response and create a character who surprises us by reacting differently. His dog is run over, he seems unaffected. His house is burgled, he laughs.

      Dialogue is another layer. One character can call another on his aggressive body language, angry face. Not very subtle. Or two other characters can comment privately about his anger; perhaps in terms of what it means to some decisions they have to make. “This is the man you want to promote? I don’t think so. His temper is out of control.”

      I’m sure there are more ways to layer emotion, but can’t think right now.

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  15. I don't disagree with you. I think the phrase "everything in moderation" goes without saying.

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