Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.”
Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.
This exchange is fairly easy to write—but not so easy to read. Readers are smart and can figure things out for themselves. They don’t want to have the scene explained to them, which is what happens when a writer tells how a character feels. Another problem with telling is that it creates distance between the reader and your characters, which is rarely a good idea.
In the preceding example, the reader sees that Mr. Paxton is reluctant to give JoAnne the bad news and that JoAnne is angry about it. But you don’t want the reader to only see what’s happening; you want them to feel the emotion, and to experience it along with the character. To accomplish this, writers need to show the character’s physical and internal responses rather than stating the emotion outright.
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and rearranging the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Clearly, he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t about to make it easy for him.
The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.
Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time.
“JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”
JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed from the office.
This scene gives the reader a much better opportunity to share in JoAnne’s anger.
Through the use of sensory details, a well chosen simile, specific verbs, and body cues
that correspond with the featured emotion, readers can see that JoAnne is angry, but they also feel it—in the straightness of her spine and the cheap vinyl in her grip, in the force it takes to send a chair flying across the room simply from the act of standing.
An example like this also reveals a lot about the character. JoAnne is not well-to-do.
She has children to support. She may be angry, but she’s also strong minded, family
oriented, and proud. This information rounds out JoAnne’s character and makes her more relatable to the reader.
Showing takes more work then telling, as word count alone will indicate, but it pays
off by drawing the reader closer to the character and helping to create empathy. Once in a
great while, it’s acceptable to tell the reader what the character is feeling: when you have
to pass on information quickly, or when you need a crisp sentence to convey a shift in
mood or attention. But the other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, put in the extra work and you will reap the benefits of showing.
• The grin that stretches from ear to ear.
• A single tear pooling in the eye before coursing down the cheek.
• Quivering knees that knock together.
result of settling on the easy phrase because coming up with something new is too hard.
Writers often fall back on clichés because, technically, these tired examples work. That
grin implies happiness as certainly as knee knocking indicates fear. Unfortunately,
phrases like these lack depth because they don’t allow for a range of emotions. That
single tear tells you that the person is sad, but how upset is she? Sad enough to sob?
Shriek? Collapse? Will she even be crying five minutes from now? To relate to your
character, the reader needs to know the depth of emotion being experienced.
When writing a certain emotion, think about your body and what happens to it when
you’re feeling that way. Excitement, for example. The heart races and the pulse quickens.
Legs bounce. The speech of a methodical person becomes fast paced with streaming
words. The voice is pitched higher and louder. For any given emotion, there are literally
dozens of internal and external changes that, when referenced, will show the reader what
your character is feeling. The lists in this thesaurus are great for providing ideas, but your
own observations are just as helpful. Watch people—real flesh-and-blood specimens at
the mall or characters in movies. Note how they act when they’re confused or
overwhelmed or irritable. The face is the easiest to notice but the rest of the body is just
as telling. Don’t overlook changes in a person’s voice, speech, or overall bearing and
Secondly, know your character. Individuals do things differently—even mundane
activities like brushing their teeth, driving, or making dinner. Emotions are no exception.
Not every character will shout and throw things when angry. Some speak in quiet voices.
Others go completely silent. Many, for various reasons, will cover their anger and act like
they’re not upset at all. Whatever your character is feeling, describe the emotion in a way
that is specific to him or her, and you’re almost guaranteed to write something new and
If all emotions were of average intensity, they’d be easier to describe. But emotions vary in strength. Take fear, for instance. Depending upon the severity of the situation, a person might feel anything from unease to anxiety to paranoia or terror. Extreme emotions will require extreme descriptors, while others are relatively subtle and must be described as such. Unfortunately, many writers make the mistake of assuming that to be gripping, emotion must be dramatic. Sad people should burst into tears. Joyful characters must express their glee by jumping up and down. This kind of writing results in melodrama, which leads to a sense of disbelief in the reader because, in real life, emotion isn’t always so demonstrative.
To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme. For each situation, know where your character is along that continuum and choose appropriate descriptors. Just as extreme emotions call for extreme indicators, temperate emotions should be expressed subtly. The indicators for intermediate emotions will lie somewhere in the middle. It’s also very important that your character follows a smooth emotional arc. Consider the following example:
Mack tapped his thumb against the steering wheel, one arm dangling out the window. He smiled at Dana but she just sat there, twisting that one loop of hair around her finger. “Worried about your interview tomorrow?” he said.
“A little. It’s a great opportunity but the timing’s awful. There’s too much going on.” She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about cutting back. Simplifying.”
“Good idea.” He nodded along with the radio and waved at the biker who thundered past on his Harley.
“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”
His foot slipped off the gas pedal. The air grew heavy, making it hard to breathe. The car veered toward the middle line and he let it drift, not caring whether he lived or died.
Unless Mack has a psychological reason for doing so, he shouldn’t jump from placidity to depression in a matter of seconds. A realistic progression would be to move from contentment to shock, then disbelief, and finally to grief. Done thoughtfully, this emotional arc can be shown with relatively few words:
“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”
His foot slipped off the gas pedal. “Break up? What are you talking about?”
“Mack. We’ve been headed this way for awhile, you know that.”
He gripped the steering wheel and took deep breaths. Sure, things had been rough lately, and she kept talking about taking some time, but she always came around. And she’d definitely never uttered the words, “break up.”
“Please, don’t. You can’t talk me out of it this time.” She stared at the
dashboard. “I’m sorry.”
His insides twisted. He darted a look at Dana, but she was curled against the window now, both hands resting easy in her lap. He gaped at her. They were totally breaking up.
Make sure that your character’s feelings progress realistically. Map out the emotional journey within the scene to avoid unintended melodrama. All of this is not to say that real life doesn’t produce extreme emotion. Birth, death, loss, change—some situations call for intense responses that may go on for awhile. Many writers, in an admirable attempt to maintain believability, try to recreate these events in real time. This results in long paragraphs or even pages of high emotion and, inevitably, melodrama. Though real life can sustain this kind of intensity for long periods of time, it’s nearly impossible for the written word to do so in a way that readers will accept.
In these situations, avoid melodrama by abbreviating. This method is often used for other real-life scenarios—conversations, for instance. Small talk is left out to keep the pace moving forward. Mundane tasks are also cut short, because the reader doesn’t need (or want) to see the entire car washed, a piece at a time, while Bob ponders a problem at work. In the same way, extensive emotional scenes should be long enough to convey the appropriate information, but not so long that you lose the audience. Write the emotion well, develop empathy in your reader, maximize the words that you do use, but don’t overstay your welcome.
OVER-RELIANCE ON DIALOGUE OR THOUGHTS
away from it, choosing to rely more on thoughts or dialogue to express what a character
is feeling. But an over-reliance on either leads to problems.
“Are—Are you sure?” I asked.
“Without a doubt,” Professor Baker replied. “It was neck-and-neck right
up to the end, but you came out ahead. Congratulations, William!”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “Valedictorian! I’m so happy!”
Word choice is important in expressing emotion, but it will only go so far. After that,
the writer is reduced to weak techniques like telling the reader what’s being felt (I’m so
happy) and over-using exclamation points to show intensity. Without any action to break
up the dialogue, the conversation also sounds stilted. On the other hand, conveying emotion solely through thoughts has its problems, too.
My pulse was pounding somewhere in the 160 range. I did it! Valedictorian! I was sure Nathan would come out ahead—he was a phenom in the physics lab, and he’d been a ghost at school all month, practically living in the library.
I threw my arms around Professor Baker. I’d think about this later and cringe with embarrassment, but right now, I didn’t care. I’d done it! Take THAT, Nathan Shusterman!
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this sample. Bodily cues, both internal and
external, are included. It’s clear to the reader that William is excited. Yet it doesn’t ring
true. Why? Because this monologue screams for verbal interaction with others. Professor
Baker is there and has clearly been talking to William. For William to be so incredibly
excited and not say anything comes across as…odd.
Internal dialogue is an important part of any story. There are many scenes and
scenarios where a paragraph or more of contemplation is appropriate. This isn’t one of
them. For this scene, and for the majority of scenes, emotion is much more effectively
conveyed through a mixture of dialogue, thoughts, and body language.
My pulse jittered somewhere around the 160 mark. No, I’d heard him wrong, been tricked by an over-active, sleep-deprived, twisted imagination.
“Are—” I cleared my throat. “Are you sure?”
“It was neck-and-neck right up to the end, but you came out ahead. Congratulations, William.”
The leather chair squeaked as I collapsed into it. Valedictorian. How’d I beat out Nathan, who’d been a ghost all month, practically living in the library? Not to mention that B- I scraped in physics.“But I did it,” I whispered.
The professor stood to shake my hand. I jumped up and threw my arms around him, lifting him off the floor. Later, I’d remember this and die of embarrassment, but right now I didn’t care.
“I did it! Take THAT, Nathan Shusterman!”
“Knew you had it in you,” the professor said in a strangled voice.
When expressing emotion, vary your vehicles, using both verbal and nonverbal techniques for maximum impact.
MISUSING BACK STORY TO ENHANCE READER EMPATHY
Every character is unique, influenced largely by events from the past. One surefire way to gain reader empathy is to reveal why a character is the way he is. Take the movie Jaws, for example. The first glimpse we have of shark hunter Quint, he’s raking his none too-clean fingernails down a chalkboard. Hardly endearing. As the movie progresses, the viewer’s dislike is justified through his crass manners and bullying of young Mr. Hooper. But once he tells his story of the sinking of the Indianapolis and his five days and nights treading water with the sharks, the viewer understands how he became so hardened. His behavior hasn’t changed and we still don’t like him very much, but we empathize with
him now. We wish him better than what life has served up to him.
This is just one example of the importance of back story in building reader empathy. People are products of their past. As the author, it’s important for you to know why your characters are the way they are and to pass that information along to readers. However, it’s hard to know just how much to share. Many writers, in an attempt to gain reader empathy, reveal too much. Excessive back story slows the pace and can bore readers, tempting them to skip ahead to the good stuff. Undoubtedly, Quint’s path to crusty and crazy contained more than that one unfortunate event, but the rest didn’t need to be shared. That one story, artfully told, was enough.
In order to avoid using too much back story, determine which details from your character’s past are necessary to share. Dole them out through the context of the present time story to keep the pace moving. For inspiration, consider your favorite literary characters, even those who may have been unlikable. Revisit their stories to see what clues from the past the author chose to reveal, and how it was done.
Back story is tricky to write well. As is true of so many areas of writing, balance is the key.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi., is available in downloadable PDF format here: http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.com/ As well as on Google, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords.
This is a must have for anyone needing help finding ways to write and emotionally charged scene. (And we all do.)