by Sandy Tritt
Emotions. We all have them. Good, bad, or aggravating, if we’re alive, we move from one emotion to another throughout the day. Yet, emotion is one of the most difficult things to show in a story. We want to either overstate or understate it. You know the melodrama—Joe fell over the casket, sobbing. “Why, God?” he shouted. “Why?”
And I think you know the understatement. Joe left the funeral home. Well, that was that. His entire family—his parents, his wife, his children—had been killed in the explosion. Now it was time to hit the road and follow his dream of being a street musician.
Ouch. Not much feeling in this guy, is there? I’m starting to think he may have caused the explosion.
Some writers try to sidestep this problem by using the show-and-tell method: Joe was outraged. He slammed his fist onto the table. “I’m so angry!”
Yikes. We can discuss all the ways this is wrong, wrong, wrong in another blog.
None of these examples, of course, show us how to capture emotion and present it in a way that sucker-punches our reader and leaves him breathless. How do we do that?
First and most importantly, do not name an emotion. Not ever. When you write “he was sad” or “she was angry,” you are telling your reader what your words should be showing your reader. Additionally, if you do not provide backup that proves the character is feeling the emotion named, your reader won’t believe you and may even distrust you. Instead, you must take the time to describe the emotional response, and then you must trust your reader to “get it” without explanation. Readers are smart. If you do your job, they will do theirs.
So, how do you show emotion in a fresh way without being melodramatic, without telling, and without ignoring the feelings? I’ve been teaching the “continual improvement” method, which, simply stated, means you need to work harder than you’ve ever worked before to make your writing innovative and juicy and the best it’s ever been. So, get out a fresh sheet of paper or open a new document. At the top of the page, write the name of the emotion you want to convey (we will use “anger” as our example). Under that, write a sentence using this emotion: Joe pounded his fist on the table and glared at Cathy. Then, number from one to five along the left side of the page. Next to each number, write a way your character can express this emotion. For example, we could make a list like this:
- Shake fist
- Hit table or wall
- Kick something or someone
- Storm out of the room and slam the door after him
Okay, those are all valid ways to show anger. But they are also somewhat cliché—we’ve seen these same reactions used zillions of times. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or effort to list them. So, after we’ve listed our five items (or more—if you have additional examples clamoring to escape your brain, write them down), we need to list one more. Hmmm. This is when we have to actually think. How else can we express anger? What if our character is so angry he destroys something that belongs to the object of his anger?
Create a sentence using that vision:
Joe grabbed Cathy’s doll—the one that had comforted her throughout her childhood—and snapped off the head.
Okay, that’s better than glaring and pounding. But we’re not done. We can still do better. We need to improve that sentence, using the most active verbs we can and the most unique visuals we can imagine.
Cathy’s doll sat on the mantle, pristine and elegant.
White flashes obscured Joe’s vision. He seized the doll and threw it into the fireplace. Flames lapped at the virginal gown, now tarnished by soot.
Better. A bit disjointed. So, once more, we go back and improve. As we improve, we must smooth out the rough spots and we must be sure the emotion builds, that the reader can see the emotion coming and expect it, yet are still surprised by the rawness and power of it. And, perhaps, by the way the emotion changes, sometimes presenting multiple emotions in just a few moments, if it is logical to do so (most highly emotional situations do facilitate multiple emotions).
So, our third (and fourth and fifth and sixth and . . . ) try:
In that instant, Joe knew. Those late night “wrong numbers” and those “working late” excuses were nothing but lies.
He fell against the fireplace, the weight of his discovery heavy on his shoulders. Why would she betray him? They had made love just this morning. How could she pretend?
Heat roiled in his gut, churning with the acidic taste of vomit. As he lifted his hand to his mouth—the hand that hours ago had caressed his wife—he inadvertently touched Cathy’s childhood doll. Always untouchable, until recently it sat in a glass case, protected from dust and dirt. Protected from Cathy’s lies.
Flashing white light grew at the periphery of Joe’s vision. He shook his head to clear his sight, but the light consumed him. He snatched the doll and heaved it into the fire. Orange and red flames teased the virginal gown, lapping closer and closer until they captured it, consuming first the clothes, thread by thread. The fire danced across the cloth body until a hole opened in its center. For one second, two seconds, three seconds, the fire burned yellow. Then the stuffing fragmented, breaking into pieces. White flames consumed it.
Joe’s hands trembled, but it was too late now. The greedy fire seized the doll’s rubber head. For a second, the head rebelled, holding its shape, until it too surrendered. The skin blistered and cracked, then melted into a smelly, gummy mass that dripped off the log and onto the ashes below.
Black smoke curled up the chimney, its acrid odor stinging Joe’s eyes. He blinked back tears.
It was over.
And so on. This last incarnation was actually reworked several times, with details added each time. You’ll likely do the same, finding more descriptive and unique ways to describe the same old emotions. You’ll also find yourself wanting to use setting to enrich emotion—which is another leap in the quality of our writing. Try to find ways in which the description of setting can emulate the emotion.
It takes time and effort to make your writing fresh and enticing, but it’s worth it—it’s what separates ho-hum writing from really good writing.
If you get stuck and want some help with creating vivid descriptions, pick up a good book on body language or study one of these references:
- Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglis, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression (Create Space)
- Linda Edelstein, The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits (Writer Digest Books)
- Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions (Story Press)
And, of course, our editors are always standing by, ready to assist you when you get stuck or need some help. Just shoot us off an email and we’ll get started right away.