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Drawing the Reader in through Character Emotion

All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read. Why? Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. They read to connect with characters who provide entertainment and whose trials may add meaning to their own life journeys.

It is easy to see the power of emotion and how it connects a reader to the story and characters. The difficulty comes in writing it well. Each scene must achieve a balance between showing too little feeling and showing too much. Above all, the emotional description needs to be fresh and engaging. This is a tall order for writers who tend to reuse the same emotional indicators over and over. 

This is why Angela and I wrote The Emotion Thesaurus. We were tired of our characters always shifting their feet to show nervousness and narrowing their eyes when angry. And when we started talking with other writers, it became clear that many of them also struggled in this area.

Because clich├ęd and overused emotional descriptions seem to be a near-universal problem in the writing community, I was thrilled when Carolyn asked if I could talk a bit about character emotion. I’d like to tackle this area of difficulty by sharing an excerpt from The Emotion Thesaurus and giving some ideas on how it can be used to clarify your character’s feelings and freshen up your descriptive writing. 

Let’s say you’re working on a scene about sibling rivalry, and you need to express Sam’s frustration over his younger brother’s insistence on paying for lunch. The first draft might go something like this:

     I gestured for the bill, felt my face getting hot. “Absolutely not.”
     “Too late.” David didn’t even look up. He was already reaching for his money clip.
     My hands clenched into fists. He always did this—it’s why I’d made him promise on the phone to let me pay, for once. Why did he always have to throw his money in my face? It was so frustrating.

While this passage clearly conveys Sam’s frustration, it’s a clunky read. First off, there’s a lot of telling, which is hardly ever a good idea. Another sign of trouble is when the emotion is named (It was so frustrating) because readers don’t want to be told how Sam feels; they want to feel the frustration along with him. The best way to do this is by giving emotional cues that the reader can relate to.

Unfortunately, the cues used here are fairly weak. The flushed face, the clenched fists—we’ve seen them a million times. To show Sam’s frustration in a way that will really connect with the reader, we need some cues that are fresh and unique to Sam’s character. Enter the The Emotion Thesaurus. Here’s an excerpt from the Frustration entry:

FRUSTRATION
DEFINITION: vexation caused by unresolved problems or unmet needs; the feeling of being hindered
PHYSICAL SIGNALS:
Pacing in short spans
Stiff posture, rigid muscles, a corded neck
Clenching the jaw
Speaking through the teeth with forced restraint
Scratching or rubbing the back of the neck
Splaying hands out wide to stretch, then relaxing them
Throwing hands up in an “I give up” gesture
Stalking away from someone, leaving in a huff
A strained voice
INTERNAL SENSATIONS:
Throat closing up
Hardening of the stomach
Tightness in the chest
MENTAL RESPONSES:
Self-talking to calm down, to think straight
A need to ask questions and rehash information
Reining in one’s emotions before damaging relationships
CUES OF ACUTE OR LONG-TERM FRUSTRATION:
Using more force than necessary (stomping feet, throwing instead of handing off)
A display of violence (kicking, grabbing, shaking, or destroying something in release)
A tantrum (screaming, body flung down on the floor, crying)
MAY ESCALATE TO: Contempt, Anger, Impatience
CUES OF SUPPRESSED FRUSTRATION:
Gritted teeth
Swiping at tears, trying to hide them
Silence or minimal responses
Briefly closing one’s eyes

Looking at this list, I see some cues that could work, but I want to make them specific to my character. I can imagine Sam rubbing the back of his neck, but that gesture is kind of overused, too. Instead, I’ll have him rub his jaw—a stubbly one, to further emphasize the difference between the two brothers. The fact that Sam tried to arrange all of this beforehand also shows that he’s a thinker and a planner. Under Mental Responses, I see a need to rehash information; it seems fitting that he would argue his point, try to remind his brother of their conversation in an effort to change his mind.

I’m going to replace the weak cues from my first draft with some stronger ones from above—cues that are a little more unique to Sam.

    I wiped my mouth and gestured for the bill. “Absolutely not.”
    “Too late.” David didn’t even look up. He was already pulling out his money clip.
    “Hey, we talked about this. You paid the last three times.” My voice sounded pinched, like it was squeezing through a straw. I cleared my throat. “I know I don’t make as much money as you, but I can cover lunch.”
    David slipped a gold card into the envelope and waved the server over. “It’s not a problem. Don’t make a thing out of it.”
    I stared at him. “A thing?”
    He nodded—him in his pressed suit with every hair shellacked into place. Like he was the reasonable one and I was overreacting.
    Sucking in breath, I scrubbed a hand over my unshaved jaw, then dropped it to the table hard enough to rattle the dishes. This whole thing was a set up. Knowing David, he’d picked the time for lunch on purpose so I’d have to come between shifts. Everything was intentional with him, and he always knew how to put me off my game.

It needs more revision, but this scene’s already a big improvement over the original. Sam’s emotional state is clear, most of the telling has been replaced with showing, and the cues are stronger and say something about both Sam’s and David’s character. The added characterization also serves to increase reader empathy and strengthen the reader-character bond, which is a good thing.

So the next time your scene needs a little more emotional oomph, remember these tips:
  1. Whenever possible, show the emotion instead of naming it outright.
  2. To show emotion, choose physical, internal, and mental responses for your character that are fresh and not overused.
  3. Choose cues that are specific to your character and make sense for him or her.
Thanks so much for hosting me, Carolyn. Best of luck to all of us!



Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions, and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.

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22 comments:

On February 6, 2013 at 9:29 AM , David Kaufmann said...

I just want to add as powerful an endorsement as I can for The Emotion Thesaurus. It's one of those "must have" tools. (I'm looking forward to the second, expanded edition.:) I use it frequently. Thanks for the book, Becca! And thanks Carolyn for hosting her.

 
On February 6, 2013 at 10:01 AM , Becca Puglisi said...

Thanks for the endorsement, David! And thank you, Carolyn, for the opportunity to guest post here. Query Tracker is awesome. Such a great resource for writers :)

 
On February 6, 2013 at 10:07 AM , catemorgan.com said...

Less than a month of owning this book, and it is well-thumbed. Where has this book been all my writing life?! Using this book allows me to write deeper than ever and mine the wealth of subtext. It comes with me EVERYWHERE. Thankyouthankyouthankyou for this very powerful tool! *squeesplode*

 
On February 6, 2013 at 10:20 AM , Valentina Hepburn said...

What a brilliant idea. I can't wait to get this. Thank you x

 
On February 6, 2013 at 10:48 AM , Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I have to add, that this is my most used writing tool! It is amazingly helpful. If you don't have it, you should get it. I'm so glad I bought the paper version of it. I love how they give you related emotions at the end of each section. SO HELPFUL!

 
On February 6, 2013 at 2:05 PM , Robert Kent said...

A lot of good advice here. This is a wonderful post!

 
On February 6, 2013 at 2:05 PM , Becca Puglisi said...

You guys are making me feel all warm and gooey with the awesome props :). Seriously, Angela and I LOVE hearing how The Emotion Thesaurus is helping people with their writing. I still use it myself, but it's great to hear that it's not just me .

 
On February 6, 2013 at 3:19 PM , Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

If anyone hasn't found it, Angela and Becca also have a wonderfully helpful "Emotion Amplifiers" PDF on their website -- free! I highly recommend it as a companion to the Emotion Thesaurus. You can find it on their site or download it directly from http://dl.dropbox.com/u/78517219/Emotion%20Amplifiers%202.pdf

 
On February 6, 2013 at 3:50 PM , Angela Ackerman said...

Oh my gosh you guys! So many wonderful things are being said here that I'm on cloud nine. Seriously, thank you, thank you, thank you! We are so glad this little book of ours is helping so many writers do what they do best!

And QT, you guys KNOW what a fan I am. I send people this way all the time! I am s glad I found you back when I was on the hunt for an agent!


Angela

 
On February 6, 2013 at 11:44 PM , Stina Lindenblatt said...

I couldn't imagine writing without the ET. It's one of my fav writing resources. :)

 
On February 7, 2013 at 2:31 AM , The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I love the emotion thesaurus and refer to it often

 
On February 7, 2013 at 6:54 AM , Jackie said...

I love the Emotion Thesaurus and keep it close to my desk. It's so easy to slip back into bad habits.

It's so good to see you here today, Becca.

 
On February 7, 2013 at 7:32 AM , marysuehobika said...

I bought this book yesterday on my kindle and I am very excited about it. I am currently writing my third novel and I thought this would help. I had the chance to peruse it last night and I'd like to promote it on my own blog and offer a giveaway.

 
On February 7, 2013 at 5:27 PM , Unknown said...

While I think your suggestions would be valid in a third-person example, or for a very observant first-person narrator who is NOT caught up in the moment and reporting on someone else's emotions, I think think they are pretty far off-base for a first-person character experiencing true emotion.
Why? Because most of us, when experiencing strong emotion, are not busily monitoring our physiological responses. That stuff is mostly subconscious. People don't feel their fists clench involuntarily; they feel the urge to hit someone!
Often I see writers use lines like "My eyes grew wide." C'mon, who saw it? Of course, we could, in principle feel our eyes widen, but we're too busy feeling the EMOTION. And the same goes for slitty eyes, too.
I think if you're going to have a narrator report his/her own physiological responses, they have to be special cases that for some reason rise to the level of consciousness. Say she pounds the table so hard it spills a glass of wine, or she hits a fork and hurts her hand. Then she'll notice, and remember it later to be able to report it. But that throat-tightening better border on an asthma attack if she's going to remember it later when she's telling the story.
All that said, I'm sure you compilation would be useful in third-person narration.

 
On February 7, 2013 at 5:29 PM , Unknown said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to make my comment about the awareness of bodily responses anonymous. I'm Martin M. Meiss

 
On February 7, 2013 at 7:32 PM , Becca Puglisi said...

Hi, Martin! Thanks for chiming in. I agree, and I disagree. I think that in moments of extreme emotion, you're right. We don't focus overly on our physical bodies. But most of the time, I find myself to be very aware of what's happening. I find myself noticing the prickling feeling in my eyes and reminding myself not to cry. I notice that my arms are crossed defensively across my chest, or that my muscles are tense when I'm being angry.

I absolutely agree, too, that we have to keep our narrator in mind. If you look at the Hunger Games, for example, Collins is very spare in the reporting of Katniss's emotions—which makes sense because Katniss is incredibly reserved and practical. Someone more dramatic and flamboyant will be much more in tune with their emotions and will have more indicators.

I also think you're right that too many cues in one spot is overkill and will smack of melodrama. In my experience, one well-chosen bodily cue at a time is enough to set the emotional tone without coming off as unbelievable.

My two cents :).

 
On February 7, 2013 at 7:38 PM , Becca Puglisi said...

Marysue, I hope you get a lot of use out of it!

Carolyn, thanks for the reminder about The Emotion Amplifiers. To be honest, sometimes I forget about it myself, lol.

Stina, Pen & Ink, and Jackie, you're all awesome ;). Thanks so much for sharing!

 
On February 7, 2013 at 11:01 PM , Julie Musil said...

The Emotion Thesaurus is my revision BIBLE! I tell ya, I leave myself notes during the first draft. Stuff like (add ET details here). No joke!

 
On February 8, 2013 at 10:23 AM , Unknown said...

Hi, Becca,
I have to agree, sometimes I, too, feel the physical sensations of emotion, even in the heat of the moment, but I think the first person narrator, or the writer telling a story using a first-person narrator, has plenty of other ways of bringing those emotions alive for the reader.
One, of course, is inner monologue. A well-placed damn! or shit! in the narrator's mind will work fine for some narrators, although for a potty-mouthed narrator it would be lost.
Also, other participants in the scene can comment on the narrator's appearance. For instance, you might have David say, "Take it easy, Sam. You should see yourself. Look like you're about to choke on your Jello." (Which of course gets Sam even madder.)
And don't forget, when emotion results in wheezing, choking, sputtering, stammering, etc, this can be partially rendered in the dialog, as in "What d,did you s,say?" (yeah, I know, a little goes a long way) or you can even have it sort-of both ways by having the narrator acknowledge the effect on his/her speech without exactly calling attention to it, as in, "No, don't tell me!" I wheezed.

Of course, as you say, it's easy to overdo this stuff, but not every scene has to have pitched emotions, and we can vary the means we use to portray them when they do rise to prominence.

Martin

 
On February 8, 2013 at 8:45 PM , Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hi Martin -- you make some good points, thanks for sharing them.

While I was reading through what you wrote and Becca's reply, I thought about my former problems with including EnOUGH emotion, which I shared in this post: http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2010/02/but-how-do-you-feel-about-that.html. So some people do have that issue, and we need all the good help we can get!

I also think that the ET can be a great springboard to help one think about all the little details that go with character emotion...obviously as writers we have to choose what to show and tell, and the book helps me move beyond the reactions I write most often. Sometimes I don't actually use any of the options listed for a particular entry, either because I realize that emotion is 't quite right for what I'm imagining (usually because I have a complex blend and need to figure out how to convey that, maybe by reviewing some different entries) or because what I've read has me thinking of another approach I can take. Regardless, I see it as a tool in my toolbox rather than as the answers to a Mad Libs I'm writing.

 
On February 8, 2013 at 11:17 PM , Becca Puglisi said...

Martin, I agree wholeheartedly that we have different vehicles at our disposal when showing emotion. A varied approach is always best.

Thanks so much for having me, Carolyn!

 
On March 8, 2013 at 7:45 PM , ninidee said...

Purchasing The Emotion Thesaurus was on of the best investments I made.