Once in a while I come across an article that nails the subject I’m working on better then I ever could. This is one of those articles. The following is taken directly from, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. I refer this PDF extensively with working a difficult scene. It is quoted word for word. (Reformatting is mine)
By definition, nonverbal emotion can’t be told. It has to be shown. This makes it difficult to write because telling is easier than showing. Here’s an example:
Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.
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.
Clichés in literature are vilified for good reason. They’re a sign of lazy writing, a 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.
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 evocative.
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.
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.
“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.
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
Because nonverbal writing is so hard to master, it makes sense that some writers shy 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.
“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!”
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!
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.
MISUSING BACK STORY TO ENHANCE READER EMPATHY
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.
Back story is tricky to write well. As is true of so many areas of writing, balance is the key.
This is a must have for anyone needing help finding ways to write and emotionally charged scene. (And we all do.)